Doctor Science Knows

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Links and online reading

Harry at Crooked Timber posted about Nicholas Carr's latest luddite rant, against links. I commented:

I don't have time for the full critique here, but Carr is 100% wrong, Rosenberg mostly wrong.

How can I tell? Because neither of them cites (or links to) Jakob Nielsen, the Guru of Web Usability studies, including how people actually read online. Nielsen's most important discovery for this discussion: outbound hypertext links increase your credibility:
Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites.
Writers -- like Carr -- who don't link are making their arguments from authority: "trust me because I'm me!" The Web is *ideal* for scholarship because it makes it extremely easy for readers to check that writers have in fact done their homework, that they're not just outgassing.

Emma in Sydney's project is a superb example of how good linking can be done. The only thing comparable I've seen on any high-profile site is Frank Rich's column at the NY Times, which recently started using popup-explicated links.

John @12:
if we (writers and readers collectively) were only allowed One Book, that book would be written and read very carefully
-- and as nick s points out @18, that reading and writing would *become a hyptertext*, so Carr would *still* be unhappy*. No, he wants the Authority of the Author to be an absolute monarchy: only one Book, read only one way, and no passing notes, neither.

Harry @23:
I just ignore it until I have i) figured out whether what I am reading is worth reading to the end and if so then ii) have actually read to the end. Isn’t that what everyone does?
Assuming you are not being sarcastic, the answer is: No.

In the first place, as Nielsen shows, the nature of those links is a major factor in most readers’ decisions about whether the text is worth reading to the end. The limiting factor in online life is human attention: it is the most precious, unexpandable resource. Thus, the decision “is this worth reading to the end?” is a much more crucial one for an online reader than for a hard-copy reader, and she’s going to be much more cynical and distractable (= motivated by her own agenda, not the author’s) than Carr would like.

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