Are In-Content Links Destroying Our Ability To Think?

Nicholas Carr has written a very interesting article in this month’s Wired Magazine that I think all web designers should read. The article is also online, though I’ll hold off linking to it for a moment for reasons that will become clear as you read through this post. I’ll also be keeping this post free from images and other media for reasons which again will become clear as you read through this post.

The premise of Carr’s article is that the way we browse and search the web is rewiring the neural pathways in our brains and not necessarily in the best way. The nature of the web is that documents are interlinked and that as we read and encounter in-content links we have to make a choice whether or not to click. Even if we make that choice near instantaneously the links distract us, disrupt our concentration, and ultimately impede a deeper understanding of the content.

Video and other media mixed within content do that same. Studies show that people who read linear text without links and other media mixed in, comprehend and remember more of what they read. The web with its links and mixed media promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.

It’s not all bad. The web seems to strengthen other cognitive skills, typically the more primitive mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, reflex responses, and the processing of visual cues. It’s also likely the web improves brain functions related to fast-paced problem solving, particularly in regards to pattern recognition.

Conclusions Being Drawn

Carr posted another article to his site this past Monday perhaps solely as an experiment, but mainly with the idea of removing all in-content links and moving them to the end of the post. The links would still be there, but they would no longer need to be dealt with as you read through the content. While the post may simply be an experiment, the indication from Carr is that he believes this is the best approach to linking.

Marshall Kirkpatrick also posted an article for Read Write Web with a similar experiment, leaving out all in-content links. However in the article he points out his advice to new staff writers has been the opposite.

I often advise new writers on our staff to place links inline with the reader’s mental voice and vocal emphasis in mind.

and later

I like to add links out to other sources at every opportunity in order to enrich what I’m writing, to broaden the conversation, and frankly because I think linking to other blogs is a good faith way to encourage other blogs to link to us. To act as if our blog is the only place online to learn about what’s important is the height of arrogance and a real disservice to readers.

I’ve always linked out liberally from here for much the same reason. I’ll also add that I think the contrast the links add to the text in terms of color and underlining makes the text more visually appealing when first skimming it. It strikes me that dressing up posts with links, images, and other media leads to more people reading the post, even if that reading isn’t as deep as we might like.

I can also assure you that as long as search engines place a lot of weight on links when it comes to determining what page ranks where, you’re going to see a lot of links, especially in-content links, which are the ones most heavily favored by search algorithms.

If you read the comments to all three posts (I promise the links are at the end of this post) you’ll notice a lot of sarcasm and some passionate responses not to remove in-content links. Ironically I think some these comments actually hammer home Carr’s points as their authors seem not to have completely read or entirely understood the points of the article. I guess the web is making them less able to deeply understand what they’re reading.

My Thoughts

I think you’ll agree the internet isn’t going anywhere and neither are in-content links, videos, and all the other distractions the web brings. The web brings a lot of good to our lives and I for one would feel lost without it. I’m guessing you would too.

However if you’ve been reading here for awhile you know I favor long form articles that are meant to be read deeply. I do my best to make them scannable and I do add those distracting videos. I also link out a lot. A lot more than many other sites I come across. Still I hope you’ll spend time reading the posts here and learning on a deeper level than I think is the case with most of the design blogs I see.

Should I be including less in-content links? Should I leave out videos, images, and other media that might distract you?

I don’t think so. I don’t think the solution is to remove these distractions and try to force you to read long blocks of linear text (this post excluded). The solution has to be to work with the changes the internet is bringing to us rather than against it.

The Wired article is still new in my mind so I can’t claim to have completely thought out a solution. I do have some thoughts I’ll toss out and ask what you think.

  1. Make links more subtle. Instead of removing them from the content, perhaps we can design them to blend in a little more. Provide enough contrast so they can be seen as links, but in a less distracting way so we can more easily ignore them while reading.
  2. Be more aware of why we’re writing a piece of content. Not all content needs to be read deeply. Maybe around any topic we’d have several different forms of content. Some meant to be scanned with ample links and media that would lead to additional content that’s presented with less media and more linear text.
  3. I think each of us has a lot of control over our own concentration and distractions. Instead of forcing us to read online a certain way, maybe we learn to enhance our concentration in other places. We can accept that we’ll read superficially online and save our deeper reading for offline. Book publishers will probably love this idea.
  4. Linear text works very well when reading a novel. When reading text meant to teach, images do help with learning. I’m thinking of the many textbooks I’ve read. The images and diagrams emphasize the points in the text. Sure they take me away from the text momentarily, but they greatly aid my understanding of the subject. If I’ve missed something in the text, I’ll just read it again.
  5. Take advantage of what the web is improving as opposed to focusing on what it isn’t. If the web is helping us process visual cues better, perhaps we should be communicating more visually. Good for all of us who work as visual designers. If the web is helping us become better at pattern recognition, maybe we should communicate more through pattern.

Again I think the solution is to work with how the web is rewiring us instead of trying to prevent it from happening. Fighting change has never worked anywhere at any time throughout all of recorded history. The only real constant in the universe is change.

I won’t claim to have any answers here, rather some ideas to think about. I will encourage you again to read the articles in question, particularly the initial one that appeared in Wired. You may disagree with its conclusions, but I think it’s an interesting article that does impact all of us who designs sites and create content online.

Here are the three articles mentioned:

And again do read or at least skim through the comments on each post.

What do you think? Is there a problem with in-content links? Is the solution to remove them or is the solution to adapt to how they change the nature of reading?

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