In January 2016, Mandy Brown wrote a fascinating pair of articles about the nature of hypertext. The first essay explores the text part of hypertext, asking whether or not hypertext is (or ought only to be) text. The second article takes on the hyper part, extolling the virtues of getting lost in that act those of us old enough to remember the days before social media used to call “surfing the web.” Here’s a little taste:
The hyperlink, with its super simple structure—a direction and some characters of description, which could be as straightforward or as subversive as you wanted—did get off the ground, and it is indeed marvelous. The ability to follow links down and around and through an idea, landing hours later on some random Wikipedia page about fungi you cannot recall how you discovered, is one of the great modes of the web. It is, I’ll go so far to propose, one of the great modes of human thinking.
Brown goes on to talk a bit about Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which I’ll admit that I purchased before even finishing Brown’s essay. It’s a great little book whose central thesis is that interacting directly with the text of a book—you know, that act we typically call “reading”—is far less important than understanding how the book is connected to all the other books out there.
In other words, the links matter more than the text. And hyperlinks are Bayard’s thesis made flesh. Or pixels, anyway.
Brown contrasts the glories of the hypertext web with the relative order of the the social media feed. The feed corrals the unkempt wildness of the web and organizes it all into a nice little stream, filtering out all the noise based on … well, ostensibly based on my interests plus my social graph but in practice based on whatever generates the highest returns for the venture capitalists who pay the salaries of the Keepers of the Algorithm.
Brown is exactly right that for all their usefulness, feeds can turn into traps, leaving you surrounded by the safe, the comfortable, the cute, and the familiar—never exposing you to the new or the challenging. It’s epistemic closure writ large.
That said, I’m less optimistic than Brown that the hyperlink—at least as its currently used—is the best way to counter the hegemony of the feed.
Let’s face it: hyperlinks are a lot of work. You have to:
Read the original text, or at least enough of it to figure out what it’s all about.
Read enough of the new text to figure out what it’s about.
Grok how the two pieces are related.
That’s all well and good if you’re the kind of person who geeks out over connections between big ideas—you know, the type who racks up a bunch of degress in philosophy. If not, well, it’s maybe asking rather a lot.
I think that the underlying problem isn’t really the hyperlink. It’s that we still write as if we’re producing pages when in fact what we’re writing is a bunch of zeroes and ones that are stored in a database. And even though many of us web types have moved on to talking about screens instead of pages, we still design UIs around showing long, linear blocks of text, broken up with some supporting images, video, and, yes, hyperlinks.
In short, we still write linear nonfiction. Each article or post or Vine or Snapchat story is (mostly) a self-contained argument. We use the hyperlink to create connections between these self-contained pieces.
For hyperlinks to truly come into their own, we’ll need to change the way we think about writing.
And, let’s face it, there really is more than one way that any given set of ideas can be organized. There’s a mind-boggling set of links between concepts. Don’t believe me? Go surf around Wikipedia for a bit.
It’s not linear. The phrase is generational, but “surfing the web” is (I hope!) still a thing. We get halfway through something, then get distracted by an interesting link. Before you know it, we’re experts on capybaras or we’ve documented three reliable suppliers of realistic vampire teeth.
The great thing about the web is that it allows for multiple branching pathways. It’s not at all hard to lose half a day following links down online rabbit holes you never even knew existed.
We have to trust links because the HTML link is blind. You see a link, but you have no idea where it goes. Sure, most browsers will display a URL in the bottom corner when you hover over a link. But those URLs are not always meaningful, and even where they are, you still have no idea what you will see once you arrive at the URL in question. That can be cool. But it's also a bit annoying when you've a task you're trying to accomplish.
But digital content isn't like that. It doesn't live in a place. It is a set of 0s and 1s in a database. It can be displayed on an (effectively) infinite number of screens in infinite combinations, all at the same time.
On the web, readers are free to jump around from one piece of content to another, often not ever completely consuming one full story before moving on to the next. One day we may spend hours surfing Wikipedia. The next we may read 200 words of an article before moving off to Twitter to comment on it. Or we stop a video halfway through because the next recommended one looks more interesting.
The web is full of possibilities for a new kind of thinking and for a new kind of writing. The medium is still pretty new, so we don’t have very many conventions for what this sort of thing should look like yet, though there are a few starting to pop up. We’ll have to do some experimentation. Some of it will work. Some of it won’t.