November 29, 2014

Links as Language: Part One

For a long time now I’ve given a talk called “Links as Language: How to Write in Three Dimensions,” which I’m just now getting around to writing down somewhere.  The upshot is to get you to think of links as a writing tool, the same way you would a metaphor or a comma.  It’s kind of a long talk (which often evolves into a really interesting discussion) so I’m going to post it in small chunks over the next few weeks.  Enjoy and discuss.

Look at the following two sentences.

Does this really deserve this much coverage? Does this really deserve

this

much

coverage?

The sentence on the left doesn’t actually make any sense.  It is, in fact, grammatically incorrect (it’s missing a subject).  The sentence on the right has the same grammatical shortcomings but it makes intuitive sense because you know how to make it make sense.  Just click on the links.  The links, even before they’re clicked, confer meaning.  And whenever you have a symbol that confers meaning, you have language.

Let’s take another example.

i guess i should update my status more often. i guess i should update my status more often.

This is from a friend’s blog (here’s the original post).  Here the sentence on the left makes sense, it’s just not very interesting.  Okay, you should update your status more often.  Why?  The sentence on the right seems more complete because the link suggests context.  Again, you don’t need to click on the link (and thus know the context) to have the sentence seem more meaningful; just knowing that you could know the context (and thus that there is one) allows it to stand on its own better than its cousin to the left.

(If you’re curious as to the context, you may, of course, click on the link.)

In our next installment: How links are changing the way we read.

Comments

  1. Tim says:

    Even before I knew about your “Links as Language” thing, I used links in my online writing. I just didn’t know how to convey the concept as eloquently as you do. In fact, I don’t even know if I consciously realized that the mere presence of links make a sentence seem more meaningful, regardless of whether the reader clicks them or not.
    It’s a fascinating tool, kind of like a new form of grammar for the 21st century, and it makes me glad when people know how to use it effectively.

  2. David says:

    Tim,

    First off, thanks! Secondly, this is what I’ve been saying! I think the reason I keep giving this lecture is because I see so much potential for the link as an artistic device, but so few use it (or are trained to use it) that way, so it hasn’t really evolved much since the 1990′s, that I can tell. Glad to know others are using it that way, tho.

  3. Ari says:

    I’m not so sure. When links are used to give meaning to a line that otherwise would make no sense, it slows my processing down to click the link or even to look at the bottom of the screen. I would prefer, “Does the deserve this much coverage”

    Should I really need to follow links in order to understand context? Additionally, this makes it impossible for people with disabilities to play the text outloud.

  4. David says:

    Ari, you’ve made two excellent points. Some thoughts.

    1. I’m not actually advocating for this as the preferred or only method of communication, just as an artistic option. Yes, you’re making the reader take extra steps, but compare an instruction manual to a mystery novel. When you’re writing the former, you want to get to the point as quickly as possible. With the latter, you want to leave clues so there’s an interplay and the reader is doing a bit of their own work.

    Also, in the first example about “does this deserve” (from a post I did a long time ago), I’m using the links to actually demonstrate the point I’m making, both through their placement and through the fact that they do link to so many stories about one particular, relatively unimportant thing. In other words, they become the evidence of the very thing they’re stating. (I’ll get more into this in the next installment about payoff.)

    2. I don’t know much about accessibility, but I suspect you’re right. On the other hand, I have to believe that it’s possible to create readers that allow the visually impaired to know when a link appears and furthermore allow them to click on that link. If they don’t exist already, they’re sorely needed in order to allow the visually impaired to navigate the web since links are, of course, the chief way to navigate the web.

    That having been said, there are some artistic devices that do omit the visually and aurally impaired in all art forms, and the best we can do, rather than avoid them, I think, is to use technology to best represent them (closed captioning, etc.) But these will always be approximations of the artistic intent.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] both well.  I’m planning on recording some of these talks, but once I get past my main two—Links as Language and The Filmtrain Manifesto—I’m not sure exactly what I should talk about next.  So, if [...]

  2. [...] David Dylan Thomas, a Philly local I met at a content quality meetup months back, writes about links as language. How adding links not only provides context and source, but also emphasis (linking to multiple [...]

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