Previously, on “Links as Language”:
When I first gave this talk, I called it “Blogging and the Advent of 3-D Writing”. Here I am, giving it:
The reason I called it 3-D writing is because when you use hyperlinks you’re writing through the subject. You’re adding a z-axis that goes perpendicularly through the page and on to other pages, other topics, other worlds. And the reader suddenly has this option that they never had before. And that changes the way they read in three fundamental ways.
The first change is a change in expectations. As readers, we are now trained to understand symbols we never saw before. When I’m reading something and I see a blue, underlined word, I know exactly what that means, which is another way of saying I know exactly what to expect. If I click on that word, a new page will load.
This expectation, while on the one hand remarkable for its penetration given that no one gave a course or ran a public service campaign explaining “This Is What Blue Underlined Words Are”, is so pedestrian as to really piss people off when it’s upset. This why those little video icons next to headlines or typing out (PDF) next to a link that’s going to load one are so important. This is why double-underlined green links are so important (if off-putting). Setting (and satisfying) expectations.
A side benefit of this expectation is the capacity for elegance. The two most boring words you can hyperlink are “click here.” Sometimes it’s necessary, but nine times out of ten you can get your point across by hyperlinking the relevant term. The thing that the reader is going to intuit as leading to further information. The most obvious example is the straightforward citation.
David Leonhardt said in his recent article for the New York Times that Anthony Marx was trying to change things.
This is far better than
David Leonhardt said in his recent article for the New York Times that Anthony Marx was trying to change things. Click here to read that article.
(Not for nothing, but elegant linking is also far better for SEO.)
With a change in expectation comes a change in options (or maybe it’s the other way around). Prior to the hyperlink, you basically had two decisions to make as a reader. Keep reading or stop. Now there is a new option. Explore. Pause this reading experience and begin a linked experience. You may then return to the original experience but, if there are more links where you are going, you might not. Go forward, stop, or explore. Now, if you never come back, “explore” ends up looking a lot like “stop”, but if you do, you might continue further, then explore again.
As a writer, you now have the power to begin to craft that journey. You can’t control it the way you would a novel, but you can suggest paths by the links you choose.
While this style of reading is relatively new, it is similar to a book series that’s been around for a while.
3. The Reader as Gamer
So readers now have more decisions to make as they read. This is similar to a distinction made by Will Wright in his oft-cited (by me, anyway) 2007 SXSW talk about gaming narratives vs. film narratives. Long lecture short, film narratives are linear—Bob goes from point a to b to c, and maybe learns a little something about himself along the way. Game narratives explore a game space—Bob goes from a to b to c, dies, then returns to a and goes to z and f, dies, returns to a and goes back to f then to q, etc. To better understand this analogy, think of the one film Wright said mimicked gaming narratives, Groundhog Day.
In this analogy, print is like film, the web is like games. When you read something in print, you read from the beginning to the end without interruption. When you read something online, you read with the opportunity to explore the gamespace that is the entire web, and the author helps craft that journey. The piece of writing does not exist on its own. It exists as part of a constellation of objects (websites, text, images, audio, video, status updates) that exist in relation to one another (if anyone bothers to link them).
We are no longer readers. We are explorers.