The hyperlink is the most elemental of the bundle of ideas that we call the Web. If the bit is the quark of information, the hyperlink is the hydrogen molecule. It shapes the microstructure of information today. Surprisingly though, it is nearly as mysterious now as it was back in July 1945, when Vannevar Bush first proposed the idea in his Atlantic Monthly article, As We May Think. July 4th will mark the second anniversary of Ribbonfarm (I started on July 4th, 2007), and to celebrate, I am going to tell you everything I’ve learned so far about the hyperlink. That is the lens through which I tend to look at more traditional macro-level blog-introspection topics, such as “how to make money blogging,” and “will blogs replace newspapers?” So with a “Happy Second Birthday, Ribbonfarm!” and a “Happy 64th Birthday, Hyperlink,” let’s go explore the hyperlink.
Hyper-Grammar and Hyper-Style
The hyperlink is not a glorified electronic citation-and-library-retrieval mechanism. The “electronic library” perspective, that the hyperlink is merely a convenience that comes with the cost of amplifying distraction, is a myopic one. But lousy though it is, that is our starting point. The first airports were designed to look like railway stations after all. As McLuhan said, “We see the world through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” Turn around, backward march.
This is the default mental model most people have of hyperlinks, a model borrowed from academic citation, and made more informal:
- Implicit inline: Nick Carr believes that Google is making us stupid.
- Explicit inline: Nick Carr believes that Google is making us stupid (see this article in the Atlantic).
Both are simple ports of constructs like “Nick Carr believes [Carr, 2008] that Google is making us stupid.” There are a couple of mildly interesting things to think about here. For instance, the hyper-grammatical question of whether to link the word believes, as I have done, or the title. Similarly, you can ask whether this or article or this article in the Atlantic should be used as the anchor in the explicit version. There is also the visual-style question of how long the selected anchor phrase should be: the more words you include, the more prominent the invitation to click. But overall, this mental model is self-limiting. If links were only glorified citations, a Strunk-and-White hyper-grammar/hyper-style guide would have little new raw material to talk about.
Let’s get more sophisticated and look at how hyperlinks break out of the glorified-citation mould. Turn around, forward march.
Hyperlinking as Form-Content Mixing
Here are two sentences that execute similar intentions:
I don’t remember where I first saw this clever method of linking (the second one), but I was instantly fascinated, and I use it when I can. This method is a new kind of grammar. You are mixing form and content, and blending figure and ground into a fun “open the secret package” game. From a traffic-grubbing perspective, the first method will leak less, because if you already know all about apples, the link tells you what it is about, and you won’t click. So if you want to reference a really unusual take on apples, the second method is more effective.
Real hyperlink artists know that paradoxically, the more people are tempted to click away from your content, the more they want to keep coming back. There is a set of tradeoffs involving compactness, temptation to click, foreshadowing to eliminate surprise (and retain the reader), and altruism in passing on the reader. But the medium is friendlier to generosity in yielding the stage. This yielding the stage metaphor is important and we will come back to it.
But possibly, this and similar tricks seems trivial to you. Let’s do a more serious example.
Hyperlinking as Blending of Figure, Ground and Voice
A while ago, on the Indian site, Sulekha.com, I wrote an article pondering the interesting difficulties faced by non-European-descent writers (like me) in developing an authentic voice in English. Postmodernists, especially those interested in post-colonial literature, obsess a lot about this sort of thing. Gayatri Spivak, for instance, wrote a famous article, Can the Subaltern Speak? But scarily-impenetrable people like Spivak are primarily interested in themes of oppression and politics. I am primarily interested in the purely technical problem of how to write authentically in English, in cases where my name and identity are necessary elements of the text. Consider these different non-hyperlinked ways of writing a sentence, within a hypothetical story set in Bollywood.
- Fishbowl/Slumdog Millionaire method: Amitabh stared grimly from a tattered old Sholay poster.
- Expository: Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood superstar, stared grimly from a tattered old Sholay poster. Sholay, as everybody knew, was the blockbuster that truly established Bachchan.
- Global contextual: Amitabh Bachchan, the Clint Eastwood of India, stared grimly down from a tattered old Sholay poster. Sholay, that odd mix of Kurosawa and John Wayne that drove India wild.
- Salman Rushdie method: Amitabh, he-of-boundless-splendor, stared down, a-flaming, from a tattered old Sholay poster.
Critics and authors alike agonize endlessly about the politics of these different voices. This particular example, crossing as it does linguistic and cultural boundaries, in the difficult domain of fiction, is extreme. But the same sorts of figure/ground/voice dynamics occur when you write in-culture or non-fiction.
The first simply ignores non-Indian readers, who must look in at Indians constructing meaning within a fishbowl, with no help. It is simple, but unless the intent is genuinely to write only for Indians (which is essentially impossible on the Web, in English), not acknowledging the global context is a significant decision (whether deliberate or unthinking).
The second method is simply technically bad. If you can’t solve the problem of exposition-overload, you shouldn’t be writing fiction.
The third method is the sort of thing that keeps literary scholars up at nights, worrying about themes of oppression. Is acknowledging Clint Eastwood as the prototypical strong-silent action hero a political act that legitimizes the cultural hegemony of the West? What if I’d said Bruce Lee of India or Toshiro Mifune of India? Would those sentences be acts of protest?
Rushdie pioneered the last method, the literary equivalent of theater forms where the actors acknowledge the audience and engage them in artistic ways. Rushdie finesses the problem by adopting neither simplicity nor exposition, but a deliberate, audience-aware self-exoticization-with-a-wink. If you know enough about India, you will recognize “he-of-boundless-splendor” as one literal meaning of the name Amitabh, while Sholay means “flames.” By putting in cryptic (to outsiders) cultural references, Rushdie simultaneously establishes an identity for his voice, and demands of non-Indians that they either work to access constructible meaning, or live with opacity. At the same time, Indians are forced to look at the familiar within a disconcerting context.
But Rushdie’s solution is far from perfect. In Midnight’s Children, for instance, he translates chand-ka-tukda, an affectionate phrase for a child in Hindi, literally as piece-of-the-moon. A more idiomatically appropriate translation would be something like sweetie-pie. Depending on the connotations of “moon” in non-Indian languages, the constructed meaning could be anywhere from weird to random. That gets you into the whole business of talking about languages, local and global metaphors, translation, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Fine if that rich tapestry of crap is what you want to write about. Not so good if you actually just want to write a story about a pampered child.
Here is a solution that was simply not available to writers in the past:
(a version of this solution, curiously, has been available to comic-book artists. If the sentence above had been the caption of a panel showing a boy staring at an Amitabh Bachchan Sholay poster, you would have achieved nearly the same effect).
This is an extraordinarily complex construct, because the sentence is a magical, shape-shifting monster. It blends figure and ground compactly; the gestalt has leaky boundaries limited only by your willingness to click. Note that you can kill the magic by making the links open in new windows (which reduces the experience to glorified citation, since you are insistently hogging the stage and forcing context to stay in the frame). What makes this magical is that you might never finish reading the story (or this article) at all. You might go down a bunny trail of exploring the culture and history of Bollywood. Traditionally, writers have understood that meaning is constructed by the reader, with the text (which includes the author’s projected identity) as the stimulus. But this construction has historically been a pretty passive act. By writing the sentence this way, I am making you an extraordinarily active meaning-constructor. In fact, you will construct your own text through your click-trail. Both reading and writing are always political and ideological acts, but here I’ve passed on a lot more of the burden of constructing political and ideological meaning onto you.
The reason this scares some people is rather Freudian: when an author hyperlinks, s/he instantly transforms the author-reader relationship from parent-child to adult-adult. You must decide how to read. Your mom does not live on the Web.
That’s not all. The writer, as I said, has always been part of the constructed meaning, but his/her role has expanded. Literary theorists have speculated that bloggers write themselves into existence by constructing their online persona/personas. The back-cover author biography in traditional writing was a limited, unified and carefully managed persona, usually designed for marketing rather than as a consciously-engineered part of the text. Online however, you can click on my name, and explore how I present myself on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. How deeply you explore me, and which aspects you choose to explore, will change how you construct meaning from what I write.
So, in our three examples, we’ve gone from backward-looking, to clever, to seriously consequential. But you ain’t seen nothing yet. Let’s talk about how the hyperlink systematically dismantles and reconstructs our understanding of the idea of a text.
The Kindle is a curiously anachronistic device. Bezos’ desire was to recreate the ludic reading experience of physical books. To be ludic, a reading experience must be smooth and immersive to the point where the device “vanishes” and you lose yourself in the world created by the text. It is the experience big old-school readers love. Amazon attempted to make the physical device vanish, which is relatively unproblematic as a goal. But they also attempted to sharply curtail the possibilities of browsing and following links.
In light of what we’ve said about constructing your own text, through your click-trail, and your meaning from that text, it is clear that Bezos’ notion of “ludic” is not a harmless cognitive-psychology idea. It is a political and aesthetic idea, and effectively constitutes an attitude towards that element we know as dissonance. It represents classicism in reading.
Writers (of both fiction and non-fiction) have been curiously lagging when it comes to exploring dissonance in their art. Musicians have gone from regular old dissonance through Philip Glass and Nirvana to today’s experimental musicians who record, mix and play back random street noises as performance. Visual art has always embraced collages and more extreme forms of non sequitur juxtaposition. Dance (Stravinsky), film (David Lynch) and theater (Beckett) too, have evolved towards extreme dissonance. Writers though, have been largely unsuccessful in pushing things as far. The amount of dissonance a single writer can create seems to be limited by a very tight ceiling that beyond which lies incomprehensible nonsense (Beckett’s character Lucky, in Waiting for Godot, beautifully demonstrates the transition to nonsense).
In short, we do not expect musical or visual arts to be unfragmented or “smooth” or allow us to forget context. We can tolerate extreme closeness to random noise in other media. Most art does not demand that our experience of it be “ludic” the way writing does. Our experience can be disconnected, arm’s-length and self-conscious, and still constitute a legitimate reading. Word-art though, has somehow been trapped within its own boundaries, defined by a limited idea of comprehensibility and an aesthetic of intimacy and smooth flow.
There are two reasons for this. First, sounds and images are natural, and since our brains can process purely unscripted stuff of natural origin, there is always an inescapable broader sensory context within which work must be situated. The color of the wall matters to the painting in a way that the chair does not matter to the reading of a book. Words are unnatural things, and have always lived in isolated, bound bundles within which they create their own natural logic. The second reason: music and visual art can be more easily created collaboratively and rely on the diversity of minds to achieve greater levels of dissonance (an actor and director for example, both contribute to the experience of the movie). Writing has historically been a lonely act since the invention of Gutenberg’s press. We are now returning to a world of writing that is collaborative, the way it was before Gutenberg.
So what does this mean for how you understand click-happy online reading? You have two choices:
- You could think of click-happy Web browsing as “non-ludic” cognition behavior that is destroying the culture of reading. This is the view adopted by those who bemoan “continuous partial attention.” This is Nick Carr in Is Google Making us Stupid?
- Or you could think of browsing as a new kind of ludic: an unsettling, fragmented experience that is still comprehensible in the sense that a David Lynch movie is comprehensible. It is a kind of ludic that can never be created within one brain. Click trails are texts whose coherence derives from your mind, but whose elements derive from multiple other minds.
In other words, when you browse and skim, you aren’t distracted and unfocused. You are just reading a very dissonant book you just made up. Actually, you are reading a part of a single book. The single book. The one John Donne talked about. I first quoted this in my post The Deeper Meaning of Kindle. The second part is well-known, but it is the first part that interests us.
“ All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The Hyperlink as the Medium
If you start with McLuhan, as most people do, there are two ways to view the Web: as a vast meta-medium, or as a regular McLuhanesque medium, with nothing meta about it. For a long-time I adopted the meta-medium view (after all, the Web can play host to every other form: text, images, video and audio), but I am convinced now that the other view is equally legitimate, and perhaps more important. The Web is a regular medium whose language is the hyperlink. The varieties of hyperlinking constitute the vocabulary of the Web. If I give you an isolated URL to type into your browser, for a stand-alone web page with a video or a piece of text, you are not really on the Web. If there is no clickable hyperlink involved, you are just using the browser as a novel reading device.
But though hyperlinking can weave through any sort of content, it has a special relation to the written word. The Gutenberg era was one where writing was largely an individual act. Before movable type, the epics and religious texts of the ancient world were harmonies of multiple voices. But what we have today is not a resurrected age of epics. The multi-voiced nature of today’s hyper-writing is different. The difference lies in the fact that the entire world of human experience has been textualized online. Remember what I said about walls and paintings? The color of the wall matters to the painting in a way that the chair does not matter to the reading of a book. In the Web of hyperlinks, writing has found its wall.
This is a pretty experimental theme for me, and though it interests me a lot, I am not sure if it interests regular ribbonfarm readers. So if you’d like me to explore this more, post a comment. I have notes on stuff like the basic nature of blogs and wikis viewed as McLuhan media, what the death-of-newspapers debate looks like from the hyperlink perspective, and so forth.