We Need Hyperlink Literacy

A couple weeks ago, I was in a student discussion with James Grimmelmann, law professor at Cornell Tech who studies how laws regarding technology affect freedom, wealth and power. A large part of our discussion centered around search engines and media platforms, specifically how personalization and algorithmic filters may affect what users see, even when they don’t understand or know that they’re getting filtered content. One way to tackle this issue (in addition to regulation, or some form of opt-out) would be media literacy: teach people that what they see is not some kind of perfect, impartial truth, but might be tailored to their preference and past histories (and biased in other ways).

Fostering that kind of media literacy among the populace at large is at once sorely needed and immensely difficult. Given how much our society depends on the Internet, the World Wide Web, search engines, social media platforms and the (often inscrutable) algorithms behind them, it is crucial that people understand how they get their information, and what are the biases, agendas, and influences shaping what they see (and don’t see). This is clearly a massive challenge, and likely one that we don’t yet know how to overcome. Personally, I would settle for solving one much smaller piece of the puzzle first: a more general understanding and respect for hyperlinks.

The humble hyperlink is the foundation of the web as we know it. It takes the web from being just a digital version of a library or filing cabinet to something truly new: a system where direct access to a piece of information is as easy as naming it. Unfortunately, along with the rise of digital walled gardens such as Facebook (and to a lesser degree, Twitter) the hyperlink seems to be losing prominence. That’s ironic given that the hyperlink is a sharing mechanism, and Facebook would like to bill itself as a platform for sharing and connecting. On a normal web page, one can use snippets of text asĀ anchors for a hyperlink, instead of using the raw link itself. Facebook doesn’t let you turn pieces of text in a status update into links. Furthermore, pasting more than one link at a time breaks the user interface. I suppose Facebook wants to give the link more prominence than what you have to say about it. People like Dave Winer and John Gruber have commented at length on how Facebook breaks the web. Poignantly, that last sentence (with two hyperlinks) would be impossible to write properly in Facebook.

And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter is approximately the same as Facebook. Slack supports links poorly in the same way: there’s no obvious way to use pieces of text as anchors for links. Adding more than one link is slightly better: giving previews for both links (though they are bigger and more prominent than the message containing the links). These systems are silos: they prefer you share and interact with posts within their own boundaries, rather than with content on the web as a whole.

By reducing the prominence of hyperlinks and truncating their utility, we create online cultures focused on sharing information, rather than ones that encourage combining and synthesizing multiple sources and viewpoints into coherent narratives. I would argue that in doing so we are giving up a large part of the power of the Web, to our detriment, and for no clear benefit.

So how do we fix this? Certainly, there is an argument to be made for reducing our dependence on platforms where we cannot sufficiently control our own writing. But beyond that, I would like to see hyperlinks become a more ingrained part of writing on a computer. I would love to see a world where whenever you write some text on a computer that references external sources, you link copiously to them, rather than just inserting references that readers have to look up manually. School and college writing classes would be the prime places to teach this. In the same way that we teach students to include citations to external sources, I would like to see students treat hyperlinks with the same importance and fluency.

In a deeply connected technological society such as ours, using the core technologies of the web should be a central part of any kind of digital or media literacy.

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