Links. They're everywhere. All over the Web. Millions of them. It's hardly surprising; after all, links make the Web what it is. The Web is nothing more than an agreement, or a protocol, called HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), that provides a common language. This agreement gives us the capability to travel from one page to another in the blink of an eye (at least in theory).
It's generally assumed that these links are what make the Web so powerful and useful; you can jump from one idea or thought to another. But are these links really powerful and useful? When looking up information on Henry David Thoreau, for example, how do we know that the information found on the Internet about his life and writings represents the meat you're searching for? Much of the time, we jump from factoid to factoid, entrusting often anonymous link creators with the sagacity to sort the wheat from the chaff.
The Web is said to be the library of the future thanks to this system of links and the vast amounts of information that can be made available. But how is the Web of today qualitatively different from an old fashioned paper library? When I look something up in a card catalog, I follow a "link" to a book. The only difference is that I must move my physical body to get to it. In that book, I may see a word, a phrase, a name, or an idea that I want to explore further. If the book is well-organized I may use notes, references, or even an index to do so. To see what others have said on the same subject, I can go back to the card catalog and search for another link, or look on the shelves at the books near the one I have been reading. These links are just an arm's length away.
So while the idea behind links is not new, the implementation is. Using the Web is much easier than trudging through the links in a physical library. Or at least, it was supposed to be when the people who laid the conceptual grounds for hypertext - Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart - formulated their ideas for linking vast amounts of information. They felt that the human mind operates by association, and thus the best way to navigate through large quantities of information is by linking related documents. That's probably true, but none of these hypertext pioneers could have envisioned where we've ended up after a few short years of the World Wide Web.
Where Have All the Editors Gone? We have entered the culture of the link - a culture where the links themselves are seen as more valuable than the information to which the links are supposed to lead. The very concept behind portals points this out - portals are designed to be gateways to other content, to lead you to other places through links. Some portals provide their own content as well, but many merely add lists of links to outside sources.
How many times have you surfed the Web, looking for some particular nugget of information, only to find yourself going from page to page, each containing nothing but links? And sometimes, after going through a circle of reciprocal links, you find yourself right back where you started. Yet one could argue that the most useful Web pages are just long lists of links with no inherent content. After all, what do search engines provide? They just spit out a tailor-made list of links.
One problem may be that as the Web has become more commercial, many companies are finding it more commercially viable to provide links than to provide content. After all, links are easier to generate than content, particularly quality content. It is worth considering whether or not this practice merely meets the demands of users. Do people value a long list of links more than a long article? In many cases, yes, because a list of links offers unlimited promise without the immediate responsibility of reading and comprehending text. People are seldom interested in reading long texts online, so maybe lists of links are the only thing that meet the requirement that content be both copious and free.
Writers often complain there are no more editors - and they may be right, in many cases. This is exactly what pages of links show us. Sure, someone has chosen those links, but since the goal is usually more quantitative than qualitative, it is still up to you to weed out the good from the bad.
There are some sites that go to the extra effort of editing their lists of links. One that comes to mind is About.com, which even puts human faces on their "expert guides." There are also Web catalogs, such as Yahoo and even Apple's iReview that not only categorize the content they find, they also choose what to include and in some cases mention why it was chosen.
This is not to imply links are inherently bad. In many Internet publications, they are used sparingly and for informational purposes. Good links can take you to background information, provide product specifications, or show related articles, if they are used intelligently. In large part, venues that use links sparingly and appropriately have editors who focus on original content. Although anyone can be a publisher on the Internet, it seems that all too few people can be editors on the Internet.
Don't Link, Think! Sometimes I wish I could find some dead ends - the kinds of pages that are sufficiently confident in the quality of their content that they don't feel the need to send you off somewhere else. These are the pages that provide information you can use to think for yourself rather than incessantly clicking yet another promising link.
For this is one of the problems with links - they tempt you to avoid thinking, to put it off until later. While surfing the Web, you're like someone on a treasure-hunt trying to put together all the clues so you can grab the gold at the end of the tunnel. But the tunnel has many exits, all of which lead more or less the same way. There is no guarantee that the ideas to which you are directed are objective, or that they present a balanced view of the subject you are examining. In fact, it's more likely that they do not offer a balanced, objective view, instead concentrating on a single aspect of the topic with a specific bias firmly in place. Instead of seeking information on your own, you are just being led to the next pasture, where the grass must be greener. It takes force of will to stop, to look at things and make a clear-headed, in-depth assessment of the materials you've encountered.
What if you wanted to find out about China's policies in Tibet, or issues surrounding prominent political candidates, or the health risks of second-hand tobacco smoke? If you stumble on a Web page set up by, say, the tobacco industry about smoking, you're virtually guaranteed to see only one side of the issue. Plus, any links that you would follow from there would most likely lead you to other pages that express the same point of view, or support it.
And even if you're trying to do research, how did you get to that page? Probably via a link from a search engine. After all, it's easy to find information using a search engine. You enter a few keywords, and the search engine spits back a collection of supposedly relevant links. But the search engines' results aren't always as relevant as they might be - prominent placement is sometimes sold to the highest bidder and there are a variety of techniques for making some pages more likely to turn up than others (which is why seemingly innocent searches often turn up pornography sites). You never know whether the pages you've found even cover the spectrum of possible opinions. But there are a lot of links beckoning you to click, and the context supplied with each link is minimal at best.
Of course, propaganda has existed for a long time in the real world too, and no one is any more excused from evaluating the bias of an Internet source than a real world source. But the preponderance of links on a Web page can actually deceive by offering what would seem to be supporting material and external opinions. In fact, they're just links, nothing more.
Link Me -- What happens when you follow these links? You react with an itchy mouse finger, but not with your mind. Instead of finishing the paragraph you are reading, you're already off to another server to get more information. Your eyes are attracted by underlined text because it stands out - it's different, and must somehow be more important than the plain text that surrounds it. Not only do you not take the necessary time to reflect upon and internalize what you are reading, but sometimes you find yourself following link after link, on a wild spider chase after a completely different subject. Our minds are becoming more and more dispersed by these reflexes, and our attention spans, already shortened by television, are shrinking even more.
I remember how I reacted when I first got Internet access. I have always been a book-lover, and libraries are, for me, places of great enjoyment. I started by searching on the Web for a few authors, composers, and other subjects that interested me. I was awake until very late following link after link, looking to find still more information about my interests. That lasted a week or so before I realized that all I was going to get was the journey itself, and in this case, the journey was a poor reward.
What worries me most is how this clicking reflex has become one of our dominant modes of information retrieval. First we scanned the car radio, then we used the remote control to surf the TV, and now we click links on the Web. We are not taking time to think about what we do; we are just using gut reactions. And our children are being trained to do this through computer games, where they click on hot spots to see something happen. About a year ago, I remember sitting in the kitchen eating lunch with my son, who was then four years old. He had played a game on the computer that morning and was entranced by all the neat things that popped up as he clicked in different places. He asked me what would happen if he clicked on the radiator. I laughed then. I am not laughing now.
Click. Click. Click...
[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance translator and technical writer who lives in a village in the French Alps.]