The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Long Live the Hyperlink

There’s a chance that you're growing weary of my focus on self publishing this year. How many times should someone voice their opinion that people should host their own blogs rather than use a service like Medium as the only vehicle for sharing their thoughts? You’ll have to decide that for yourself :)

But the underlying issue is one of vast import, far beyond a small blog here or there. It’s the shaping of the web itself; our actions now dictate the type of web we’ll have down the road. My wariness of a full embrace of funded platforms is shared by others, which is of some comfort.

Mandy Brown stated her own concerns eloquently (as usual) by starting with Twitter’s pending increase in character limits. The problem?

John Herrman locates the move inside his epic tale of how platforms are eating journalism; that is, how this is a move by Twitter to keep people on Twitter, rather than going somewhere else, which of course is about money. If Twitter keeps people on Twitter, it can grow engagement metrics, learn more about its users, and—theoretically at least—generally make more money, some of which it is even likely to share with publishers, although probably it won’t be enough.

And this is all about money, folks. But while that side of current Internet trends is of interest, it’s not the focus of Mandy’s article. Instead:

There’s another bit of this shift that I do want to explore, though, which is about storytelling and the nature of the web. Because what Twitter (or Facebook, or Apple, or whomever) is also doing when they bring the web to users’ feeds, rather than letting those feeds serve as maps to elsewhere, is diminish the hyperlink. You remember the hyperlink, right? It’s supposed to take you somewhere, to move you from one place to another.

Why is this so important? Mandy (and others) recognize the value of related pages being connected not only because of the end result, but largely because of the process for the reader. It’s the journey that’s in danger!

The hyperlink, with its super simple structure—a direction and some characters of description, which could be as straightforward or as subversive as you wanted—did get off the ground, and it is indeed marvelous. The ability to follow links down and around and through an idea, landing hours later on some random Wikipedia page about fungi you cannot recall how you discovered, is one of the great modes of the web. It is, I’ll go so far to propose, one of the great modes of human thinking.

And the current trend is the exact opposite:

If everything comes to your feed instead, will you never leave? Will this be like working in one of those startup buildings with their own coffee houses and cafeterias and laundry services, where the streets outside could flood and you wouldn’t notice for days?

Consider Twitter, Facebook, and Medium. Their design is intended for one thing only: to keep you there.

If you want to gain a fascinating perspective on this, consider the experience of Hossein Derakhshan. A popular Iranian blogger in the aughties, he spent six years in prison for the speaking his opinion. What shocked him was how the web had changed in those six years. When he went in, text was the focus:

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of the hypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked … Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. They were Tehran’s taxicabs writ large.

The difference 6 years later?

Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete. Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object — the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing it as a way to make that text richer.

If we look closely, we can all see the trend. For Derakhshan, the change is stark and abrupt. For us, like watching our children grow, perhaps the change has gone largely unnoticed. But one day we’ll wake up and realize twenty years have gone by and our child is grown up and gone. Will we have nurtured the kind of Internet that inspires us, challenges us, and makes us proud? Or will it be another empty wasteland of advertisements and low quality, mindless entertainment?

The answer will likely be a bit of both. But I’d love to see it lean further towards the independent than the corporate. And that’s exactly how the Mediums and Twitters of the world feel to me; clinical, sanitized, and easy. They make for a lazy web. Yes, they enable in some ways, but that enablement is with the investors best interests, not the the web itself.

I’ll take the quirky, personal, meandering web, a collection of connected hypertexts, any day. Even if it is more work.

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