Nick Carr’s Retreat From the Internet Continues

by Mathew on May 31, 2010 · 91 comments

I’ll admit it — I’ve kind of missed Nick Carr, and his dyspeptic blog Rough Type. After he started on his latest book, he went on a blogging hiatus, and I kind of missed reading his fulminations on a variety of things, most of which I instinctively disagreed with. I think he may have spent too long away from the blogosphere, however, encased in that 16th-century form of blogging known as “books.” Either that or the topic of his new book, which appears to be how the Internet is dumbing us down (Carr and Andrew Keen are kind of a matched set) has taken hold of him and he now believes the internet is a kind of pernicious force in people’s lives.

His latest column is about how he has come to believe — or is close to believing — that links are bad. To be fair, his argument is a little more nuanced than that. He says that links are cognitive overhead, in the sense that they distract readers, even if they don’t follow them:

Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not.

But you don’t have to take my word for it — you can go and read Nick’s argument yourself, because I have helpfully provided a link to it. You don’t have to click it if you don’t want to (possibly because you trust me to give you a fair representation of it), and you can click and open it in a tab to read later if you like, which I often do as I read things. The important thing is that I linked to it. I can also link to other things that might help you interpret it, like Marshall Kirkpatrick’s piece in response to Nick.

I could also link to a piece by Fred Wilson, a web native if there ever was one, about the “power of passed links,” in which he argues that links are the currency of the web. Like Nick’s criticism of links, currency can get in the way in our lives as well — it not only makes our pockets heavy with change, but it warps people’s minds in all sorts of ways. And yet, we couldn’t very well do without it. But links aren’t just useful to readers — I think adding them is also an exercise in intellectual discipline for the writer.

As I mentioned to a number of other people who were discussing Nick’s piece, including Chris Anderson and Vadim Lavrusik, I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice. In other cases, it’s a sign of intellectual arrogance — a sign that the writer believes these ideas sprang fully formed from his or her brain, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, and have no link to anything that another person might have thought or written. Either way, getting rid of links is a failure on the writer’s part.

As I said in a comment on Nick’s post, I fully expect his next move will be to remove links of any kind — and then to ban comments as well, as “thinkers” such as Seth Godin have, since they just get in the way of all that pure thought. And then, perhaps, Nick will finally decide that the internet itself is rather over-rated, and will retreat to his books, where no one can argue with him. And that would be a shame, because arguing with him is such fun.

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  • AJ Kohn

    Thank goodness there is a sane and strong voice in the contextual link conversation.

    You did a better job than I at teasing out the benefits of links.

    I agree that there's a type of arrogance associated with a writer who won't link within their 'pure' prose, or feel that any distraction to digesting their words is a sin. I too am uneasy when I don't see a link or two showing appropriate due diligence and intellectual honesty. Vadim is correct about transparency.

    Just recently Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan commented on the vital importance of links, and those who fail to use them appropriately.

    That aside, it's about context. Context is important. Putting links at the bottom is confusing. If there are six links at the end of a piece, which one relates to what passage? This isn't a reading comprehension test.

    Oddly, putting links at the bottom probably does the opposite of what Carr hopes. Research clearly shows that people scan text and one of the ways to break that instinct and encourage readers to engage in the content is … links.

    Distractions? No. I'd call them a valuable part of web writing. And that's an important difference. We're not kicking back and reading the latest David Mitchell novel! Writing for the web has a difference style, syntax and structure, just as novels differ from haiku differ from grant proposals. There's nothing wrong with that.

    I love a good book but I don't read the web that way.

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  • kocinetwork (koci)

    Twitter Comment

    [from cophotog] Nick Carr’s Retreat From the Internet Continues: I could also link to a piece by Fred Wilson, a we… [link to post]

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  • Anna Tarkov

    Here's the take of a newspaper blogger (@ericzorn) who I mentioned in one of my comments:… My favorite part is where he admits to hating the automatic links generated by newspapers' CMS linking to topical words in stories. I hate them as well.

  • Mike

    I think the craft of writing is very concerned with the challenge of holding a reader's attention. You want the reader to stay interested in what you are saying. That's not intellectual cowardice; it's craft. If you're writing a two-paragraph blog p0st, then why not include several hyperlinks? But if you're writing a long piece you don't want to create distractions for the reader. You work hard to make them read it to the end.

  • Matthew Tiffany

    I agree that the use of links is necessary in many contexts, and that well-reasoned argument essays benefit from affording the reader to follow the line of thought backwards/sideways (as well as the ensuing conversation, as I am doing right now). What is it about the suggestion that links be saved for the footnotes that rubs you the wrong way? I found my way here via a link at The Morning News that lead to the article at The Economist; that link was a footnote at the end of the article. It seems specious to suggest that people are unlikely to click through without having it highlighted for them. If people are interested, they'll follow; if it diminishes specific points in the argument, why not simply pop a signatory number/letter into parenthesis that leads to the link at the bottom?

    It's probably true that a growing percentage of readers will simply open the links in new tabs and go to them afterward. I just think that moving the references to the end makes it easier to focus on the content of the author in the piece at hand.

  • jessi_rich (jessica rich)

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    [blog post] Nick Carr’s Retreat From the Internet Continues [link to post]

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  • ErikamHarrison (Erika Harrison)

    Twitter Comment

    To link or not to link. Interesting convo RT @mathewi [blog post] Nick Carr’s Retreat From the Internet Continues [link to post]

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  • boutotcom (Bruno Boutot)

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    Pourquoi la campagne contre les hyperliens est retardataire, par @mathewi : [link to post]

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  • klecu

    That was basically my thought in response to this discussion about links. They are probably much better than footnotes or inline references because the reference is identified only by a slight change in typography rather than an interruption in the text. Like print-form references, links should be used in the body of the text to support the writer's claims. I would say that closing remarks should not have links, so the author's point can be stated clearly.

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    Man this is really an active blog, you have a lot of people commenting and visiting your site. Congratulations! By the way, DisQus ROCKS the SOCKS out of WordPress original comment syste, thanks for having this plug-in installed :) Unfortunately I do not know Nick Carr, but this blog post enlightened me a little bit, hehe

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  • tomslee

    “I fully expect his next move will be to remove links of any kind — and then to ban comments as well” – a straw man argument. You read what you'd like to argue against, not what he actually wrote.

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