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.

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi/statuses/15147014398 mathewi (Mathew Ingram)

    Twitter Comment


    couldn’t help myself — responded to Nick Carr’s post on “delinkification” [link to post] /cc @lavrusik @chanders @jeffjarvis

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  • http://twitter.com/mathewi/statuses/15147282285 mathewi (Mathew Ingram)

    Twitter Comment


    exactly — RT @jayrosen_nyu: The project you have been discussing is better termed “unbuilding the web.” [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu/statuses/15147194956 jayrosen_nyu (Jay Rosen)

    Twitter Comment


    The project you have been discussing, @mathewi @jeffjarvis @chanders @lavrusik is better termed “unbuilding the web.” [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/mathewi/statuses/15148181863 mathewi (Mathew Ingram)

    Twitter Comment


    RE: Totally agree, Vadim. Thanks for the comment. [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/BoraZ/statuses/15148525414 BoraZ (Bora Zivkovic)

    Twitter Comment


    In the ‘linking wars’ I agree with @mathewi: Nick Carr’s Retreat From the Internet Continues [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/marcusod/statuses/15149782317 marcusod (Marcus O’Donnell)

    Twitter Comment


    RE: @mathewi This is a good piece Mathew, thanks. As I said in response to Marshall K’s piece links are an important p… [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/mathewi/statuses/15149915496 mathewi (Mathew Ingram)

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    RE: @marcusod That’s a great point, Marcus — unlike Nick, who seems to believe that linking makes us stupider, I thin… [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/richdanielson/statuses/15148428404 richdanielson (Rich Danielson)

    Twitter Comment


    Interesting link to discussion about links from @jayrosen_nyu: [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/DavidClinchNews/statuses/15148380528 DavidClinchNews (David Clinch)

    Twitter Comment


    Rhetoric! Some links/books/papers are useful + some not That’s all/@jayrosen_nyu @mathewi @jeffjarvis @chanders @lavrusik [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/mathewi/statuses/15149540324 mathewi (Mathew Ingram)

    Twitter Comment


    @bhc3: something Nick Carr blogged about — I wrote a post in response here: [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/tlupick/statuses/15147940143 tlupick (travis lupick)

    Twitter Comment


    rt @mathewi exactly — rt @jayrosen_nyu The project you have been discussing is better termed “unbuilding the web.” [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/bob_calder/statuses/15149249212 bob_calder (Bob Calder)

    Twitter Comment


    @BoraZ There is no case against links unless you’re Rupert Murdoch. :-D

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  • http://twitter.com/Typist/statuses/15150065676 Typist (Bill Dunphy)

    Twitter Comment


    @mathewi re Carr – http://bit.ly/bHDLgW -I can live with links bundled, rather than in-line, it’s the quality of the links that counts, yes?

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  • http://twitter.com/Typist/statuses/15147980184 Typist (Bill Dunphy)

    Twitter Comment


    @mathewi @jayrosen – what interests me is Carr’s linkless assertion studies show links interfere with comprehension. That’s worth debating

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  • http://twitter.com/Typist/statuses/15147853341 Typist (Bill Dunphy)

    Twitter Comment


    @mathewi @jayrosen – Geez, gentlemen. Unbend yourselves a little, unorthodoxy ain’t a crime. Carr likes links at the end of posts. Big deal.

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  • http://lavrusik.com Vadim Lavrusik

    Glad you wrote this Mathew. Links are far more useful than distracting. It's part of the Web experience and gives comfort to readers who know that the writer went out of his way to be a resource to other parts of the Web. It builds trust with your readers, knowing you're not leaving anything out of the picture. It's really a form of transparency.

  • http://twitter.com/KseniaCoffman Ksenia Coffman

    I read the original post by Nick Carr earlier today, and after reading yours I have to agree w/ Nick – links are distracting even if you don't click on them. There's a certain emphasis w/ a hyperlink, which makes one wonder “why is this part of the sentence hi-lighted?” So there are extra cycles you have to spend, while you are trying to focus on the post.

    Besides, Nick's post advocated including links, but doing so at the bottom of the post. I would've preferred links at the bottom, honestly.

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi Mathew Ingram

    Totally agree, Vadim. Thanks for the comment.

  • Zachary

    To an extent I agree with Nick. If I clicked on each link in Mathew's post here, I'd have been sidetracked and lost the thread of his own message. Sure, I don't have to click on them, but every time my eyes skim over that blue hyperlink text, I wonder if I'm missing something pertinent. Of course I can come back after reading the entirety of Mathew's post to check the links, but in that case the links may as well have been at the bottom of the post, as Nick suggests.

    I'm not for “delinking” the web, but there's something to be said for following an author's thoughts from start to completion without constant visual distraction or interruption. But then as I reread Mathew's post and imagine it without those links, I think it would have been oddly airless and static. Is there a happy medium?

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi Mathew Ingram

    Thanks for the comment, Ksenia — I think putting links at the bottom makes them seem less like part of the argument or discussion that a good blog post should involve. It makes them easier to ignore, and harder to realize when one is missing that probably should have been there.

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi Mathew Ingram

    Maybe I've been blogging too long, but when I read a post that has no links, I instinctively question the writer's diligence — it just feels wrong somehow.

  • http://www.solocorps.com/mcd/ Blaine Kyllo

    To say that hyperlinks are nothing but a distraction is to say that those tiny little numbers indicating footnotes and references in printed materials are also. Skilled and critical readers can process all that information without any problem. To want to dispose of hyperlinks, footnotes, and references is to want content created only for preschoolers.

  • http://www.solocorps.com/mcd/ Blaine Kyllo

    To say that hyperlinks are nothing but a distraction is to say that those tiny little numbers indicating footnotes and references in printed materials are also. Skilled and critical readers can process all that information without any problem. To want to dispose of hyperlinks, footnotes, and references is to want content created only for preschoolers.

  • Geoffie

    I saw a study recently about the cognitive interference of links, but my view is that accepting links (cognitively) is an evolutionary and adaptive issue. We're resilient.

    I learned a long time ago not to get lost down the rabbit warren of links.

  • AnnaTarkov

    Ooof, this is a HUGE topic. I can kind of see both sides. I agree that no links (or links at the bottom) isn't the way to do it. Then again, Carr has a point in saying that they can distract the reader from following a writer's point closely. However, I've found that this is usually only a problem when the writing is weak and doesn't hold the reader's attention. I find that when I read someone who writes well and in a compelling way, I'm less likely to find the links distracting and much more likely to finish reading a piece all the way through. Finally, I think certain topics lend themselves to a lot of linking while others don't and there's nothing wrong with that. Basically, and I don't mean to sound wishy-washy, I don't think there's necessarily a right or wrong answer here.

  • rickg

    That part of the sentence is highlighted to let you know it goes somewhere. You can tell where it goes and whether you might want to go there yourself by the context of the link. Mathew's link to Nick's piece is obviously a link to the article he's talking about. I don't see how it's distracting at all if you've been reading on the web for any length of time. It's not like you HAVE to click them – I haven't clicked any in the post above. But if I do want to, I can check to see if Mathew's representing Carr's comment accurately by clicking on the correct link. I don't need to find it somehow outside of this article – the link is a convenience, at once a reference and a means of transport.

    Can links be overused in an article and become distracting? Sure. The can also be styled in annoying ways. That's just lack of facility with the feature though. A poorly constructed sentence with obscure words is also distracting even though it has no links.

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi Mathew Ingram

    Of course there's a right and a wrong, Anna — I'm right and Nick is wrong! :-) But you make a good point: there are nuances to this. I happen to believe that the benefits of links in the text far outweigh any disadvantages.

  • http://twitter.com/marcusod Marcus O'Donnell

    This is a good piece Mathew, thanks. As I said in response to Marshall K's piece links are an important part of contextual thinking – which is that new kind of expansive, hyperlinked thinking that the web now makes more easily accessible – and if you put links at the bottom it is not integrating them “in context”. Also I think this is all a transitional set of issues. If you are taught to write/think/read one way, of course it takes time to adapt to new ways of cognitive processing. Our brains are adaptive. Years ago there was no way I could mark a student essay without printing it out. Now I do all my marking on screen with Word comments. My brain got used to processing more complex info in onscreen mode.

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi Mathew Ingram

    That's a great point, Marcus — unlike Nick, who seems to believe that linking makes us stupider, I think linking and the kind of contextual thinking it enables or encourages is better for all concerned, writer and reader.

  • http://annatarkov.posterous.com Anna Tarkov

    Hahaha, spoken like a true blogger :-) I guess I can agree with that. Obviously if forced to choose between links or no links, I would choose links in a heartbeat. Like some others have suggested, I we've not cognitively adapted at the same pace as technology has advanced. It used to be that new technologies came along at a much slower pace than they do today. The pace is so furious now that people like us are already arguing about stuff that many people still have no concept of. That's really fast.

  • http://twitter.com/Typist/statuses/15147980184 Typist (Bill Dunphy)

    Twitter Comment






    @mathewi @jayrosen – what interests me is Carr's linkless assertion studies show links interfere with comprehension. That's worth debating

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Bob

    As far as being intellectually lazy or arrogant, I think it can go both ways.

    In all honesty, I usually link somewhere else because I don't feel like taking the time to explain something. Or, in case it turns out I'm wrong about something, I've linked to someone I can blame for providing wrong information.

    Granted, that might say more about me than whether links are good or bad.

    But as far as the “links are currency,” argument, I'll accept it when I can buy a beer with links.

  • digiphile

    Great post, Matt. I thoroughly agree with you and Lavrusik here. I understand Carr's point regarding usability. I imagine you may well be correct in thinking his perspective is informed by reading many books of late, as they are historically light on hypermedia, despite recent improvements to ebooks, PDFs and the like. That said, I don't find links distracting. If I want to follow up, I open in a new tab as well.

    Blaine makes a terrific point with respect to links: they're precisely analogous to scholarly footnotes, extended to the online medium. I suspect your reaction to their absence isn't much different than that of a high school AP English teacher faced with a term paper bereft of any references to original sources.

    A new idea is one of the the scarcest commodities on the planet. When we form our arguments online, linking to the theories, facts and arguments that precede our own is an essential element of effective communication. We can refer to others by name or affiliation, leaving readers to copy & paste the information into the search field or to right click and search.

    Or we can link.

    I know what I choose.

  • http://twitter.com/ocrosby Ollie Crosby

    I wonder if a similar criticism arose when they invented adjectives? Metaphors, hyperbole, even parables. There must be a lot of things out there with the potential to 'fire up the neurons in my frontal cortex.' Is the hyperlink worth our concern? Links probably have a small effect on the reader. Carr says that people learn less when reading hypertext. But there are so many other factors that could effect that. He may consider the other factors, but only while ignoring the importance of the medium being used. Links make things into a conversation. There is interconnectivity. Perhaps the brain retails less information and more conceptualization?

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi Mathew Ingram

    Thanks, Alex — totally agree.

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi Mathew Ingram

    Thanks, Alex — totally agree.

  • http://twitter.com/ckanal Craig Kanalley

    Thanks for writing this Mathew. I also agree with Vadim, if anything it helps build credibility online and build trust with your readers.

    For me personally, links are what make the Web beautiful. Stories are far more interesting with links than without them, and they just look better on the page. Links help break up the text on the screen so it doesn't all blur together and they can even emphasize key points and what the author finds most important.

    If a reader is very interested in the topic, it's essential to provide links for them, places to go for more information, whether that be Twitter, a blog, the New York Times, whatever. Providing tons of great relevant content and context is what it's all about.

  • http://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu Jay Rosen

    Shorter Carr: Let's unbuild the web, shall we?

  • http://brianfrank.ca Brian Frank

    Carr's suggestion is already established practice at the New York Review of Books (to name one outlet), which provides a handful of links at the top of long pieces of complex, meticulously crafted text that usually requires sustained focus. But blog posts typically don't require the kind of focus Carr is romanticizing. Quarantining links at the bottom of an 800 word blog post smells arrogant to me: as if the author thinks his ideas are more profound than they really are…

    As with most things on the Web, I don't think there's a single “right” way (my own linking policies vary, depending on what I'm writing). If you're publishing entertainment pieces for folks who just want to lean back and enjoy the experience, maybe you shouldn't link within the text. If you're publishing 8,000 word essays about Kant's critique of metaphysics, then maybe links could become an unwelcome distraction.

    But for everything in between I don't see any reason to not link–and when we consider articles that compose ongoing discussions like this, I think excluding or quarantining links diminishes the quality, openness, and vitality of the discussion.

  • http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/ Grant Jacobs

    I've written a blog articles with an alternative take on this:

    http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/06/01/

    This could be considered a web document design problem, not a writing problem.

  • http://twitter.com/JustinNXT Justin Ellis

    Mathew – Great post and thanks for writing this. Not to pile on to the many arguments here already, I guess what I am surprised by most is that links can be a journalist friend. Put aside all the discussion about the currency of the web for a moment, I always felt that links were like opening up the reporter's notebook and sources, not just to prove your work but as a good faith measure. It's a simple thing to do (or should be if you did your work)
    While I understand the arguments against links in terms of usability and design (yes, they can be distracting) I think the knowledge they can provide outweighs that. And if you're not sharing something online, isn't that missing the whole point?

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi Mathew Ingram

    I completely agree, Justin. Thanks for the comment.

  • http://twitter.com/AnnaTarkov/statuses/15204316506 AnnaTarkov (Anna Tarkov)

    Twitter Comment


    RE: @mathewi On the topic of this discussion: http://daggle.com/mainstream-media-stole-news-story-credit-1906 [link to post]

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  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com leigh

    I think debating links is dumb. It's central to the dynamic of the Web. It would be like saying the touch screen aspect of the iPad is distracting.

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  • http://annatarkov.posterous.com Anna Tarkov

    On the topic of this discussion: http://daggle.com/mainstream-media-stole-news-s

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