Think about the link–so simple, so familiar. We hardly notice that string of colored text in a paragraph. We rarely click. “Links? Sure. What’s to know?” Maybe lots.
Links are portals, signs of the implicit human, bread crumbs revealing associative trails. Links make the Web a network instead of a stack. Take, for example, this paragraph from the Wikipedia article “Hyperlink”
The term “hyperlink” was coined in 1965 (or possibly 1964) by Ted Nelson at the start of Project Xanadu. Nelson had been inspired by “As We May Think“, a popular 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush. In the essay, Bush described a microfilm-based machine (the Memex) in which one could link any two pages of information into a “trail” of related information, and then scroll back and forth among pages in a trail as if they were on a single microfilm reel.
The trick is to realize that every link represents an implied question. These questions propel us along pathways of exploration. If you’re writing online and adding links, your job is to anticipate some of the questions that may arise in your readers’ minds and build a pathway so their curiosity can roam.
In this way, the Wikipedia paragraph becomes:
The term “hyperlink” was coined in 1965 (or possibly 1964) by Ted Nelson (Who was he?) at the start of Project Xanadu (What was that?). Nelson had been inspired by “As We May Think” (Where can I find that?), a popular 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush (Who was he? Why is he important?). In the essay, Bush described a microfilm-based machine (the Memex) (What did that look like? Is there a picture?) in which one could link any two pages of information into a “trail” of related information, and then scroll back and forth among pages in a trail as if they were on a single microfilm reel.
Sometimes, as you anticipate and answer the reader’s questions, you’re simply providing them with a citation–a footnote–because you want to be honest about what ideas are yours and you want to use other people’s work as evidence to support what you’re saying. (Though we know authors play with the footnote all the time, sometimes writing long, discursive footnotes filled with stories and information they couldn’t fit in the body of the text. This can be great fun, or it can drive readers and editors crazy.)
Then there are times when you insert a link because you’re hoping to entice the reader with an Easter Egg–maybe a joke, or a surprise, or something you think is cool. In this case, you’re trying to elicit a question, and suggest that there’s more to be revealed. The art of the link, then, involves playing with the reader’s expectations.
But why bother thinking like this about a simple digital device? Because the hyperlink opens a door into another story space. And if people actually click on the links and go to that other space, they will find themselves holding multiple experiences in their brains simultaneously. In much the same way that a novelist switches back and forth, chapter-by-chapter between two story lines, or a movie director uses parallel editing between related events, the online writer can use links to complicate and enrich the reader’s experience. Links can provide information, but also illustrations, commentary, ironic perspective, and indeed any kind of meta- or extra-diegetic experience you are talented enough to create.
So how to begin learning the art of the link?
Ask yourself: what word will bring a question to mind? make someone curious? need a bit of explanation? (put a link THERE)
How will you respond to that question? Satisfy or surprise? (Find your response and link to THAT)
Then, when you’re feeling pretty good about figuring out where to put the links to achieve your effect, and you know how to work the toolbar to insert them, and you’ve decided if they should open in a new page (the online equivalent to “notes at the bottom of the page or the end of the work?”), then you’re good to go. If you’re feeling confident, go over to w3schools and learn the html you need if you’re using a text editor instead of a visual editor.
Whatever you do, don’t take the link for granted. It can be much more than just extra information. It’s a device. It’s a means of expression. It’s whatever you make with it.