One day in the not-too-distant past, a handful of scientists had a novel idea: connect computers around the world to make learning faster and easier. They built a simple framework of digital pages with hyperlinks from one to another. It turned into a pretty big deal.
The internet has revolutionized the way we communicate and learn. It has also been an unmitigated disaster for our brains.
We’re incapable of processing the infinite information with which we’re presented — yet we’re bombarded with more because our constant engagement translates into popularity, prestige and advertising dollars for publishers. Every time we open a browser or swipe a phone, we might as well be sitting down at a shiny, spinning slot machine.
The building blocks of the web have become its intellectual Achilles’ heel. Links have turned against us, and they’re making it impossible to read and learn.
I know, you got here via a link. There’s even one link in this article (it’s at the end, with a clearly defined destination, and you’ll know if it’s useful for you before you get there). Links are crucial for navigation and seem instinctively useful to journalism. But when they’re embedded within an article that should be a calm, focused learning experience, they are a gateway to distraction and information addiction.
A 2005 study suggested that “increased demands of decision-making and visual processing” in text with links reduced reading comprehension — a challenge we face every day as we try to parse the web’s infinite information.
Last week, one of my favorite publications ran a thoughtful, well-written article that I could barely read. It contained 57 links in less than 2,000 words. Today, the top five articles on the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal averaged a link every 197 words — that’s one link for every minute of reading.
Links are visual distractions that break the reading experience
Since the advent of the written word, there’s only been one reason to change the color, style or weight of text: emphasis.
Your eye is trained to pause and assign added importance to any word that carries a different style than the words before it. A great article deserves focus, and it’s almost impossible to achieve any level of focus when random words are emphasized for no reason other than their association with a previous article or the fact that they refer to an outside resource.
Every link stops you in your tracks and forces you to make a choice — keep reading, or move on?
Even if you manage to maintain your focus through a cacophony of style changes, each link also forces you to stop and make a choice. Do I keep reading, click on this now, or come back for it later?
That choice is further complicated by the fact that it’s usually not obvious from the linked text where a link will take you. On a desktop, you can hover over the link to expose its URL (which forces you to break reading and grab your mouse, thus losing focus). On a mobile device, there is no way to determine the destination of a link without clicking on it. Even if you open it in a new tab and navigate right back to your article, you’ve diverted your attention, wasted a few seconds and given your brain one more thing to remember to do later.
And if you choose to read on, you’re faced with fear of missing out on something great for every link left un-clicked.
Links are bad for readers and good for ad sales
There’s no doubt journalists have noticed that their articles are choppier and harder to read when they’re packed with links. The thing is, more links generate more traffic, which produces advertising revenue and increases a publication’s perceived authority and validity.
Information overload pays the bills, but it also breaks the fundamental promise of most media organizations — to provide a resource for readers to learn, grow and gain a better understanding of their world.