Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Links in Writing

Every Wednesday, I post an essay or two that relates to anything from reading/writing to gaming to anime to life in general.

I've been blogging for half a decade now yet it only took me a few days ago to realize that one of the greatest writing innovations has arrived: links. Now some of you might laugh at me because links aren't anything new. While that's certainly true, the usage of links I think is changing. Previously, links were limited to navigating the site, either directing you to another section of your website or referring to someone else's homepage. Yet what's starkly different from ten years before is the fact that Internet usage is spreading and more and more people are engaged in reading over the Internet, whether it's email, blogs, RSS feeds, etc. thus the usefulness of links is expanding as well and people are finding new ways to incorporate it into technology (for some time, email was simply plain text for example and didn't have links--currently email has formatting).

Links, like any technology, is dependent on the user. I mean DVDs theoretically have the capacity to include special features yet not all manufacturers include special features in their DVD releases. The usage of links I think is pretty much the same. I mean I can write this entire essay in plain text. But incorporating links gives it an added dimension that would not otherwise be possible in print. Yet linking hasn't been maximized. Just look at online newspapers. While online newspapers certainly has links, most feature articles and news items barely include them in the body. In other words, they're not part of the text. Compare that to wikis and even some online encyclopedias where links are essential parts of the body (although admittedly some are erroneously used).

Links I think give us a new dimension when it comes to writing. It's too simplistic to think of links as a glorified footnote, which is the first thing comes to mind. Links aren't static for example. Not only can the webpage you're linking to disappear completely, it can be subtlety modified (or even be replaced by a different web page entirely). Footnotes, for good or for ill, remain as is whether you're reading it today or ten years from now. And perhaps the biggest difference between a footnote and a link is that you can easily verify the latter.

They say a picture is worth a thousand word. Well, a link can actually be a thousand words. Or a caption of sorts. For example, I can mention just one word and it immediately sends my message across through the use of a simple link: love. Go ahead and click the link to understand what kind of love I'm talking about. It could be the text equivalent of an editorial cartoon or the single-panel comic. There's also something meta-textual about links. It's the realization that the Web isn't composed of several books and texts, it's actually all one gigantic manuscript. That's why the footnote analogy doesn't work: footnotes assume that what you're referring to is outside of the current document. Links, on the other hand, can actually link to another text or document or photo because it has access to it. It has more similarities to an index rather than a footnote. Also, the potential for links is infinite. How many words composes a link? A single word can link to a thousand- or a million-word document. A single blog entry can link to ten entirely different documents. Links simply change the way we interact with text and it might shape the future of reading. If you thought reading was an active act, there's something even more active when it comes to links: taking the time to hit the click button. And trust me, not everyone will click the link in this essay, either because the information is redundant or people are simply too lazy.

What I'm still waiting for is the arrival of the link novel. You know, not an eBook in HTML or even a document with a minimum of links but a full-blown, 50,000 word manuscript wherein each and every word has a link. A friend tells me there was a similar site like that for an archive of H.P. Lovecraft's works, wherein each word could be clicked and the definition of each word would pop up. I'm thinking of something similar but beyond just definitions. I want every single word to link to something different, the cyberspace equivalent of Ulysses (psst, Kyu, it's your book!). And of course, each link has to be relevant to the story. (It would even be more interesting if the author actually manufactures the sites in which the document links to.) But since links are an active act, you don't need to click the links to understand the entire story and instead they add a different layer if you do take the time to visit them. That's not even taking into account the multimedia applications, linking to not just text but to music, video, photos, etc.

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