Death to the Hyperlink
A short magical period of time existed, from 1995 to 1998, in the primordial ooze, before the original sin of the Internet, Google, raised its serpent head in Menlo Park and claimed to “not be evil.” That era was the heyday of the hyperlink, when pages loaded slowly, but being mostly markup and text, the information indeed loaded and linked. In those years, the web was clean: no popups, no ads, no carousels, no videos, no auto-play, no cookie notices, no subscription paywalls, no interstitial interjections, no clickbait, no nonsense. Even logins were rare, as there was little or no security guarding much of anything in the early days. But reading the web at that time was like a garden, really, like the garden of Eden.
Each site was unique because the owners hand crafted their html, often badly. The sites themselves were like roadside diners where you could stop and peruse and sample just to tour and mark a notch on the site counter. A complete lack of marketing and monetization gave it a flair that is no more.
Surely you have just uttered, “Oh, quit the nostalgia!” But is there a single site left on the web that you do not feel dirty after using? Do you not feel the need to shower after the gross tracking that Facebook has slathered upon you? No shame after the surveillance Amazon put on your mouse scroller as you lingered over an image? How about needing to sleep on your side after Google did a deep probe on you? The early internet couldn’t track a rabbit through snow. Actual freedom existed to search and read without being inside the Panopticon of the NSA and our corporate overlords.
Notice that I did not link to Panopticon. The reason I did not is because there are too many hyperlinks today, littered in every article, like a gaudy flea market. Too many memes and popups and noise, all with their own hyperlinks. There are reasons I did not hyperlink the word Panopticon.
- Hyperlinks distract. Links kill concentration and thwart the absorbtion of material. Links make for restless scrolling and page hopping. Any link in text divides our concentration and works against the content itself.
- Hyperlink content is fluff content. I actually want to read a wall of text. Just text. Most link sentences are filler without anything to say. I would prefer a wall of words without callouts and highlighting and linking and tooltips. If a hyperlink is needed, a works cited section at the bottom suffices.
- Part of the fun of the early Internet was seeing something you hadn’t heard of, and then looking it up elsewhere to learn about it . The author didn’t need to link to the point of annoyance because it wasn’t part of the Search Engine Optimization game. Then we had link farms and scoring based on linkage and thus the era of excess hyperlinks began.
- Most modern people may have heard of the word Panopticon by now, coined by Jeremy Bentham, since the surveillance state has now arrived and we have welcomed it with open arms.
Clearly I am in the minority in 2021, as the world of content creation hunkers down into a smaller and smaller list of creators. Facebook and Twitter continually battle it out for champion of the toilet bowl of human experiences. The YouTube comment section, like a giant gas stomach bloat, may eventually rupture the fabric of society, while HuffPost and Breitbart balance out the insane citizens of our world, proving Newton’s third law of motion yet again, showing that equal and opposite reactions will occur when two forces of crazy isolated egos meet in a vacuum.
What is to be done then? Having abandoned social media for the sake of mankind and personal responsibility toward a virtuous life, where does one go to avoid the pitfalls of the modern hyperlinked popup fiasco known as the web? Shall I return to some early 2000’s technology like StumbleUpon to find the gems of the web? Or find the old Webcrawler and Gopher search engines that emerged from the ancient oceans of 1995 only to return to dust like extinct trilobytes?
The answer, for me, is paper books. In fact, my yearning to read died gradually in direct proportion to the advancement of the internet. During the years of privacy erosion, through the monetization of websites, tracking of metrics, and linking of user data, this crescendo subtly occurred while we did not notice our lives were being manipulated and taken by interests that were not of our own making. In parallel, our attention spans became weak and we needed observers to show us a mirror and talk of Deep Work and The Shallows, to remind us that we once had original thoughts of our own, or at least could try to do so without the interruption of a carefully targeted ad shoved in front of our eyeballs.
We really are simple beings. The hyperlink draws us, like a moth to a doorway lightbulb, pulling our attention away from our purpose. Every single person who has a phone or computer behaves the same, just as every moth in summer flocks around a bulb in awe and flaps furiously, not knowing why (at least the moth is hoping to mate). At this point, we have placed lights everywhere to satisfy our inner moth. We pull them from our pockets, sit in front of them all day in offices, gaze upon them while filling our cars with gas, stare at them while eating at restaurants, and sit in our living rooms which are now like moth heaven, with lights from tablets, phones, and TVs.
So while I look back on the early days of the web with nostalgia, I can also see the progression of the innocent hyperlink, from an amazing tool that hooked hand-crafted pages together, to an invasive Trojan horse laden with data collection points. The hyperlink still has a place, but much reduced. How impossible it seemed when the first html markup appeared, that the little blue text that took you to another place on the web, would lead not to an age of information, but an age of misinformation, along with massive surveillance, scapegoating, and hatred. “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” For us the hyperlink didn’t seem vast at the start, but the curse is now clear.
A funny sidenote to this post is that the SEO advisor, AIOSEO, reports two problem with it: no internal links and no external links. Thus this will never be read, since no search engine would recommend it due to its lack of linkage. If that is the criteria for content by Google, then we have been encouraging distraction and damaging attention spans for 20 years, which is something we can clearly see in the angry internet culture. Add phones to this recipe, with the constant interruptions, who can be surprised at our current state of division, lack of focus, and desire for instant gratification?