Think Before You Link

There’s a clip from the Pixar movie “Up” that really describes modern reading habits.

When applied to reading, this clip represents how hard it is for today’s students to get through dense texts, or even light texts, without being diverted. They don’t know how. Perseverance is part of the issue; another is resourcefulness – they won’t spend time thinking about unknown vocabulary in context, they don’t know where to look it up (I tell them it’s okay to use their smartphones, and my permissiveness excites, shocks, and/or stupefies them).

Why is this? According to journalist Nicholas Carr, the problem is the Internet.Okay! Congratulations on clicking through. Now how many of you noticed that I put three links in the intro there? How many of you clicked on one of them? According to Carr, the style of reading on the internet is changing the way we think. He bases his hypothesis on a study that found that internet users

exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site.”

This is evidence, Carr says, of a reading style that

puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else…Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

He expands on his argument in his book “The Shallows” (review), where he argues that the ‘old style’ of reading required “sustained, unbroken attention” is undone by the hyper-linked nature of today’s reading:

Simply ignoring online distractions does not work. We can choose not to click a hyperlink or open an e-mail message—but ironically, the fact that our brains must make this split-second decision to not be distracted is in itself enough of a distraction to break our concentration.

He’s not taking with the interconnected, linking nature of the web – he’s taking issue with the interruptions that it invites. Even e-books have links to other places. In our blog posts, we’re encouraged to engage in this type of linking that Carr warns us about. Heck, we’re encouraged to do it in our pen-and-paper classes by incorporating QR Codes – which I did the other week (example – see Document 3 therein).

We can support linking, though, while avoiding the constant interruptions. I think Wikipedia actually has a decent implementation: include a “Further Readings” section at the end of your posts – at least if you feel they require deep thinking =) Then include links, along with a short description, there. That way your readers can read, think, and follow your links – while preserving the solitary thoughtfulness that has characterized literacy for decades past.

↬ Nicholas Carr


“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” – Voltaire

Mea culpa. Nick Carr reviews the numerous people who already implemented my suggestion here:

6 thoughts on “Think Before You Link”

  1. I don’t believe Carr’s articles are in our assigned readings for course 2, so I would not have read Carr’s work and I thank you for your blog.

    I totally agree with Carr’s ideas (that came from his friend Steve Gillmor originally) that reading on the Internet, for many reasons, promotes “hurried, distracted, and superficial thinking online”. This is why I know that my Internet reading is about making a plan to read a printed copy later.

    I skim Internet articles and as I skim I open up all the links in a new tab, skim further, and then I attach the articles that I want to “carefully and thoughtfully read” into my email. I must write a clear subject line too in order to remind myself what the skimming was all about. This seems like many steps, but I think it’s exactly like the writing process. We brainstorm, web, sketch, ponder, daydream etc before we actually draft… I also must sit down with printed out articles and a cup of tea in order to actually read properly now. If my computer or my daughter is in the room, then I’m just a superficial reading machine or I head to the kitchen to cook and relax. There is just too much information thrown at us at all times.

    I even have to open up my Monday morning emails and skim and then re-mail them to myself in order to sit down during my first break without students to read them carefully. Do you remember Jeff’s blog about teaching administrators when to send emails? I so appreciated that blog. And, I wish my administrators would email all important Monday notes the Friday morning prior. By Friday afternoon, I’d have carefully read everything and then I could completely relax during the weekend knowing Monday wouldn’t be full of surprises.

    I like Carr’s ideas about adding all links to the bottom of articles instead of within the article. I’m going to try that in my next few blogs, which I’ve noticed are super hyperlinked and which distracts my writing process. With all the linking that I’m doing, because I want to give credit, I have to read my blog over and over again from the top in order to finish it. I’m still a paranoid producer and I don’t want to steal anyone’s ideas…
    Thanks again,

    1. I also find that finding nice images and hyperlinks for my blogs really disrupts my writing process. In the end it’s down to self control – with practice, organizing the sequence of writing – linking – adding images – posting should minimize the task-switching my brain needs to do – but as you said, it’s distracting. Makes you appreciate the days when people composed an email in Word, then copy and pasted it into their email client to send it!

  2. Carr’s article / experiment is interesting and yet I’m not sure how I feel about refraining from embedded links and putting them at the bottom. Much of the web is social, connected and alive. Wikipedia is loaded with links within the text as a supplement to the footnotes. I do agree that it can create a disjointed reading experience, especially if this is affecting how we now read and if we develop skimming habits, but generally I view Wikipedia and most web-based articles as starting points; places to gather info before deeper reading occurs. If the links are listed only at the bottom, that may also create a diversion if the viewer needs to break away from the article to check facts, etc that were not hyperlinked.

    However, the bigger problem may be if deeper reading is no longer enticing or even viewed as relavent by today’s students. Or if many lack the attention or interest to delve into longer texts.

    As we can’t control, mandate or even really impact what and how authors will present information, perhaps we need to focus on working with students to utilize strategies for reading in this new medium. (new to us at least!)

    It’ll be interesting to look back at how reading changed and how that affected younger generations ability to learn and communicate.

    1. I do think deeper reading is becoming less enticing and relevant to today’s students. In fact, it’s becoming all around less common. Reading for pleasure takes a backseat to videogames and TV; books are eschewed during research in favor of online articles (a trend I haven’t done very much to fight); Tweets and re-tweets take the place of thoughtful op-eds. I’m grateful that our English department does sustained silent reading.

      I scares me how much I sound like a crotchety old man sometimes.

      1. No, it’s totally valid. I love reading and yet I find that I am far more easily distracted by devices, the pull of the web and the multi-tasking nature of today’s life than I was even a few years ago. I’m really trying to carve out more time to just sit and read actual books on weekends and evenings. It’s all too easy to feel as if we’re missing something by not being connected.

        However, I do feel that grasp loosen once I disconnect for a few days – which Bali will do excellently for 5 weeks this summer! 🙂

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