The typical argument made against the use of links in online journalism is that they impede our concentration, distracting our focus away from the article we are reading in order to bombard us with excess information that simply confuses the reader. But is this really the case or is it another example of traditionalist scaremongering?

Bust of the Greek  Philosopher Socrates in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Bust of the Greek Philosopher Socrates in the Louvre Museum, Paris.
Image: Eric Gaba/latino.sh

Throughout history, every new form of technology has been greeted with scepticism. Ancient Greeks such as Socrates spoke out against the evils of writing for fear it might create “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories”. Similarly a Swiss scientist called Conrad Gessener felt that the modern world overwhelmed people with excess data, yet Gessener never once used a computer – His worry was the printing press.

The argument which we hear today decrying the use of links is simply an extension of this Socratic warning. New technology will always strike fear into the hearts of those who are reliant on its predecessor. Despite this inherent fear, there are many benefits to be gained from using links in online journalism.

Links keep us honest:

When we link to our source, we show our work. Links provide a record of the writer’s research and sources, much as a bibliography does in a written text. Rather than distrusting an article which appears to be “link heavy” we should welcome these as they are examples of well researched articles based on fact and/or the opinion of others. It is the unlinked article that should be treated sceptically. Web usability expert Jakob Neilsen put it quite aptly when he stated that: “third-party sites are much more credible than anything you can say yourself. Isolated sites feel like they have something to hide”

Link provide context:

Rather than whisk the reader around the web at break neck speed, links allow writers to give their articles context. This can be done through simply linking to a wiki-based article that clarifies a technical term without taking up extra space within the article itself. Such context is known as explicit context – context which provides extra information essential to understand what you are reading.

As well as providing explicit context, the use of links may also provide implicit context to an article. Implicit context is explained as the type of context which provides an insight into the beliefs and viewpoint of the writer through the type of websites they link to. A relevant and rather straightforward example of this is the conclusion that may be drawn from a writer linking to an article on the Youth Defence website in an abortion article. This immediately allows the reader to get a greater understanding of the author’s opinions and outlook. Implicit links provide both an aspect of closeness between reader and writer and also naturally build context.

Links are a social construct:

As well as being very well used within journalistic articles in order to show research and create context, links also serve as a social element of online journalism. This can be seen in light of the promotional power of links and also the more friendly, “tip of the hat” aspect that is often missing from modern society.

Looking at social media, particularly Twitter, it is often awash with links – to articles, photographs, videos and so on. A link which is retweeted frequently will garner traffic to an article that would simply be unheard of without the use of linking. Viral videos on Youtube provide perhaps the most obvious example of this – at the time of presenting on this topic videos showing an English footballer speaking with a French accent at a press conference and a health and safety video from an Australian Railway Company were both beginning to go viral, thanks, primarily, to the use of links on social media sites.

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Links allow journalists to connect online

As well as being an excellent way of increasing traffic to an article or site, links may also allow journalists to recognise each other’s work. By linking to an article written by a peer, a journalist may recognise the work that those who have gone before them have done. In this situation everyone wins – the journalist shows they have read and researched the topic, the journalist who is linked to will gain extra recognition for their work and everyone leaves with a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

The idea of using the internet for journalism without taking advantage of the possibility to link is to overlook the very thing that makes the web a web. We are all contributing to one vast web of information. We do not distance ourselves by linking, rather we bring ourselves closer together.

Scott Rosenberg wrote a column entitled Fear of Links about the burgeoning movement of web bloggers, urging professional writers to stop looking down their noses at links and those who make them. In this column he stated that “a journalist who today disdains the very notion of providing links to readers may tomorrow find himself without a job.”

That was 1999. Today, we live in that piece’s “tomorrow.”

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