Reinventing the Newsroom

A Little Plus Sign and the Puzzle of Links (And Other Monday Reads)

Posted in Digital Experiments, Hyperlinks by reinventingthenewsroom on June 14, 2010

Over at Scripting News, Dave Winer shows off an interesting new approach to supplemental text and additional material: He’s added sub-text to his blog posts. Winer is responding to a feature Rich Ziade added to Readability that converts hyperlinks to endnotes, and to the brouhaha over hyperlinks and distraction kicked up by Nicholas Carr, a tempest I waded into myself with a discussion of credibility, readability and connectivity.

So, to Winer’s experiment. As a reader, I dislike having sub-text open beneath the paragraph I’m reading — it gives the text a Russian-doll effect I find disorienting and distracting, and I don’t like the way it makes the visible text feel like something to skim. (Other readers’ mileage will vary, of course; for his part, Winer likes this quite a bit, precisely because it differentiates skimmers from readers.) But I’m intrigued by a potential variation on this idea, one that gets at something Salon’s Laura Miller has tried in an intriguing Carr-inspired experiment of her own. Miller has been presenting hyperlinks as endnotes, and in doing so, she found that to make those links meaningful, she had to include “additional text to explain what the source pages are and why the reader might find them valuable.” This is one of those things that immediately strikes writers as additional work, and may make them particularly unhappy once they realize (at first subconsciously) that it’s additional work that’s worth doing. Such realizations are impossible to unrealize once you’ve had them, leaving you to work out for yourself how long you’ll resist admitting what you already know to be true.

One argument against endnotes is that they remove links from their context, and therefore reduce the connective power of hyperlinks. I’m not sure about that — I tend to open links in new tabs and read them later, which makes a thorough hash of context anyway. But perhaps Winer’s plus sign offers a solution to the dilemma. What if we used his sub-text function to open supplemental material not as sub-paragraphs, but as sidebar text? You could read a piece without the distraction of hyperlinks, but take in at a glance where supplemental material can be accessed. Clicking those plus signs would open up material in the margins — definitions, footnotes, tips of the hat, goofy asides and of course hyperlinks with explanations of what those links are and why they’re potentially valuable. Readability would be enhanced, as Winer’s plus signs are less distracting than hyperlinks. Yet context would be preserved, as material would appear near to where we find hyperlinks in our current model. This, it seems to me, supports the credibility and connectivity of hyperlinks.

I don’t know if that’s the ultimate answer to the dilemma of hyperlinks and distraction. But it strikes me as worth trying.

* * *

Switching gears, my latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center looks at SB Nation’s new regional sports pages, part of a clever and efficient new product strategy for the sports-blog network. What grabbed me was how SB Nation’s effort parallels that of ESPN Local, while differing from it in some fundamental ways: It’s ground-up instead of top-down, and wholeheartedly embraces the fan point of view instead of replicating the objective, reporting-driven model of traditional news organizations.

These are intriguing times for sports bloggers and traditional sportswriters: As blogging matures and traditional news organizations grow increasingly real-time and experimental, we’re heading for a fascinating collision between two forms that are simultaneously competitive and complementary. And the fact that I may be personally caught in this slow-motion collision just adds to my eagerness to discover how it will all turn out. Buckle up!

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