One of the greatest joys of using the internet is the “journey down the rabbit hole” - the serendipitous learning that occurs as you follow one link after another.
It’s unexpected, surprising, frustrating and exciting.
If you’re old enough, you may remember having to cross-reference citations against footnotes, and using a complicated sorting system to physically locate source material. It sucked.
One of the biggest blessings of the internet, however, is also one of it’s biggest pain points.
A fragmented reading experience
Inline citations have a nasty habit of fragmenting a reading experience.
Links break the linearity of a given text, creating recognizably actionable opportunities for the reader to “move beyond” the text, onward to whatever it references. If a reader interprets the link as being an urgent call to action, then the reader is going to click the link, follow it, experience a context shift (i.e., navigating from one page/site to an entirely different page/site), and then have to decide whether to consume that new content (i.e., read that page) or navigate back or dive further down the rabbit hole.
(Rob actually concludes that this isn’t necessarily the case on the web, and his post is worth reading in full.)
There have been a few studies (the links to which I unfortunately do not have) that have shown that retention of information is worse with inline links and citations than with uninterrupted blocks of text.
An argument for inline links
I tend to journey down the rabbit hole in one of two ways.
Sometimes, I read an article in full, opening links in new tabs so I can read them later. Other times, I’ll read them on the spot to provide me with additional background information before proceeding.
The traditional footnote approach works great for the first use case, but for the second, inline citation is far more useful.
I’m not sure it’s my job, as an author to decide which use case is more appropriate for my readers. The needs of any given reader will vary based on past experience and exposure to concepts, learning need, and so on.
What to do?
A hybrid approach
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a website (that I again lost the link to) that took a hybrid approach. Rather than using just footnotes or inline links, it used both. For every link.
It was surprisingly awesome.
In the body of the text, references were linked as normal. At the end of each post was a list of referenced stuff, all in one spot, for additional or later reading. Perhaps not the most elegant solution, but certainly the most simple.
I’ll be experimenting with that approach here, but I’m curious to hear what you think.
- "Journey down the rabbit hole" is a reference to Alice in Wonderland: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice's_Adventures_in_Wonderland
- On footnotes, links and cognition: http://blog.founddrama.net/2011/01/on-footnotes-links-and-cognition/