Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lean Back Reading

Dave Winer wrote an interesting blog post a couple of days ago on the app vs the web debate, entitled “Why apps are not the future.” The post was written as a rebuttal to various declarations that the web is dead and apps are the future. Dave’s thesis was that the web will triumph in the end because apps don’t have hyper-linking.

This got me to thinking about my own consumption of written content. I am a voracious consumer of the medium formerly known as “print.” I read the print versions of The Economist, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, and Time Magazine every week; I read the print version of Foreign Affairs monthly. I read the Android app versions of the New York Times and PaidContent daily, and I skim through Twitter,, Facebook, etc, which generally refer me to TechCrunch, various startup and digital media bloggers (such as Dave), and the web sites of various news organizations. Between my primary interests of digital media and international relations, I seldom run out of material.

I’ve been noticing recently that I prefer my written content sans links. The lack of links inside of apps is a feature, not a bug. I think content creators understand this, and so did Steve Jobs. Paul Graham certainly gets it; you'll never see a link in any of his essays except to the footnotes at the bottom. For lack of a better term I’ve taken to calling the experience of old-fashion, non-hyper-linked written content lean-back reading

Like everyone else I was seduced by the idea of hyper-linking to adjacent or background content when the web first started, and I confess to continuing that infatuation until recently. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of digital content without links until I started reading the NY Times on their app instead of their web site. However I’m coming to the conclusion that in-content links are a never-ending rabbit hole of distraction that actually prevent me from mentally engaging with the writing and seriously considering the thesis or opinion being expressed, rather than just linking through. Links also keep me from enjoying the quality of a journalist’s or author’s writing, which for publications like the New York Times is often very high, especially for features. Note that I am talking about aesthetics, not technology. I’m perfectly content to have the same lean-back reading experience on my smart phone as in print.

Links were great for the web when it was all early adopters who were really excited to link to each other, like Twitter @ reply shoutouts, but they were adopted wholesale into richer writing by bloggers, journalistic feature pieces, and other content they were never intended for. Blogs and online news have become so link saturated that as a writer the pressure I feel to link to the sources my ideas has reached the point where it has become a distraction and interference with my writing.

In the obsession with the provenance of ideas rather than their content, we are missing the point. Once upon a time links made sense as a way to show where other relevant information lives. However now that we have Google, there is no need to link to everything that explains each term in our writing. See something you don’t understand? Look it up. Want to read the post that inspired this piece? I’ve included enough information for you to find it pretty easy on Google. Too lazy to look it up? It probably wasn’t that important anyways. 

You get the idea.

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