Saturday, January 21, 2012

What if links worked both ways?

While we are discussing linking and hypertext, I wanted to bring up a concept that I first learned about during the Digital Tribes course at MACT. In the book, Critical Cyberculture Studies, Greg Elmer's  article The Vertical (Layered) Net describes the differences between two schools of thought about the future of the web.

On one side, developers believed the web should be open, shared and used for more than passive browsing, and on the other side were developers who felt that it should be controlled and needed to protect proprietorial interests. On page 162, Elmer explains the debate that hyperlinks should be multi-directional. If I link to your site, your site would now link to mine. He points out that this is a logical concept, especially since the term link connotes two ends.

Elmer says that, "If [links] are bidirectional, a link always exists in the reverse direction. A disadvantage of this being enforced is that it might constrain the author of a hypertext - we might want to constrain the reader" (emphasis added by Elmer). Three years after this discussion at Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Consortium, Elmer says that a compromise was made so that the "'collaborative possibilities of hypertext' on the Web are reduced to simple annotative possibilities of hypertext links".

When I read this, I was struck by how drastically this would change the web as we know it. If multi-directional links were in place, people would need to pay more attention to where they link and why. I regularly see links added on the end of a page as afterthought and accompanied by the words, "for more information" or tacked on as a lazy reference.

But imagine if links worked both ways. If I linked to a CNN story on my blog, the link would also allow CNN visitors to see my blog. This could be helpful if I expanded on the story, but it could also waste their time if all I did was post a link without adding new content. This small change to hyperlinks could have changed the way the web was built, how people browsed and the content provided. I can't help but think that it would be a more democratic web if links worked both ways.


  1. By the way, I just realized that I was talking about a debate and discussion that was a hot topic at Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Consortium and the Ted Talk posted this week was by Tim Berners-Lee!

  2. Hi Hillary: Your thoughts on the implications of two-way linking are interesting, and are pushing me to think outside my own experience on this one, which comes from the marketing side of things.

    I have built and maintain a few small websites. As the manager of these websites, I regularly receive "link to my site and I'll link to yours" requests from some pretty random places. Those who send these requests seem to be seeking reciprocal links purely for the sake of improved site ranking in search engine optimization (SEO) terms, as there is generally no clear connection between the two sites concerned. In some cases the requests are coming from "link farms" - those useless, devoid of content, link-heavy sites that you sometimes end up at through a web search. (Site rankings have traditionally been improved by inbound links - though I think that this is less the case now as search algorithms have become more sophisticated.)

    Part of my job in managing web sites is to make sure that content is relevant. I only link to sites that provide content that's valuable to the intended audience, so have never responded to these random reciprocal link requests.

    Looking at this with marketing in mind, automatic reciprocal linking could be a nightmare. Every porn site and weight-loss-miracle-drug site could plant their links on other sites in order to benefit from the resulting inbound links. However, looking at this from the point of collaborative authorship and journalism, automatic reciprocal linking would be, as you point out, more democratic. There are so many implications to this. Would there be a danger of taxonomy breakdown, if everything eventually linked to everything else? Hmmm...