January 20, 2017

The Wharton Web Conference

I’ll be speaking at the Wharton Web Conference on July 15th. I’ll be giving a talk called Links as Language, which you may know from these parts.

Here’s how it looked in 2011.

I’ll be updating it a bit to encompass some new developments.

This is a big deal for me as it is my first truly professional gig as a speaker at a major conference. More than that, it’s a conference I’ve come to know and respect over the years. Former keynoters have included Steve Wozniak and Felicia Day (whom I actually got to meet!). And last year, Anil Dash gave one of my favorite talks of all time.

This year’s keynote comes from danah boyd. I first heard about her after missing her talk at SX and regretting it for the rest of the week as that’s all anyone could talk about. Glad I’ll finally get to hear her speak.

If you live in or near Philly (or just feel like flying out) and have the means, I highly recommend attending. There are a lot of great speakers, including some who are in my time slot (I’m up against Jessica Ivins and NASA, so I won’t complain if you skip).

Hope to see you there!

Links as Language Part Three: How We Read

Previously, on “Links as Language”:

Part One

Part Two

When I first gave this talk, I called it “Blogging and the Advent of 3-D Writing”.  Here I am, giving it:


The reason I called it 3-D writing is because when you use hyperlinks you’re writing through the subject.  You’re adding a z-axis that goes perpendicularly through the page and on to other pages, other topics, other worlds.  And the reader suddenly has this option that they never had before.  And that changes the way they read in three fundamental ways.

1. Expectations

The first change is a change in expectations.  As readers, we are now trained to understand symbols we never saw before.  When I’m reading something and I see a blue, underlined word, I know exactly what that means, which is another way of saying I know exactly what to expect.  If I click on that word, a new page will load.

This expectation, while on the one hand remarkable for its penetration given that no one gave a course or ran a public service campaign explaining “This Is What Blue Underlined Words Are”, is so pedestrian as to really piss people off when it’s upset.  This why those little video icons next to headlines or typing out (PDF) next to a link that’s going to load one are so important.  This is why double-underlined green links are so important (if off-putting).  Setting (and satisfying) expectations.

A side benefit of this expectation is the capacity for elegance.  The two most boring words you can hyperlink are “click here.”  Sometimes it’s necessary, but nine times out of ten you can get your point across by hyperlinking the relevant term.  The thing that the reader is going to intuit as leading to further information.  The most obvious example is the straightforward citation.

David Leonhardt said in his recent article for the New York Times that Anthony Marx was trying to change things.

This is far better than

David Leonhardt said in his recent article for the New York Times that Anthony Marx was trying to change things.  Click here to read that article.

(Not for nothing, but elegant linking is also far better for SEO.)

2. Options

With a change in expectation comes a change in options (or maybe it’s the other way around).  Prior to the hyperlink, you basically had two decisions to make as a reader.  Keep reading or stop.  Now there is a new option.  Explore.  Pause this reading experience and begin a linked experience.  You may then return to the original experience but, if there are more links where you are going, you might not.  Go forward, stop, or explore.  Now, if you never come back, “explore” ends up looking a lot like “stop”, but if you do, you might continue further, then explore again.

As a writer, you now have the power to begin to craft that journey.  You can’t control it the way you would a novel, but you can suggest paths by the links you choose.

While this style of reading is relatively new, it is similar to a book series that’s been around for a while.

3. The Reader as Gamer

So readers now have more decisions to make as they read.  This is similar to a distinction made by Will Wright in his oft-cited (by me, anyway) 2007 SXSW talk about gaming narratives vs. film narratives.  Long lecture short, film narratives are linear—Bob goes from point a to b to c, and maybe learns a little something about himself along the way.  Game narratives explore a game space—Bob goes from a to b to c, dies, then returns to a and goes to z and f, dies, returns to a and goes back to f then to q, etc.  To better understand this analogy, think of the one film Wright said mimicked gaming narratives, Groundhog Day.

In this analogy, print is like film, the web is like games.  When you read something in print, you read from the beginning to the end without interruption.  When you read something online, you read with the opportunity to explore the gamespace that is the entire web, and the author helps craft that journey.  The piece of writing does not exist on its own.  It exists as part of a constellation of objects (websites, text, images, audio, video, status updates) that exist in relation to one another (if anyone bothers to link them).

We are no longer readers.  We are explorers.

Next: A Case Study—Links as Langauge best practices.

Links as Language: Part Two—The Big Payoff

(Here’s part one.)

Links accelerate the concept of payoff in reading.  Setup and payoff are a classic concept in storytelling and entertainment in general.  You put together the elements in a mystery novel so that when the reader reaches the end all the little pieces will tie together nicely in a “if you’d really been paying attention you might have figured this out” kind of way.  Hyperlinks provide a different kind of payoff that’s more of the instant gratification variety, but no less capable of artistic expression.

To return to the example from part one,

Does this really deserve this much coverage? Does this really deserve




The payoff is twofold: One, to find out what it is that doesn’t deserve so much coverage and two, to find out just how much coverage it’s getting.  The payoff itself serves a third purpose, which is to provide evidence of the very premise of the post.  Finally the layout is intended to emphasize the point by spacing out the individual pieces of evidence.

(Incidentally, this is also where we get to start thinking about links as citations that are, in and of themselves, instant access to the things they cite, hence my assertion that links are “footnotes on crack.”)

When writing, you can think of each link you create as a promise.  You can either fulfill that promise, play with the concept of that promise, or deliberately subvert that promise, which is where we get the rickroll.

While payoff is nothing new in reading, the speed with which it can occur is so rapid as to go from a difference in degree to a difference in kind.  I say this because the speed allows for an interplay between the text and what the text links to.  Our involvement in that interplay is what I think represents a new way of reading.

Next: Okay, I know I said this last time, but this time for real: How links are changing the way we read.

Links as Language: Part One

For a long time now I’ve given a talk called “Links as Language: How to Write in Three Dimensions,” which I’m just now getting around to writing down somewhere.  The upshot is to get you to think of links as a writing tool, the same way you would a metaphor or a comma.  It’s kind of a long talk (which often evolves into a really interesting discussion) so I’m going to post it in small chunks over the next few weeks.  Enjoy and discuss.

Look at the following two sentences.

Does this really deserve this much coverage? Does this really deserve




The sentence on the left doesn’t actually make any sense.  It is, in fact, grammatically incorrect (it’s missing a subject).  The sentence on the right has the same grammatical shortcomings but it makes intuitive sense because you know how to make it make sense.  Just click on the links.  The links, even before they’re clicked, confer meaning.  And whenever you have a symbol that confers meaning, you have language.

Let’s take another example.

i guess i should update my status more often. i guess i should update my status more often.

This is from a friend’s blog (here’s the original post).  Here the sentence on the left makes sense, it’s just not very interesting.  Okay, you should update your status more often.  Why?  The sentence on the right seems more complete because the link suggests context.  Again, you don’t need to click on the link (and thus know the context) to have the sentence seem more meaningful; just knowing that you could know the context (and thus that there is one) allows it to stand on its own better than its cousin to the left.

(If you’re curious as to the context, you may, of course, click on the link.)

In our next installment: How links are changing the way we read.