The Rule of Links
Posted by firstname.lastname@example.org, 9/30/03 at 6:19:47 AM.
One of a series of agenda-setting essays in anticipation of BloggerCon 2003.
One of the fundamental ideas of the Web is the link. For example, in the previous sentence I linked to the page on the W3C web site that explains what a link is. I did it because I wanted to make it easier for you, a reader, to find out more about links. If you already know what a link is, fine. If you don't care to know more about links, that's fine too. But if you want to dive in deeper, I've made it easier. I've also influenced you, because I chose that page to link to, one of several pages that explains links. This is the one I thought you should read.
Linking is quite awkward in printed writing. You could add a footnote, but the reader has to scan for the reference at the bottom of the page (or on a separate page in the back of the book), and that distraction often makes it hard to find your place again. In the Web, after having visited a link, you can just hit the Back button to regain your context. (An aside, that's why links that open in new windows are non-web-like.)
The Rule of Links is that you link when it's appropriate to do so. Linking is an art. It's a choice. You don't link from every word or even every noun, or from the subject of every sentence. But when a reader reasonably would want to know more about the subject, the Rule of Links says you should link to it.
The link is the literary counterpart of the programming concept called a pointer. If you write for the Web and understand links, you will find it relatively easy to advance through what often is a very difficult concept for students to master. A pointer is the address of something. You pass a pointer to a procedure if the procedure is permitted to modify it, or if the thing is too big to efficiently copy.
Jon Udell wrote about the Rule of Links the other day, though not by name. He noted that professional publications usually don't link to the subject of their articles, where weblogs usually do. He noted this in relation to the furor over a security whitepaper that got one of the authors fired. The professional articles didn't point to the whitepaper, thereby clearly breaking the Rule of Links. If you're writing about something that's on the web, at any length, the Rule of Links turns from should to must. It's disrespectful to your readers not to link to the subject of your article so they can form their own opinions.
The New York Times, always controversial, says it's their policy is not to link, that their pub is self-contained and complete.
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