Micro-Fretting about Hyperlinks

I’ve been thinking a lot about hyperlinks lately – very 90s of me, I know. It started with the blogging, actually – as I’ve written these posts, I’ve realized how much I like hyperlinks as composing resources. I can cite without an unsightly in-text spelling out of the piece in question. I can include pictures that enhance the writing in some small way (usually visual jokes, but sometimes more substantial) that don’t warrant in-page inclusion or would be too disruptive if displayed within the post itself. I can make it easy to find more info on things I’m discussing directly, or even that I mention tangentially but which might be of interest to specific readers.

That’s one of the biggest – or at least the most obvious – draws: it makes things easier. Easier for me – throwing in a hyperlink is almost effortless in the WordPress visual editor (though it would be even easier if it didn’t automatically copy text as it’s highlighted, meaning you must copy the link after highlighting the relevant text). And easy for readers – the post is unbroken, and additional materials are a simple command-click away. It feels elegant, both formally and rhetorically. It opens choices for me as I write that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

It’s the choices piece of that I’ve been thinking about lately. Chiefly: when linking to outside material, how do I decide which words should become hypertext? This is a small decision, but one I find myself consciously considering all the time without any real sense of what ought to be guiding an effective choice. I want the power hyperlinks bring – but what’s the best way to present them within my writing?

John Slatin put his finger on this payoff/problem combo nearly 25 years ago – hypertext is great for pulling in lots of stuff you couldn’t include otherwise, but it’s a very imprecise tool for conveying the relationship between the linked material and the ideas of the text. Now, he’s talking more about how hypertext works in the complex, multi-path works that enraptured early digital media scholars than my very direct and relatively linear blog links. It’s pretty obvious what the linked picture in my post refers to regardless of what the exact link text is. But the exact text matters. At least I can’t overcome the feeling that it does.

Here’s an example, from my recent screencasting post, of what I’m talking about: in the second paragraph, I wanted to link a picture of a typical script for my screencast responses. The sentence where I wanted to include the link reads, “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.” What’s the most rhetorically effective and/or elegant hypertext version of that sentence?

  1. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”
  2. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”
  3. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”
  4. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”

The third option feels obviously weak to me because the link is so small – harder to click, less noticeable. Repeatedly one-word linking feels almost “twee” to me; it also provides the reader with less information about what exactly is being linked, making it more effort to process the place of the hypertext relative to the surrounding context (though in this case that’s not so much a problem). The fourth option is the most complete description of the linked material – a script composed by me using the Sticky Notes program. But it’s so long – its length suggests an importance for the linked picture that’s out of proportion with my intentions.

In Goldilocks terms, #2’s visual length feels “just right” in proportion to how important the image is to my rhetorical goals for the sentence. But I chose #1 instead – and this is where my ability to articulate the rhetorical choices at work breaks down most. Why did I include “I compose?”

Slatin says that rhetorical hypertext guides the reader towards “the pattern which connects” – the organizing idea or value of the text as a while. Perhaps this is why “I compose a little script” felt like the best rhetorical choice – it emphasizes that both the linked picture and the text as a whole are making a point about the act of screencasting. Now, I make a lot of other points in the post about it too – it’s not my tightest piece of writing. But looking back at the notes I used to put the post together, taken during the week or so I when I was working most actively with the method, it’s clear that what I was most intrigued by was the effect the act of constructing a screencast had on my practices as a tutor. Is this the “pattern which connects” everything in the final post? Not really, no. But it was, semi-consciously, the foremost idea in my mind at the time of writing.

So maybe that’s a starting point for me in making these decisions: choose the text that best contributes to your most important idea, or an idea that you’re trying to push forward with both your main text and your link. I was excited about the tutor’s role and practices in this process when I made this link; including “I compose” added emphasis to that idea without also adding undue bulk. And so it felt like the best – the “right” – option.

And as it’s virtually certain someone(s)’ written insightfully about HT much more recently than Slatin, someday when the thick of the market is behind me I can flesh out my decision-making with those as well. And then I will be a linking powerhouse, an unstoppable rhetorically integrated digital force.

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