David Weinberger
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Links Then and Now

July 7, 2021

The World Wide Web is such old news that referring to it by its full moniker now feels old-fashioned. It’s just “the Web,” or, as the style guides now mistakenly insist, “the web.” But the old Web is still very much with us. Its meaning, however, has evolved as the meaning of links has changed.

Way back at the beginning of the Web, when hyperlinks became a routine tool, there was a sense among at least some of the early users that linking was a social obligation, for it made the Web into a web worth inhabiting. Each was a thread that together made a fabric.

Now I think we’ve lost that sense. The fabric is in place. With so many billions of linked pages, we don’t need to link ours in order to turn it into an irreplaceable worldwide resource. So, we link for other reasons: to explain an idea, to provide evidence for a claim, to signal that we have done our homework, to draw attention to a page or an author whom we want to support, or just to Rickroll someone.

Oh, and sometimes we link to make money: to flog a product. Ads obviously make up a very high percentage of the links on the Web. But it seems to me that we generally don’t take them as constitutive of the Web, any more than you’d point to an ad as an example of what a magazine is like.

Broken links

Our assumption of the permanence of links has also changed. Broken links used to be like potholes. Now there are entire neighborhoods that are gone. If you click on a link from more than 10 years ago, you probably expect that it may not work. As for links from 1995, good luck. (Thank you for the second chance, Internet Archive!)

So, I think it’s fair to say that while we expect the Web itself to continue for the foreseeable future, over the past 25 years we’ve come to expect any links to any particular item on the Web to break after 10, 15, or 20 years. Of course, this varies depending on where the links point to: Links to old blog posts are likely to end with an error message, but links to the National Archive or The New York Times are likely to still work. But, overall, while links rot, the Web itself endures.

Link usage

We’ve come to use links in one way that disappoints me, other than the way people link to sites that are hateful and awful: Too often writers use links to avoid explaining something the reader needs to know to grasp the post’s point. This is frequently the case on Wikipedia. For example, if you’re a high school student—or a 69-year-old KMWorld columnist—who wants to know what a boson is, the Wikipedia article’s first sentence says “In quantum mechanics, a boson is a particle that follows Bose-Einstein statistics.” Now, if you know what Bose-Einstein statistics are, you probably already know what a boson is. But, the article “explains” Bose-Einstein statistics by linking to the Wikipedia article on it. Will it shock you to learn that the linked article’s first sentence explains its topic by linking to articles on “thermodynamic equilibrium”? This abuse of links means that it’s just about literally the case that Wikipedia cannot tell you what a boson is.

Cultural creation

Still, links are a magnificent cultural creation. This makes their relative absence in mobile apps distressing. It has situated the Web differently. The Web used to seem co-extensive with the internet, even though it was just a layer that runs on top of the internet. After all, the internet only became important to general culture and business after the Web made the internet usable without typing.

But apps run on the internet, not the Web. They generally are closed, self-contained bubbles in which links don’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it comes at a diminishment of the culture of the Web, which was to a large degree founded on the culture of open links. The Web enabled anyone with an internet connection and just a modicum of tech knowledge to create links. Because you don’t need an author’s permission to link to their page, the Web trained us on the power of permission-free publishing. After all, that’s what built the Web itself.

That culture absolutely has not vanished from the internet. Indeed, as open source and open access continue to grow, as people have rushed together to build sites to help us through the coronavirus pandemic, as more and more material continues to be posted to the Web for us to discover through a click on a link, those values have become more firmly entrenched. Those values obviously are no longer the whole of the internet. But their presence endures every day and continues to present a vigorous alternative to the closed and often self-interested old world the Web has not entirely subverted.