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Ode to the Hyperlink | Sam Debatin | Wed 24 Aug 2022 04:13:17 PM EDT

This is a draft of a longer article that I am previewing on my blog. Stay tuned for updates!

Deleuze on the internet/Death of the Browser/Ode to the Hyperlink lol

Reddit claims to be the front page of the internet. Google is the 'homepage' for many users. Apps like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Tiktok all use the infrastructure of the internet, but in some ways hide their connection with the system. Increasingly, our experience with the internet is mediated by metaphors that obscure its very nature — disordered, rhizomic, and unhierarchical. Our experience of the internet has had a strong order imposed on it. Increasingly, apps maintain their hierarchy by opening links in a sandboxed browser. The very notion of the app strips the internet of its equalizing potential. An app denies the interconnectivity of the internet through its schematic and its interface. Apps can communicate with each other, but only through very specific methods mediated by the phone UI itself -- even simply opening a pdf on an iPhone is a complicated charade of "sharing" to other apps. Gone are hyperlinks that are opened on the same playing field.

Browser based interaction with the internet, on the other hand, allowed at least for some kind of parallelism, through tabs, through hyperlinks and windows and tiling. And yet, no browser has made significant progress in terms of UI in over a decade. We are still using the same tab format, the same parallel structures. And these are beautiful structures, but they are underdeveloped. In terms of connectivity, we've actually moved away from an equalizing structure.

Of course, the infrastructure of the internet is not immaterial, and therefore requires physical and economic resources to continue running. Reliable server space is not cheap, and our tolerance for ads, cookies, and data collection has been collectively ruined by the ever increasing need to pay the technological cost of an ever growing and necessary system. All this precludes a system of organization that would consider instagram to be just as valid of an online space as your uncle's web 2.0 page, or an obscure wikipedia article about the culinary uses of quail eggs. We assert that these items are somehow lesser, less official, less well crafted, less reputable.

User interface has a lot to do with this. Web 2.0 has allowed for more advanced, more 'self-contained' looking web pages. Banners, titles, side bars — all creating the illusion of a heterotopia, a world contained within itself. Hyperlinks rarely redirect outside of their own domain, and on the occasion they do, you are presented with dire warnings, scaring users into thinking that they will become victim of a foreign hacking scheme for leaving the New York Times homepage for an external article from the Atlantic. While security concerns can be legitimate, websites also have an economic motive to keep users on their site, driving up ad revenue and increasing time spent browsing. By billing themselves as a front page, an authority, they can increase user trust.

News sites are especially subject to this — just look at the way Vice, the New York Times, and the Washington Post all have slick, mobile-reminiscent interfaces. Facebook and Reddit, two predominantly browser-based web sites, have also recently converted their interfaces to more 'modern', app-like structures. This comes with a simplification of interface, replacing links with buttons, indexes with sidebars and headers. By changing the metaphors, they are in effect changing our mode of interaction. A button implies an action that is self referential, something that takes an input and plugs this input into itself to return a function. A button is a way of shutting oneself off from the rest of the world, excluding the rest of the internet. A button screams 'interact with ME, and only ME.' The hyperlink, once lauded as a harbinger of freedom in post-modern and post-structuralist thinking, has all but disappeared. This format came with its own problems, most dramatically the ability to mark 'places' that you've already been, but it at least implied a sort of level playing field. Plain text hyperlinks looked pretty much the same everywhere, discounting the occasional image or homepage link. Thus, even the formerly slightly-freer world of the browser has fallen victim to the same appification that our mobile devices have experienced for over a decade now.

We are collectively losing the sense that the internet is an infrastructure meant for everyone. We can all post content on social media, yes, but it is always mediated through a corporate medium. We lose the interconnectedness that the internet once promised, the ability to explore vast depths of collected human knowledge, the potential to stumble across something truly hidden or unexplored, a website created by someone just for fun, just to tell a story in a creative way. Instagram has all but banned links to outside content — 'link in bio' is the only way of connecting users to the outside world. Apps like to pretend that they are the only thing, that they are independent of the influence of others, but this is simply not true. I'm not arguing that things were better before, but instead that we have taken a rather unfortunate turn in the road.

The effect is essentializing. The chromebook takes for granted the internet, incorporates it into its very being, strips it of meaning, and takes for granted an interconnectedness that may or may not be ultimately helpful. At the very least, the chromebook hides a larger infrastructure — one that, by all measures, takes up quite a lot of real estate. It denies the physical reality of the internet. The 'cloud' claims to make storage easy and reliable, but never once tells you where this data is physically located. It may be mirrored across hundreds of servers across the world, it may lie in a server in iceland, or perhaps it exists in more places that you really intended it to. Obviously, the cloud assumes that you understand that it is an internet based thing, but its structures say otherwise. It integrates, it becomes one with your desktop. It's just like any other folder, except actually the action of dragging a file to the cloud from your desktop activates an information superhighway of distribution that can encompass the whole globe.