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Ode to the Hyperlink | Sam Debatin | Sun 23 Oct 2022 11:27:02 PM EDT

I’ve had a hard time using the internet recently. Not in a my-aging-relatives kind of way, but just literally engaging with it at all. In a not-so-hot take, I have chalked this up to some kind of online-related attention deficit disorder. More specifically, it’s what I think we can all understand as a changing metaphorical language of the internet.

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 from an email on an iPhone is a bizarre charade of "sharing" to other apps.

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.

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 obliterated by the ever increasing need to pay the technological cost of a growing and necessary system. All this precludes a system of organization that would consider Instagram to be 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 each of these items exist in their own space, disconnected from the other, and at times 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 create the illusion of 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 hacking scheme when leaving the New York Times homepage for an external article from the Atlantic. While security concerns can be and often are 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 and increase user engagement.

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 exquisite metaphor for the elasticity and interconnectedness of the internet, 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 app-ification 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 their own one and only, that they are independent of the influence of others. Style guides for apps exist for a reason, and there is certainly an argument for usability and accessibility in computing, but this comes with a price.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to understand their computer from the ground up, or that in order to use the internet at all would require a great deal of programming knowledge (although more on the idea of skill in a later post). In fact, there might even be argument that technology like computers is so alienating from their material grounding that they can never be used responsibly (but that’s another article). But short of this, I believe there is a way that we could be designing interfaces that would encourage at least some questioning of the processes at play. An interface that is too slick, too all consuming doesn’t allow for such questions. Screens are already known to be psychologically manipulative, but perhaps if our digital landscape weren’t so homogenous, we might have a better chance at reclaiming our dopamine receptors from the borg.