Links as Language

Recently I attended a talk put on by the Philadelphia Area New Media Association, entitled <Links as Language: how Hyperlinks are Changing the Way we Read and Write.> I found it very interesting, and it started me thinking about the unique way a blind person perceives the internet.

The event took place at the Wharton School of Business, the oldest and according to many the finest business school in the country. I emailed ahead of time and the organizer of the event said they could accommodate me. I got a cab there and listened to the cabby bitch about his Nutribullet juicer, which gave him a headache. I used echolocation to find my way inside and to the desk, where they got someone to escort me to the room.

I arrived early for a change, and greeted a few people. Pizza and coke arrived, and I accepted some, though beer or water would have suited me better. I set up my MacBook Air and prepared to enjoy.

David Dylan Thomas began by showing a sentence. I asked him to read it aloud since I can’t see it. He did, and continued this practice throughout. This got me thinking about accessibility right off the bat.

A lot of the presentation revolved around the concept of artful linking. Links act like metaphors, and you can use them as an effective writing tool. Linking to something in a clever way delivers a reward. It also makes more sense from an accessibility perspective.

He said that a hyperlink has words underlined in blue. Honestly, up to this point I never knew this. I don’t see the web, I hear it with a screen reader. To me, a link just has the word “Link” or “Visited Link” prepended to the name. For example: I don’t see the web, I hear it with a, link, screen reader.

I have noticed this construct become embedded into my internal dialog. My subconscious uses it as a way to indicate a link to another thought. External technology imitates internal technology. The internet acts like an external form of telepathy. It serves as a perfect metaphor for the collective consciousness.

These thoughts blended perfectly with the talk. Soon he asked a great question: “Who can tell me the two most useless words in a hypertext link?” Of course I knew the answer. “Click here!” A bunch of people seemed to agree.

Once again it brought home the notion that accessibility really affects everyone. To me, click here makes no sense. Until recently a blind person could not click anything. Now someone can on an iPhone/iPad, or if using a magic trackpad on a Mac, but for the most part blind people do all their navigation using the keyboard. Thus it means nothing.

He then asked how many people had someone teach them how to use a hyperlink. A few tentative people said yes. Then he asked how many people just instinctively knew how to use a hyperlink. Of course most did. Then he said my favorite sentence of the presentation: “Click here is postmodern. It’s like a stop sign that says ‘This is a Stop Sign.’” People already know how to use a hyperlink. You don’t need to insult their intelligence.

This got me thinking back to my first web browsing experiences. I think it happened on an online service called Delphi. Back in the good old days of 1994 we just had text terminals, none of this fancy graphical nonsense. We had to scroll through a page at a time. The text contained bracketed numbers [23]like this. At the page prompt you could type in the number to follow that link. And we loved it.

We also loved playing games. These online services had the first multiplayer online games. I particularly remembered one on GENIE called Federation II. I spent lots of money “studying for school” when that game came out. But when you think about it, we played the first multiplayer online games, and it just seemed so cool.

I’ve also always enjoyed interactive fiction. These text adventure games print a description of a room, and accept text input from the keyboard. They began in the seventies, peaked in the eighties, went underground, and now have begun to resurface partly thanks to portable devices such as the iPhone and iPad. They combine a story with source code in amazing ways. My interest resulted in an interview in the excellent documentary Get Lamp. I recommend it if you’d like to know more about interactive fiction.

With that thought, we can now explore the idea of the web as a text-base gamespace. If you picture a page as a two-dimensional space, you can consider hyperlinks as the third dimension, or Z axis. The links connect the levels. Just as text adventures foreshadowed video games, the web foreshadows a virtual reality. The links act like connections in the brain. The web behaves a lot more like an artificial intelligence than many of our contrived attempts. We’ve already done amazing things with augmented reality, overlaying the web on the real world. One day we may do the inverse, modeling the real world and its objects on the web.

He took a quick aside which I felt good about, so I will detour at this point as well. More often than not, restaurants just link to a PDF copy of their menu. I have called PDF the Pain-in-the-Ass Document Format since it came out in the late nineties. The worst experience happens when the PDF just contains an image scan of the menu, as opposed to the actual text. This makes it impossible for a blind person to read. David made the point that restaurants should stop thinking of it as just a simple posterboard, and more of an opportunity to give a whole interactive experience. I agree!

Technology has changed so much. When I started going online, bulletin board systems acted like village pubs. Online services came along and felt like little cities with shopping malls. The internet connects things in an even greater way. To me, putting something on the web sometimes feels like installing an art exhibit in a public toilet. David chose a more elegant metaphor, like a star in the Milky Way. Both work.

The tools to author hypertext have also evolved. For a long time, inserting a hyperlink meant putting in raw html code, <a href=“”>like this</a>. I didn’t particularly mind, though it made the text far less readable. Emacs came out with a way to do it which worked well but still felt clunky. Now on my Mac I just select text with Shift-Command-left/right arrow or with VO-Enter. I then hit Command-K and insert a link. This works in many standard applications such as TextEdit and Mail, and it also works in MacJournal. This increased ease means increased use of hyperlinks. The ease of reading also increases artful link text.

We do have some problems we need to overcome. Right now, we have so many file formats. This already creates problems, and this will increase as time goes on and more data becomes irretrievable. We also need to solve the problem of persistence. If a page changes its address then links which pointed to it will become invalid. Use of URL shortening services has made this worse.

David closed with a good point. In 1999 links just took you from one place to another. Now things have become less linear. Instead of thinking of the web as just a place to put our stuff, we should think of it as a place to connect our stuff. This really wrapped the whole thing up well for me.

I have only addressed the major points and how they relate to my own interests. I recommend going to this talk yourself if you have the chance. No doubt you will come away with something valuable. I feel glad I went.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I can go to next month’s PANMA talk, which discusses Flash. You can easily guess my opinion of that. Fortunately, an event called BarCamp Philly will happen this weekend, and by all accounts I have to go. I hope if you go that you will introduce yourself to me. Their ticket system has already given me problems, which BarCamp’s staff has done their best to resolve, so already I see the beginnings of a good article. See you at the pre-party, hopefully.