Sunday, January 11, 2009

What Do You Do With A Fan Of Links?

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
A fan of post links
Have you ever thought of how you go about reading links in a blog-post or a web-page? A recent posting on Sue Waters' enviably informative site impresses me by advising bloggers to cite relevant information using links (hyperlinks), as long as it doesn’t mean going hyper with a fan of links. I go along with her reasoning. I also find comfort that she (a scientist after all!) is as fond of a fan of links in a post as I am.

Links in a post can be extremely useful. They can put you in touch with people you didn't know existed. They can also keep you up to date with things perhaps you should know about.

Most recently, there seems to have been an increase in the attention given to the ‘cognitive overload’ that accompanies sifting through burgeoning masses of information online – the dizzy headaches the hazy eyes – the lack of concentration the spinning head.

These symptoms are exactly what I experience when I visit a fan of links, one after the other, while also trying to follow the highbrow train of thought of the blogger who posted them.
Following up a fan of links baffles me! Link becomes a four-letter word.

Decision making can be exhausting:

Making decisions can tire the brain, apparently. But making decisions is exactly what you have to do while sweeping through a bevy of links, skimming through the accompanying articles as you go. When I do this, my brain constantly
has to come up with yes/no answers to a fan of questions:
  • Is this information going to be any use to me?
  • Should I know this?
  • Is it going to be any use to someone else?
  • Could this be useful for my students, say?
  • Should they know this?
  • Is what I’m reading important enough to come back to?
  • What’s it got to do with what the writer’s saying anyway?
I get up to about link 5, and recognising that I’m on the verge of blowing a gasket, I break - for a coffee. It's probably the best thing I could do.

One method I’ve used is to ignore the links altogether, at least in the first read. I bash on with what’s in the post or article to try and make some sense of it. This sometimes works.

But if there’s essential information cited through links, especially early in the text, and I know nothing about that stuff, I’m sunk. My brain runs out of steam when following the rest of what's there to read. My understanding wobbles. I effectively go nowhere when I try to continue reading.

I’ve then got to stop, retrace, and do some homework on the content in the links. This procedure is irksome, frustrating in the extreme, probably because by that time, I’ve got the old cognitive overload syndrome. Again. My head starts spinning.

There have been several postings recently on writing for skimming, notably Tony Karrer's, and there is certainly room for improvement in the way material is presented to reader/learners. But the need for the reader/learner to improve skills and strategies for coping with floods of new information is also becoming a major priority in the workplace.

But what's the best way of tackling a fan of links? If you have any thoughts on this, strategies or practices that you could share, please let me know. My head hurts.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


Sue Waters said...

My approach with all my sites has always been links are good provided they add value for the reader. Its a fine balance of information versus the number of links.

Saying that it is also important to use them to thanks readers if they have made good points - so if someone says in a comment something which then gets included in a blog post I like to hyperlink their name to their site to say thanks.

Tony Karrer said...

Ken - fantastic post and great question. I'm not sure I quite have an answer for you.

I just posted on Better Memory which relates in terms of some of the methods I use to be able to get back to things later.

Certainly, a post that is rich in links is great bait for someone to save to come back later. But you are right that it poses a problem of deciding what to do about all those juicy links.

I'm going to have to think about this more.

V Yonkers said...

Okay, so maybe it's the way that you read that creates the cognitive overload. If you are the type of person that can't ignore a link (if there's a link you must click), then I can see how too many could produce cognitive overload. However, the nice thing about links is that you can pick and choose them.

On the other hand, if you need to go to all of the links in order to understand what the person has written (you don't have much background in it), then you have the opportunity to reread the blog.

This reminds me of my students that don't like to cite information (or use too many sources) for a paper, especially if it is a topic they are unfamiliar with. Is this cognitive overload (as Susan mentions, information that does not add value to the average--I would add--informed reader) or is this just deep learning (for those who have a limited background)

It reminds me of the debate that happens in education when teachers used unstructured problems. Just giving the problems to the students won't help them to learn and may frustrate them in trying to solve the problem. As a result, many teachers will only use structured problems where there is a well designed answer. The problem is that that assumes that all problems have well designed answers.

By limiting the links, you might be making your blog inaccessible to those that don't have the background you are writing about. I think when developing the links, it is important to know your audience. Some people will always be distracted by links and not like a lot as a result. Others will want more links to topics they don't understand. Knowing who your readers are will help you with the balancing act Sue commented on.

Janet Clarey said...

I think V makes a good point about students that use too many sources for a paper.I get turned off by blogs that have excessive links - especially to their own stuff. If a writer is referencing a ton of sources I'd prefer to read their commentary about what others have written and then a listing of useful links or additional reading at the end of a post(even to content within their own blog). I have a problem with those that link heavily to their own content within a post. It's like reading a paper with endless references throughout. Snooze.

Tim said...

I'm a Firefox user, but you can also follow this approach in IE7.

Whilereading an article, I right click on any links I want to follow and select "Open in new tab". My browser is set up so I stay on the same page - it doesn't automatically switch across to the new tab.

When I have finished reading the article I work through the tabs and check out all the linked stuff. Sometimes (or often) I take one look at the linked material and decide it's not for me -so I close the tab and go to the next one.

This is a nice orderly way of working through the linked information, while allowing me to read through the original article without losing my flow.

I also use this approach in Google reader, to work through all of the new items. I open items in new tabs ... but only the ones I might be interested in. The whole list evetually ends up being marked as "read" as I scan through it.

If I open a linked item and discover it's too long to read right now, I use InstaPaper to add it to my running reading list. I can then go back and read it properly during a quiet moment when I'm looking for something to read.

Whew!! :)

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koutou katoa!

Sue - I like the idea of adding value, as opposed to just a link for the sake of putting one in. And thanking readers for their contribution the way you describe is excellent use of the link.

Tony - I enjoyed your post Better Memory and as far as I remember :-) I left a comment there. I rather like Tim's suggestion for it's one I use a lot. It facilitates coming back later as you suggest.

Haere mai Tim! - it's good to have you visit Middle-earth. You're dead right about that technique with the tabs. It is good. I've used it for some time now. What's more, the latest versions of Firefox allows saving the session so it means the articles don't have to be read all in the one sitting, as it were.

A good tip with the use of InstaPaper too. A reading list. Hmmm. I have one of those. It's - em - rather long :-) .

Virginia - I like to skim through without looking at the links, like you say. Of course, if I run out of sense if the links are an important need, I just troll through the linked articles. It loses a bit of impact that way though - difficult to skim through the original post :-(

The problem with blogging is that we don't (always) know who our readers are. As you say, a lead on this is helpful. And making blogs accessible is what most of us, I'm sure, would want to do.

Janet - I agree about the bit on putting links at the end of a post, like a bibliography it is a bibliography. I'm afraid I'm guilty of linking to my own blog, now anyway, for so much of what I've splurged before is relevant to what I'm thinking and saying now, but I try to limit the links.

I guess it's a mind-set of the reader, to read on and ignore the thin line under the word that's inclined to jolt others into diving into the link and going down another pathway for a while. My brain doesn't work that way. Sometimes my brain gets to the stage when it just doesn't work :-) which is why I wrote this post in the first place.

Catchya later

Cammy Bean said...

I'm do the new tab thing for links that I think might be of interest. (And thanks to Tony for the Ctrl+Click tip -- I hadn't been using that but I can see it will change my life). Some links I go read right away, others linger in my browser for days (even weeks?) I see some Tabs open right now that I haven't visited in quite some time.

I try to clean house every once in awhile. If I still haven't read an article after X amount of time, it can't really be of that much interest to me, can it?

As to linking within my own posts -- I tend to do it in the text itself rather than as a bibliography. I see the value in both. And linking to my own stuff -- well sometimes it's been said before. I think there's value in pointing people deeper into your own blog, especially if you've been at this for awhile.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Cammy!
Yes, linking to one's own post(s) isn't always navel gazing. It's sometimes necessary to let other people know where you're coming from - often a previous post or two. Funny that ;-)

Keyboard shortcuts are great. One that Tony has listed that's also VERY useful is Ctrl Shift T which conveniently brings up the last tab you closed. Repeating the shortcut can bring back a fan of previously closed tabs - jolly useful, what! Here's a link to Tony's list of shortcuts if you haven't already found it.

Hey! It's great to have you drop by!

Catchya later