If you liked it then you shoulda put a link on it

Today I've been reading and marking student blog posts and git commits for a recent lab. One of the comments I've made over and over again is to ask students to include links to everything they discuss. I've had to say it so many times now that I wanted to expand on the idea.  Why does it matter?

Writing for the web is different than other writing; or, it has the potential to be different. Most writing, and therefore most reading, is confined to the current text.  You're reading a book, an article, an essay, a recipe, and your entire experience is going to remain in that single document.  You might get interested and scan down to look at a footnote. Or you could get curious enough to skip to the index in order to look up something related.  But pay attention to the fact that you're always going to be firmly rooted in this set of words and pages.  Any external context that gets brought up will necessarily be "left as an exercise for the reader," which usually means it will get lost.

Now read something on the web.  Read this post for example! What does it do that other writing can't?  If it's writing for the web, it should connect the current text out to the larger web.  Writing on the web is linked.  Unlike other texts, the primary context for the web is the web itself–all of it–and having the ability to link to documents, apps, and data outside of the current text is a fundamental privilege made possible by the architecture of the web.

On the web, we aren't only limited to talking about something.  We can, with a single level of indirection, connect the current text (and reader) to a larger network of knowledge.  Where I was previously limited to talking about something, with the web I can literally offer to take the reader to the source.

One of the reasons I think that students don't provide links is that they misunderstand the various ways their text will be read.  "This is something I'm doing for my professor, and he knows about the lab already."  Sure, that's part of it.  In this case, there is a shared understanding of the context behind the post.  But it doesn't take long for someone else to stumble onto this post, someone who lacks that same context, and an opportunity is lost.  Our Telescope blog system has 15 years worth of posts by close to 1,000 authors (did you know that you can search through them?). What if I want to go and find the developer?  What if I want to participate in the code being discussed?  What if I want to do some kind of analysis on the data being described?  Without a link, I'm out of luck.

It's easy to become blasé about the web and its innumerable links: we've had this since the 90s.  But don't be fooled.  There's little else as important on the web as the ability to link.  Pay attention to all the places you can't do it (apps, video games, streaming media for example).  You should use it while you can.  Who knows how long we'll continue to have this ability.

Linking is the magic at the heart of all good writing on the web.

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