Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Semi-Disconnected Life: An Experiment

I just got back from a week in Maine, vacationing with family on an island there.  We had a great time, but it was remote enough that we had no cell phone service, let alone access to wi-fi. The local library had wi-fi available when it was open, but I never managed to make it there.   So there I was, a nominal tech-guru, the type who checks her email at least twenty times a day, unwired and disconnected for a week.

I must say, it was a bit liberating.  I read three whole books. Long ones. More importantly, one rainy day, I actually sat and read for five hours straight.  The same book.  I'd all but forgotten what it was like to have that sort of concentrated experience with a piece of fiction, though I used to do it all the time.  The majority of my reading these days is non-fiction, and largely online.  If I read a book a month I'm doing well.

So get to the point, you say?  

Before I left, I'd been thinking quite a bit about Nicholas Carr, and his studies into the internet's effect on our brain.  (Links below, for reasons I'll explain later).

More specifically, I'm interested in the effects of hyperlinks on reading habits, the fragmentation of our attention span.  In my early blogging (and English-teaching) days, I bought the argument that they allowed for a deeper, more nuanced,  kind of writing, allowing writers to mention ideas and link to them without having to diverge from the main point. Theoretically, this created a more embedded reading experience, too, with an entire world of thought within one posting.

 Studies suggest the reality hasn't worked out as we thought, that the mere decision on whether or not to click a link interrupts and fragments the reading/thought process, let alone actually clicking on the link. (You'll find a sampling of my readings below.)  As Carr notes,
 The link is, in a way, a technologically advanced form of a footnote. It's also, distraction-wise, a more violent form of a footnote. Where a footnote gives your brain a gentle nudge, the link gives it a yank. What's good about a link - its propulsive force - is also what's bad about it.
I was just reading a Joyce Valenza article this morning, and only made it through one paragraph before I had clicked on a link and was away on something else entirely.  I don't think I ever made it back to the original article, though there was more I wanted to read.

More importantly, how do links affect students' research behavior? Anecdotally, just in watching my coterie of researchers the past three years as they work their way through databases--they seldom take the time to read through an entire article; they tend to bookmark, then click away, collecting as many documents as possible, without taking much time to decide whether it's relevant and pertinent.

Now, resource gathering is a valid part of the research process, but I wonder if students would take more time in their initial assessment of database/web articles, if the links to other resources came AT THE END?

In my own little version of Carr's delinkification experiment, for the next two weeks, I'm going to post all hyperlinks at the end of each post.  I hope you'll take the time to note your reactions in the comments section.  Does it affect your reading of the post?  How might if affect students if we ask database companies to start hyperlinking at the end of their articles/entries?

And, here, dear reader, are my links:

Nicholas Carr:  His blog; his book, The Shallows.

My various online readings:

  Carr's dehyperlinking post

WSJ:  Carr on the internet; responses from Shirky and Pinker.

NY Times review of The Shallows.


  1. You are right. My behavior is similar to what you reported that I will start reading an article on the internet and then click on a link to learn more and sometimes that leads to another link. I find myself spending more time on the computer than I want reading blogs and articles. Thanks for making me aware of this behavior.

  2. Ms. B: It's probably true for everyone! We just need to be aware--and make the kids aware, then help them devise strategies for keeping focused on the task at hand.