One of my greatest aha! moments learning about hypertext theory was when I at a conference naively commented, over drinks I expect, that hypertext requires links. A spatial hypertext expert (I think it must have been Frank Shipman, or maybe Gene Golovchinsky, though it could have been a dozen others) stared at me as if I was from Mars. “What are you talking about?”, he spluttered. “What about spatial hypertext?” Seeing my blank look, he whipped out his laptop and gave me an instant demonstration of VIKI, a spatial hypertext system where nodes are arranged like post-its on a board. In spatial hypertexts connections between nodes are shown by similarity in colour or proximity in space. As I remember it, there were no explicit links at all.

The other day, Mark Bernstein suggested that there might have been a decrease in link-based scholarly conversations between a group of bloggers who often linked to each other two or three years ago. Stephanie Hendrick followed up, saying that she believed this to be true of this particular group of colleagues, but also saying that there are other ways in which the group stays connected.

Stephanie Hendrick and Lilia Efimova’s recent paper on weblog communities is particularly interesting to me in that it argues that simply measuring links is not enough. They suggest a number of other artefacts of blog communites that need to be considered. We might write about shared events, all posting notes from the same conference without explicitly linking to each others writeups. You might see memes moving between us. For instance, I might start using a word or idea from Torill‘s blog without linking to her, or when I started showing Flickr photos that was copied from a number of blogs, including Caterina‘s and Scott‘s and Liz‘s, or that map of where readers are, which I first noticed on Thomas‘s blogs, but which I later realised he’d got from Jon‘s. While direct links are part of this, they’re not the only markers of shared ideas, and I’m sure that these other more diffuse artefacts are important in the development of research and of shared ideas, although this is hard to measure.

This morning, danah boyd wrote about the lies that “hard” or “objective” social data tell, using the example of Cobot (PDF), a social scientist harvesting bot from LambdaMOO, and pointing out that simply measuring connections between people does not translate easily into meaningful social data:

I talk to Phil from the corner deli more frequently than my best friend or my mother simply because of proximity. Yet, they play a much more central emotional role in my life than Phil. Quantity and quality are often not correlated. Yet, if some system were to rank my relations and Phil came out above my mom, damn straight she’d be pissed.

Mark would like (as I understand him) to see more scholarly, clearly linked hypertexts that are written as collaborative debates between blogs. He even suggests links should be typed, to mark the difference between a social reference to another scholar and a link that debates an idea expressed by that scholar. That would be lovely, but I suspect that such discussions will be the exception rather than the rule. Blogs are messier, I think, more like the often productive conversations that happen in coffee breaks at conferences than journal articles. While social clusters are important (of course I care about what my friends who did their PhDs at the same time as me and went to the same conferences and sometimes got their grants from the same programs and with whom I have so many shared references – I’ll follow their blogs whether or not their current research is still directly relevant to my current research) they’re not necessarily where the explicitly marked academic discussions are going to happen. Perhaps it’s a mistake to confuse scholarly debate with the idea of social ties, or a cluster.

I love links. I love writing with links, and this is an important part of network literacy. Let’s also remember the less explicit and visible ways in which ideas evolve and are shared. And remember: even hypertext doesn’t require links.

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