The intonation of hyperlinking

A new style of writing that the collective mind of the internet has unknowingly developed: creating emphasis on a word or phrase by making it a link to another page.

Some people’s blog posts, for example, are densely linked collections of references, hinting at a wealth of further material beyond the surface of the text. The paragraphs of text on their own make sense, but they are ridddled with links to external references (squint at things magazine or Rodcorp to see what I mean).

By adding a link to an otherwise unassuming word within a sentence, you create an optional branch to the flow of communication, an aside. In a literary sense, the link says: there’s something more to be seen here, there’s something else I’m thinking but not saying directly, but you can pick up on it if you’re willing to follow through. The link implies an embedded additional meaning.

This is what intonation does in speech; by stressing or accenting a particular word or phrase when I talk, I’m communicating something extra. In fact, when reading online I find myself mentally applying verbal emphasis to linked words within a sentence (literally stressing the word in my mind). In the same way as italics or a question mark are a guide to tone, so is a link.

Are the limitations old media being exposed by it’s linear restrictions? I don’t know of an equivalent style in literature (David Foster Wallace’s hyperactive use of footnotes (See? I did it just there!) is the nearest parallel I can think of). What about speech for that matter, with it’s inadequecy to express what we are really thinking or feeling (the very thing poets and many writers spend their careers striving to overcome)?

What if we could embed hyperlinked commentary, mental symbols or narrative branching within our speech?

— 11 Mar 2006