Why Footnotes?

You might have noticed that I use footnotes, not links, in the body text of my articles. Footnotes are certainly useful in their own right, but the decision to forego in-text hyperlinks is intentional. Why? Hyperlinks can be bad for your brain.

A vast majority of text online includes links, and the prevailing technique for displaying them is to utilize existing words in content. For example:

The idea that all technology is good is a fallacy.

Using footnotes for the same text would look like this:

The idea that all technology is good is a fallacy.1

There are several reasons I’ve chosen this link format.

First, footnotes allow authors to place hyperlinks in a much richer context. Better context adds value for the reader in several ways. If an author references a separate work, showing the reader what is referenced and, more importantly, why, provides a more complete explanation of the thought and why the writer chose to include the source. Also, references are often used to point to resources that explore a subject in more depth, giving the audience a pathway to further research a topic if it seems valuable or interesting. Context allows readers to make more informed decisions about whether they want—or even need—to follow a pathway.

In-text hyperlinks have a relatively low capacity for providing rich context. This is because there’s always some level of mystery about where exactly a link will take you. Even if the in-text link is well executed, some level of unknown makes assigning value to a link more difficult for readers.

Footnotes provide an elegant solution. They allow the audience to read an author’s complete set of thoughts and better evaluate the value of various pathways after they’ve digested an entire piece.

I’m not against the in-text hyperlink. In fact, there are times in which clicking to an ‘unknown’ destination can provide surprise and delight to readers. (After all, who doesn’t like a witty reference that links to a GIF? They make people smile.)

“Woah,” you say, “aren’t you making a big deal about nothing? In-text hyperlinks are how writing on the internet is.”

I don’t think so. This is important stuff. Here’s why:

That ‘unknown’ value of an in-text link inhibits your ability to get the most out of a piece of writing. When your brain sees another pathway, it will, by default, evaluate whether or not it should follow that pathway. The less context, the harder the decision for your brain. Repeat that process over and over throughout an article that requires critical thinking, and you have a recipe for constant distraction and hindered ability to process what is being said.

In an excellent article about the dark side of modern news, author Rolf Dobelli explains this phenomenon2:

Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory. There are two types of memory. Long-range memory’s capacity is nearly infinite, but working memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from short-term to long-term memory is a choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens comprehension. Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.

Dobelli is referencing an article by Nicholas Carr called “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.”3 In the piece, Carr talks about neuroplacticity—the ability of of our brains to actually re-wire themselves. In short, if we constantly put strain on our ability to process things on a deep level, that ability will begin to diminish.

The penalty is amplified by what brain scientists call switching costs. Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information. On the Internet, where we generally juggle several tasks, the switching costs pile ever higher.

…That means our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.

In-text links aren’t bad. But as these authors and many others point out, the distraction they cause can take a toll on your mind.

On a web that seems to encourage endless amounts of distraction I want to do as much as possible to decrease that debt. I also hope that footnotes create a better reading experience, but I’ll let you tell me if that’s happening or not.

1. I recently wrote a post about Yo app and the idea that all technology isn’t necessarily good technology. Read the full article here.2. Read Robert Dobelli’s full article, titled Avoid News, on his website (PDF). My favorite quote is, “You are not that irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?3. Nicholas Carr’s full article, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains,” includes discussion of scientific studies that have revealed the effects of the web on the mind. Read the full post on Wired.com.

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