long . lines and ripples

Has the Hyperlink Been Devalued?

I've been thinking about this article in the Guardian from 2015, which was reposted on Hacker News several months ago. It's by a onetime well-known Iranian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, who was arrested by Iran and imprisoned for six years, from 2008-2014.

His time in prison happened to coincide with the mass growth of major social media sites across the internet. Of particular concern to an independent blogger: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram all extended their user base by many multiples between 2008 and 2014. It was the time when social media became the gateway to the internet.

What this meant for Derakhshan, who at the time of his imprisonment was a heavily-read blogger in Iran, is that he lost all his power. He no longer had a direct link to his readers through the URL bar of the browser. If he wanted to continue writing upon his release, he had to go through the social media platforms . I'm interested in the following observations:

"The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. It represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web – a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralisation – all the links, lines and hierarchies – and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks. Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realised how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete."

He elaborates further down:

Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object – the same as a photo, or a piece of text. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting. But links are not objects, they are relations between objects. This objectivisation has stripped hyperlinks of their immense powers.

Derakhshan notes that the social media sites tend to privilege text that is posted directly to their platforms. Photos and video, which they make easy to upload, get a boost for this reason (among many others).1 Status updates and comments, which the user can "like" or otherwise interact with, are the text that Facebook's algorithms appear to prefer.

The root of Derakhshan's complaint is that true context-switching is disappearing from the internet. If people do indeed trace the path of fewer hyperlinks in the sense that he means it (I did not verify this claim), it's not just a concern about the technical architecture of the internet, about accessing its content through a convenient method, or whether individuals have to go through the trouble of hosting their own website to be part of an online conversation. For him the hyperlink is the "soul" of the internet:

But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: they are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage – and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.

What he means is related to this idea that the link is a "relationship between objects," which is obvious on the technical side (my site contains the address to find a page on your site), but less obvious as a sociocultural value.

Derakhshan, who is credited with helping popularize blogging in the 2000s among Iranians (he was known as the "blogfather"), describes blogging among his compatriots at its height:

The Iranian blogosphere was a diverse crowd – from exiled authors and journalists, female diarists, and technology experts, to local journalists, politicians, clerics, and war veterans. But you can never have too much diversity. I encouraged conservatives inside Iran to join and share their thoughts. I had left the country in late 2000 to experience living in the west, and was scared that I was missing all the rapidly emerging trends at home. But reading Iranian blogs in Toronto was the closest experience I could have to sitting in a shared taxi in Tehran and listening to collective conversations between the talkative driver and random passengers.

Surely he valued blogging, and the mutual linking culture that arose among blogs on independent websites by the late 2000s, in part because of his expatriate, outsider-insider status. Physically outside his country, yet at the center of the national conversation, he did not just start a popular blog himself, he helped other writers start theirs. On the internet before the complete takeover by big platforms, he was a valuable link, a tastemaker, an influencer, a gatekeeper.

In the blogging world, the hyperlink was the means of conversation. Links made it possible to move from isolated posts in single blog to a conversation between blogs. And you found new things to read by following the links from the people that you already read.

It was a totally different model than both search, with its targeted but opaque methods (e.g., Google), and news feeds, where the reader sits still on the platform, waiting to be fed an endless stream of "content" from the algorithmic trough (e.g., Facebook). The hyperlink forces the reader to move, to accept site-hopping, and context-switching, as a necessary part of being online. What makes the hyperlink work as a means of information exchange was the authority of the blogger himself, and the trust he won from the reader. If he was part of a conversation, the blogger used his credibility to direct traffic to other sites: to link to them.

The loss of the blogger's power to link is what Derakhshan memorializes here. During the period when the link had the power to establish long-term traffic flows on the internet, the so-called "blogosphere" was less a web, in the sense of the world wide web--with its circular and still hub-focused architecture--and more of an endless rope bridge, a continuous conversation passed from one site to the next.

With the rise of the platforms, and the reorientation of the function of the hyperlink, the bloggers lost the ability to direct traffic. For the big social media sites, links were not gateways out so much as provocations designed to stimulate activity on their own sites (e.g., likes, comments). Sure, the links on Facebook send you elsewhere most of the time (not always), but as Derakhshan found out once he got out of prison, the conversation takes place back on the platform. "Going viral" might generate a brief spike of traffic for your site, but a blog is just a waypoint on a loop that circulates back to a social network. Facebook--the platform--captures the attention, and the conversion of attention to dollars.

  1. It is, of course, difficult to completely verify this long-held claim, since Facebook does not release the basis of its newsfeed algorithm. But the 2018 emphasis on "meaningful interactions"and "family and friends," in the wake of the fake news controversies, did claim that the algorithm would prefer content posted by people in one's network over outside sites, compounding any existing algorithmic preference for native content that Derakhshan observed in 2015. ↩︎