Nick Carr wrote a post a couple of days ago about the distracting effects of hypertext anchors when reading text. He referred to the increased cognitive effort that in-line anchors impose on readers, but as Mark Bernstein points out, the cognitive effort article was published in the 1980s, and these claims were not supported in further hypertext research.
Patricia Wright’s work on cognitive prostheses suggests that hiding information behind links made it less likely that people would use that information compared to showing it directly. Her argument (presented as a keynote address at Hypertext ’91) is that the cognitive overhead of link following makes people less likely to follow links, not that the presence of link anchors is distracting. Of course the implication is that the further from their context you move the anchors, the less likely that people will follow them. This is the point that Daniel Tunkelang makes in his response to Nick’s post.
Of course embedded anchors are just one way to manage links to other documents: Nick Carr preferred a “related links” end-notes section (not unlike that found in traditional academic papers). In XLibris, we implemented a dynamic hypertext system that identified promising links based on annotations made on the text and placed them in a “related links” section associated with a document; another possibility is to place anchors in the margin, a document annotation style that goes back to the Talmud.
Since the aspect of hypertext that Nick is objecting to is the interruption of reading, there are ways to manage that as well. Bookmarking is not an effective interface for this purpose, for reasons related to what Patricia Wright reported. Other, lighter-weight techniques, however, can improve this process. Hypertext research literature from ten years ago is full of examples of interesting ways to manage anchor display and link traversal. Unfortunately, ten years of web-based interaction have homogenized that diversity into a rather small set of expected interactions.
Let me know what you think.