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Taking the Short Path

Constructing Meaning from Hypertexts

We often hear in discourse related to “mis” and “dis” information online that its the fault of the people (victim-blaming) who stumble across this content (or are served it by “algorithms”) for being not intelligent enough, or too gullible, or that they lack media literacy.

But I think the truth is that there’s something fundamental, integral to the structure of the web technologies themselves that rewards what I think of as “short hop” or short path foraging.

That is, if you’re looking for x (whatever that may be), the technologies are all skewed towards getting you to x as fast as possible. The most accurate search results. The most finely tuned recommendation engine for songs you will like. Wandering is considered undesirable (though doomscrolling okay). We could say it’s a favoring of instant gratification, but really I think its something to do with the nature of hypertexts and hyperlinks themselves.

That is, the simple act of linking from one text to another rewards these short direct hops. We need not necessarily know or trust neither the first originating source text, nor the target text we land on. We simply go from one to the next, skimming for the bits that relate to our x, which is a kind of meaning that we construct on the fly from these disparate pieces.

In so far as any given piece serves either x directly, or else the underlying impulse behind x (let’s call it z), then the rest doesn’t matter. We don’t want a course correction after the fact. We don’t feel the need or desire to dig deeper once the initial need is met — regardless of the quality or authenticity of how it is met.

So rather than thinking about the technology as such as something neutral, or the end result as being the fault of whoever uses it in terms of “who to blame” or that “they should have read more or better”, I think we need to focus structurally on how technologies themselves work to produce x or fulfill z in the first place.

What does that mean exactly in practice? Do we need to change how hyperlinks work? I don’t know yet, but I doubt that’s the solution. The hyperlink at root is just too basic and good a thing (and so fundamentally overlooked in the discourse). This is just a blog post to trial balloon some of these ideas. Will continue to chip away at this.


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1 Comment

  1. Tim B.

    > “Wandering is considered undesirable (though doomscrolling okay). ”

    Doomscrolling is okay because you’re stuck at the feeder/trough, you’re not wandering laterally, and you’re not actively choosing either. You’re being “served” y

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