Have hypertext and hyperlink been over-hyped? The view from local government.


The Semantic Web Stack.

The Semantic Web Stack. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Since the dawn of the social media age, we have been treated to various claims that hypertext and hyperlinks will change the way we work, read, and write.  There were even claims that hyperlinks will subvert hierarchies.  Yet, have any of these claims come true?  Have hyperlinks and hypertext failed in their liberating and creative promise to become the next marketing gimmick that is to be ignored once the novelty fades?  The reality is that hyperlinks encapsulate the web’s power, promise, and potential pitfalls.


Do you use hyperlinks in your work? 


Leaving aside the more esoteric parts of the web, where technical experts write and work with other technical experts, are hyperlinks used?  Without a doubt, hyperlinks and hypertext will continue as devices that will advance scholarship, writing, and reading.  However, the issue is not their intrinsic worth. Instead, it is about their potential either to improve the web, writing, reading, or scholarship.  Has their potential been oversold?


The view from local government.


I recall in the early days of social media a technological evangelist telling me how he was using hyperlinks in local government reports. He said that this was how future local government reports would be written.  Yet, the promise has not emerged from what I have seen.  To be sure, hyperlinks are used in some reports and in some papers. In most cases, they are used like footnotes and not as gateways to extended learning or additional context.  In that role, they are useful.  However, have they changed the way government, central or local, work?


I am not aware of hyperlinks being used by many types of council.  They may have them in their reports, but they are used more as footnotes.  Or, they are used to link to external sites rather than create insight into the papers.  In other words, I do not see those “subverting” hierarchies. I do not see them being used extensively with internal papers within councils or local government. I may be wrong, but their use, or rather their lack of use, indicates the gap between the technological aspirations and the practical reality.  In other words, the cultural change about hyperlinks has not arrived in local government.  The challenge presented by hyperlinks is not so much that they subvert hierarchies it is that they are not compatible with them.  For the most part, government is conservative in its operation and its work. As a result, the tools its uses will be conservative.  Hyperlinks, especially at the cutting edge of development, present an approach that is radically different and perhaps incompatible.


Is this a bad thing that hyperlinks are not used?


The question raises the possibility that hyperlinks and hypertext may not be what is needed.  What we may be seeing is the tension between information overload, the links can take you away from the narrative and detract from the argument, or it can display more information than wanted, which crowds out the information needed.  However, this is not a fault of hypertext or hyperlinks.  Both of these issues can emerge without technology, but technology makes them more apparent and harder to resist.


If hyperlinks are changing, though, it may raise questions about whether their use can be adapted to government. Is there a place for hyperlinks in government?  The question cannot be answered until we understand what government needs from hyperlinks. In other words, hyperlinks may not be what the government needs because they serve two different purposes.  Government needs consistency, solidity, and continuity.  Hyperlinks and hypertexts offer something different through their fluidity, discontinuity, and dynamism.  Despite these theoretical or metaphysical differences, the underlying issue may be more practical.  No one really uses them.


Does anyone really click the links anymore?


The promise made by technological evangelists has not been realized because people have stopped clicking the links.  The danger of link bait , being led to an undesired site, has shown hyperlinks to be more a marketing tool than a window to knowledge.  Another serious problem is the broken link.  Even though software is improving so that broken links can be repaired quickly and spontaneously, there is nothing to be done if the original link destination is removed.  Therein, we see the final fragility of hyperlinks.  What use is a hyperlink, unlike a footnote, when the destination disappears?


What is the future for hyperlinks?


The hyperlink is the web’s DNA.  The link is central to how the web works. The link is changing.  We are on the cusp of a change in how hyperlinks work and how they are used.  If the change succeeds, the web will be transformed.  However, the transformative potential is still to be realized. We may find a semantic web merged with the social web one day, but will it be what we want or need?


I am not convinced that hyperlinks will transform local government in the way they continue to transform the web. What we may have to settle for is the indirect influence, as the context for local government changes, so will the practice of local government as it adapts to and adopts the hyperlink revolution.




I have intentionally used hyperlinks extensively within the document.  I am curious to see how many, if any, are clicked.  Will you partake of the hyperlink revolution?







About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
This entry was posted in good writing, Government, linked data, local government, open data, transparency and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.