Hide your hyper-links

or, dealing with depth-first syndrome

Like so many of us, I suffer from a neurological disorder known as depth-first syndrome. The symptoms include an inability to complete tasks, and frequent episodes of transient global amnesia. Those of us with this affliction have an instinctual attraction to hyper-links. The symptoms are brought on by the presence of blue text, or underlining, or even any slight typographical abnormality indicative of the presence of a link. Sufferers of DFS describe the experience as similar to itching: the link is an irritant, and the itch only gets steadily worse, until the sufferer finally gives in to the primitive desire to scratch, the unreasonable desire to … click.

I have long hidden my disorder. I would lie to others, and lie to myself. I would make up a convoluted reason for why I was reading about Tachinidae at 3am. Or why I was reading about One Less Lonely Girl when I was meant to be doing the weekly shop. Or about Gamonéu cheese when I was meant to be … er, what was I meant to be doing? In truth, I didn’t know. I never knew. I was always and again stranded in another of the countless dusty corners of human knowledge.

It makes me uncomfortable to admit that I have DFS. Those who do not suffer from it (‘BFSers’, we call them) find it difficult to sympathize with the disorder. In less polite conversation, they refer to our disorder as ‘digital magpie syndrome.’ Why can’t you just not click, they ask? They don’t understand that this is as useless as asking an over-eater to just not eat, or a heroin user to just not shoot up. I have tried abstinence. But the side-effects can be even worse. I will find alternative ways to get my fix, and they play on my mind just like a bad case of the clicks — perhaps Google, or the URL bar, or Ctrl+T. And the relapses are terrible. In the end, we have to admit that DFS is a disorder, not an addiction. DFS is for life.

This realization is powerful. The first step is admission — I have DFS. Now what can I do about it? We might not be able to cure the disorder, but we might treat the symptoms. To do this, we need help: there are links everywhere, brandished in front of us, as if liquor before an alcoholic. These need to be made less frequent, more obscure, and less acceptable to click.

The biggest barrier is lack of awareness. Most pages on the web today are feeders. People offer us links from all angles, thinking they are doing us favors. These people must be made aware of the harm that they do. The good news is that these people — encyclopedia writers, article writers, story writers — have a strong incentive to right their ways. DFS affects everyone, not just its sufferers. Every link that their page offers causes a loss of a proportion of the readers that reached it, pushed off into the infinite deep. Lost readers are lost revenue. Like it or not, us depth-firsters are a significant part of your readership, and every time you brandish a link, you lose us.

Yes, I’m talking to you. Have you ever wondered why, of all the people who find their way to your article, so few actually make it to the end? Some of them might have gotten bored and closed the page (in which case you have a different problem), but the rest were lost by links. If not one link, then another. A death by a thousand links.

You see the problem; now what can you do about it? One easy solution is to remove the links. Why do you think people can read a book for so much longer than they can read a web-page? Because the book has no hyper-links!

But perhaps you are too attached to your links to remove them. Another simple solution is to hide the links. Every visible hyper-link breaks the fourth wall. Every link yields the little thought, I could be reading something else. Want to suppress those thoughts? Suppress those links! Make them invisible! No blue text, no underlining, no nothing. Links should be indistinguishable from body text.

But perhaps you don’t like that either. ‘What about my calls-to-action?’, you ask. Indeed. What you must understand is that for a DFS sufferer, every link is a call-to-action. You can still make your calls-to-action bright and obvious. You will be making them more obvious by hiding the links that compete with them.

If hiding links is not enough, you might consider negative reenforcement. When I said ‘the book has no hyper-links’, I was lying: books frequently have references to other books. Why, then, do people not follow these links like they do on web pages? Because links in books are so much more arduous to follow. There is a time delay and significant effort involved, which results in us only reading books which we are sufficiently motivated to read. Copy the book: make that link hard to click.

If you are still not convinced for the sake of profit, perhaps you will be convinced by moral arguments. Suppressing links is part of the general goal of web accessibility. We put in significant effort to make our sites usable by the blind, even though it barely moves profit margin. We do this because being blind is a recognized disability and we want to be good people. Why not put in the effort for DFS sufferers, who are a much more substantial proportion of the population?

If you are not a writer or publisher, you can still help by spreading awareness. If you hear people using slurs like digital magpie in conversation, call them out for it! If you are a DFS sufferer, acknowledge it. Even wear it with pride: you could reply to an insult by saying, ‘did you know the magpie is one of the few species to have passed the mirror test for consciousness?’

Finally, if you really do want to follow some links, then here’s another technique. Put them at the end! If you made it this far, you can click this link without guilt: ‘Experiments in delinkification’, an article I found while researching this piece.