I posted some time ago about textual apparatus and the web, and I have been thinking ever since about the kinds of tools that might be most appropriate to the kinds of textuality that find their place on the web. More recently, I read Ivan Illich describe his use of footnotes as a place to share the things that he has collected through his reading, and I began to wonder how this more convivial approach to textual apparatus might be applied to the web as well.
In the midst of this wondering, I became increasingly dissatisfied with how I was linking to books and to their authors in my posts. Sometimes I could find a useful place to link, but most often I was merely linking to some brief biographical page or to a short review of a book, usually something that I had searched out for the purpose and had not even bothered to read very thoroughly. Yet, when I began actually studying other people’s linking practises, there did not seem to be many alternatives. As long as people were linking to something very specific, the links were interesting, but as soon as they began linking in a general way, in order to provide a citation or some context or some supplementary information, the links ceased being useful. They were links to information that was too general to be useful as a citation and too uninteresting to be useful for anything else. I felt that this kind of linking was often worse than not linking at all, and it was certainly not a kind of linking that was reflective of my own reading of the web, but I was not certain what I might do instead.
A few days ago, however, I read a post called “Notes on Methodology” on the Philosophy and Modern Carpentry blog that was working through the difficulties of citing the web. It is a longer post, and it does not touch on the question of citation until somewhere near the middle, but it argues essentially that citing the web is difficult because the web is changing c0nstantly and because, even with third party web archiving projects, it is not possible to ensure that what has been cited one day, or even one second, will be there the next.
Now, I have no real solution to this problem, and it is not even a problem that troubles me very much as such, but it is a problem that gave me a moment of clarity. I realized suddenly that citing the web was never going to be the same as citing a physical artifact, at least not in the technical ways that academic writing has come to understand citation, but that citing the web might very well allow the kinds of footnotes that Illich was making, footnotes as a kind of sharing, and might do so to a greater degree than even Illich could have imagined. Citations, in this sense, would perhaps cease to be useful as references, and this would remain a problem for a certain kind of writing, but they would become much more useful as a kind of recommendation, a kind of sharing. They would cease saying, “This person wrote these words in this edition of this text on this date,” and they would begin saying, “This person is an interesting writer, or thinker, or artist, so take some time to check this link, however much it might have changed since I posted it for you.” They would cease providing a justification or a supplement to what has been written, and they would begin providing the textual connections that the author feels are worth sharing.
In that moment, I realized how it was that I will change my practise of linking. Rather than linking an author’s name to a brief biography that I would never be bothered to read myself, I will link to an essay or an interview or a story, something that I have enjoyed that has been created by or about the author. Rather than linking the title of a book to a synopsis or a short review that is useful only at the level of basic information, I will link to an interview with the author or a scholarly article about the book. Instead of accepting the illusion that these links can and should be made to justify and support the facts of what I am writing, an illusion that most of the web seems to maintain subconsciously, even if only in the most general way, I will foster the practise of making my links into recommendations to the things that I find interesting about the authors, books, directors, films, and ideas that become the subjects of my writing. Instead of asking links to be technical or informational, I will ask them to be personal and convivial.
If everyone were to link like this, perhaps, just perhaps, we would end up following links more often, rather than just noting that they are there.