Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Some Rough Notes - On reading Alexander Halavais’ "The Hyperlink as Organizing Principle"

I have just finished reading Alexander Halavais' article "The Hyperlink as Organising Principle" published in the recent collection edited by Turrow and Tsui The Hyperlinked Society. (The collection is most certainly worth a look and, as an added bonus, the full text is available free on line.) Halavais' essay offers an insightful account of the nature of the hyperlink and its influence in determining the structure of networked space, opening with the provocative question: "What does a hyperlink mean?" Halavais notes that "this meaning is neither unitary nor stable" before turning to the crux of his argument:
As hyperlink networks become more easily manipulated and reach farther into our social and physical lives, we will have a continuing need to understand the hyperlink as more than a way of automatically requesting documents from a Web server. (39)
The article functions as an exploration of this need rather than offering answers to the questions it poses. Originally Halavais offers a short history of the hyperlink, offering citation as a precursor, and using that as a springboard into his discussion. Halavais considers the meaning of a hyperlink as entirely dependent on the greater context it is in, the nodes it connects or the use it is put to. I would argue to the contrary - I think there is a case to be made for the hyperlink itself as the carrier of some meaning, be that as an add-on / mediator / determining factor to the more central and significant meanings of its greater context and use. This is what my research centers on: the hyperlink as site of signification in its own right. Even more applicable to my own research is his statement further on suggesting that
the ultimate trajectory of hyperlinks may indeed be invisibility, the blue-underlined text merging with light switches and voice commands to become one of a superset of links. (52)
I find this concept, the shift towards invisibility of the link, fascinating. In the past I have argued that hyperlinks necessarily need to be self revealing constructs in order to function. That while the link is naturalised and even disguised the user still needs to be made aware of its artifice to be able to make use of it – therefore links are concurrently masking and revealing their presence in order to create meaning. Halavias gestures towards this when he says that
as the hyperlink becomes more ubiquitous, it is also layered with more meaning. (52)
The article concludes rather abruptly, and I found myself wishing that Halavais had pursued some of his suggestions and allusions in greater detail. His final statement is a re-iteration of the need for a developed understanding of hyperlinks:
In understanding what a hyperlink means, we need to look at what a hyperlink does. Over time, it has come to do more and more. At present, it stands as the basic element of organization for the Web, and as more and more of our lives are conducted through the Web, it becomes increasingly important that we understand how hyperlinked structures are formed and change. (53)
Overall the article is very useful, well written and easily accessible it opens many areas for debate and future study, consistently pointing to the need for a more nuanced view of the hyperlink. A need I feel cannot be overemphasised.