Links suggest (indeterminate) meaningful associations between two pages, a page and another element, a word and another element - between any two elements. The link itself can facilitate visitors making connections between the two. At minimum, the link suggests that the link-maker sees a relation between two elements: that one is an example of, a member of a category of, a continuation of... the other.

Links are indeterminate because visitors are not required to follow or acknowledge a link, nor to follow them in the order presented by the rhetor. Links seem to be always a suggestion, and visitors need to be persuaded to follow them.

(adapted from Burbules, Rhetorics of the Web)
The link is the elemental structure that represents a hypertext as a semic web of meaningful relations. Every text, or set of texts, can be read hypertextually; this involves the reader making connections within and across texts, sometimes in ways that are structured by the rhetor (for example, following footnotes or quotations), but often in ways determined by the reader.

But in on-line texts, links define a fixed set of relations given to the reader, among which the reader may choose, but beyond which most readers will never go.

Moreover, links establish pathways of possible movement within the web space; they suggest relations, but also control access to information (if there is no link from A to B, for many users the existence of B may never be known - in one sense, the link creates B as possibility).

Links are associative - as differentiated from sequential or hierarchical. They associate this with that. But associative doesn't mean arbitrary. The link is purposeful - and readers will look for a connection between the two ends of the link. The association might be public or more idiosyncratic. If too idiosyncratic, the link risks seeming a non sequitur.

Links establish a relationship between the text or element linked from (source) and the element linked to (target), a relationship mediated by the affordance (the linktext or image that triggers the link), and more or less controlled by the rhetor. Rhetorical tropes can describe the associative relationships between source and target: metaphor, metonymy, identity, synechdoche. BurbulesHandlistOfLinks describes some possible associative relations.

Weblogs, as a genre, may use linking in characteristic ways. LinksInBlogging discusses this.

from Hammerich, p 177ff
Links in the body of the text

What the Web Content Literature Says

The literature is focused on naturalizing the link: making it disappear from traditional reading practices, rather than developing readers who can navigate better and more critically. As typically presented, the link is not arhetorical - a distraction is rhetorical - but it threatens to move the reader away from the controlled rhetoric of the source into connections and a rhetorical environment that the rhetor cannot control. In short, links create anxiety, so the advice is shaped to neutralize that anxiety. Links mean lost readers, lost attention, lost arguments ... Little attention is paid in the literature to making the source content stronger by the use of links.

Links make web content writers anxious. Because they fear losing readers to the link, they use rhetorical techniques to neutralize and naturalize them. The alternatives - to write more engagingly, to write to incorporate and guide the inclusion of linked material - is not considered. In short, if you fear losing readers to links, write better.

References: Nielsen Group, Lynch, Price. See WCW: Make me think about links for links to web content writing sources.

The advice
Given the advice and conception of links, we would expect certain rhetorical figures to be used commonly, and others to be unused intentionally.


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