This post is a call to action to join in an experiment, in which you try to use LessWrong for a week without seeing the massive amounts of hyperlinks authors tend to use.

Ironically linked here is a post by Tom Johnson citing The Shallows that delves into why hyperlinks could be bad for focus.

A TL;DR quote from that is 

"In other words, the more hyperlinks that you embed within your sentences, the less readable your posts become because the brain must make a decision with each link whether to click it for more information or keep reading. After several of these links, your brain starts to take on more cognitive load. As a result, it's easier to get sidetracked with tangents or to lose retention of the content."

This seems to be a default behavior on aggregator sites like reddit, LessWrong, and TvTropes.

Here is a post about why LessWrong is particularly prone to going down this rabbithole for new users.

Here's two TL;DR quotes:

"Each link is a tantalizing window into interesting-sounding-new-information, and I know that if I don't click on it immediately I probably won't bother to go back to it later, but that if DO click on it immediately I'm probably going to lose track of what I'm currently reading. It can be fun to link-crawl through Wikipedia, starting out with an article about prepositions, and somehow ending on an article about animal sexuality. But what's fun is not the same thing as useful for education."

"Enter Less Wrong. My initial reaction was "This is Wikipedia on Crack." Not only do a lot of articles here feature a bajillion hyperlinks, but each link often goes to another lengthy article full of fascinating information that I don't know, some of which is necessary to understand the first article, but none of which is easily summarized. With Wikipedia, if I run across a new word with a hyperlink it's at least possible for me to glance at the hyperlink, get a quick sense of what it's about, then return to my original reading. On Less Wrong that is often impossible. My first foray into this website felt like drowning in amazing ideas. It was a lot of fun, I definitely learned some things, but it was very confusing and hard to focus."

That post by Raemon also clearly called for a solution, which I don't believe Raemon found.

So here is an experiment and possibly the solution.

Download a custom CSS editor, for Chrome you can use Stylish.


For LessWrong add this as a custom CSS style:

a { 
color: inherit !important; 
} 
a:hover{
   opacity: inherit !important;
}

This is the minimum viable custom CSS. It makes it so there's no special color associated with links and it makes it so when you hover over a link it doesn't change color (really it's the opacity that changes on LessWrong specifically, so future LessWrong designs might require different CSS).

It doesn't stop your cursor from changing to a pointer when you hover over a link, so you can still see that it's a clickable link if you look closely. I find this to be the right amount of link usefulness, but you could also disable that hover-activity too if you wish.

There are more intrusive ways such as Reader-Mode extensions to disable links, but this changes as little as possible while still helping your brain avoid the overload.

Try it out for a week and report your findings below!

4

7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:46 AM
New Comment

As the guy who originally wrote the "maybe we should have fewer hyperlinks or be careful with them?" post... for the record I have changed my views on this.

While I think there is a cost of LW having lots of hyperlinks... I also think it's just overall better to have people plunge through the rabbithole and get caught up on all the important site concepts. 

(I think it's good to have a read-only-without-tabsplosion option, but I mostly think the going through a tabsplosion phase is helpful for people actually being able to contribute to LW state-of-the-art discussion for rationality and alignment)

So this was a phase? You went through it, wrote the article and then came out the other side?


From where I am right now it feels never-ending but I suppose if I can read so much that it stops being so provably distracting, that's a nice upside.

Yeah. It's maybe an unfortunate fact that the amount of stuff grows over time, but you will definitely hit a point where you've made it through the backlog.

That post by Raemon also clearly called for a solution, which I don't believe Raemon found.

What do you think of gwern.net style popups with summaries as a solution?

I very much enjoy that type of style of pop-up. It's quick and feels more like adding an optional paragraph versus opening a never-ending portal every 5 seconds.  Your link css is also not as jarring as a bright color on a white background compared to regular black text

Wikipedia also has Short descriptions which I personally find to be extremely useful—maybe we could implement something similar here for highly linked-to posts?

the less readable your posts become because the brain must make a decision with each link whether to click it for more information or keep reading. After several of these links, your brain starts to take on more cognitive load

I don't think it's reasonable to try to avoid the cognitive load of deciding whether to investigate subclaims or follow up on interesting ledes while reading. I think it's a crucial impulse for critical thinking and research and we have to have it well in hand.