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Archive for May 11th, 2012

I’ve been spoiled by hyperlinks.

They have changed the way I research and the way I write.  I’ve spoken many times to different people, noting that education is fostered by the human brain making connections between disparate data.  That was sort of the “Sherlock Holmes” schtick, pulling arcane data from pockets of his memory to make connections nobody else did, thereby properly fitting together the puzzle in front of him.  We learn more when we make connections.  (Incidentally, that’s true socially, which is why this blogging thing has value beyond just blathering.)  It’s even biological.  Neurons function by making connections, that’s how the brain functions and how memory works.

Once upon a time, back in junior high and high school, I wrote a lot of papers.  I learned how to write to a specific length instead of write what the topic needed, how to use bigger and more words when smaller or fewer would do, how to use paragraphs and carriage returns to get a little extra length, and as Calvin notes, that  the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! To this day, I’m sure it could be argued that I am rather more… verbose… than needs be, and that I parse things a little differently than most, but I do blame this more on the vast amount of reading I’ve done than the excruciating amount of writing for assignments that I’ve done.  By the time I was writing for my college Technical Writing class, I was actually cutting back on what I wrote so I didn’t go over the required length by 25% or more.  Of course, being a Technical Writing class, it was still about obscuring data and sounding educated, rather than educating the reader.  We certainly can’t have those uneducated people actually understanding what we college educated folk do.

Ahemhemhem.   Tangential diatribe aside, noting that sarcasm and tone don’t always carry over the interweb tubes, I’d note that blogging and writing in general are all about communication.  If you’re writing to show you’re smarter than the reader, well… that’s communication, but it’s pretty rude.  I know, I know, it’s just how textbooks work, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or even useful.

Anyway, back to linking (tangents are part of the concept of linking, incidentally; they are one way to pull in relevant information and expand your knowledge base), I’ve done a LOT of writing, and most of the time, I needed to cite my references.  Usually that was done with footnotes or endnotes.  I’ve fallen headlong into habits of citing my references, parenthetical asides and running tangents.  I’d like to think that’s good practice (the citations, at least), but it really can get a wee bit messy sometimes with all the superscripts or subscripts.  These days, though, I don’t use those, I just put in a hyperlink where it’s relevant.

If anything, this actually cuts down on my parenthetical asides.  I just plow on through my topic at hand, plugging in links where I’d previously have needed to explain something for a paragraph or so.  I can just trust that what I write makes sense on its own to anyone sufficiently well versed in the topic, and those who aren’t have a handy dandy link there to go catch up with.  It’s a sort of conversational shorthand, a way to appeal to a wider audience without breaking the flow of the text, and without indulging in full blown pedant mode, explaining everything in excruciating, formal detail.  This actually makes teaching in person harder… I get into a habit of assuming my audience knows what I’m talking about, and when they clearly don’t, I don’t have the time in real time to tell them to go read a link, I have to go back and explain things.  I’ve mentioned before that the persistent, asynchronous nature of blogs is a good thing, right?  I could explain everything, as I am very familiar with teaching methods, the scientific method and realllly tedious term papers, but I’ve found that writing is much more entertaining and flows better when I’m not stuck in “explain everything” mode.

Links are a crucial reflection of my thought process.  Perhaps that means I’m unfocused, but it really is my experience that chasing tangents and making those intellectual connections is the backbone of how I manage information and retain it for future use.  I loathe memorization, as a rote series of data points with no context is little more than GIGO, just data to regurgitate for a test somewhere.  It’s only by placing data in context with other information that I begin to care about it and retain it.  To this day, the only thing I remember of history before high school is memorizing the U.S. presidents and their dates of service.  I don’t remember the list, I remember how much I hated memorization.  (This song would have made it so much more fun.)  It was only in high school that teachers finally started putting the pieces together and teaching context, and boom, suddenly history was fascinating.  It all started making sense because of the links between disparate bits of data.  We chased down implications and unintended consequences, we looked at political ripples, we chased down echoes, sometimes hundreds of years later.  That’s all awesome stuff, but it gets lost in the memorization shuffle.  As kids, we were ever learning (and forgetting) data, never learning wisdom.

So, while links on the internet can and often are merely traffic-inducing plugs, for better or worse (as Wilhelm humorously notes), I think they are a great reflection of how the human mind works.  I also have to wonder on occasion if this whole ADHD craze is unfortunate sometimes.  I think it’s healthy to flit between topics and chase down implications and connections.  The trick may be to pull it all together in the end, but if we’re not mentally flitting about a bit, we’re not going to see the bigger picture.  My fourth grade teacher taught us how to “brainstorm” and see where our associative processes took us.  In retrospect, that was a very valuable lesson to learn at a relatively young age.

In a way, the “blogosphere” functions like a sort of shared brain.  Ideas can spark between writers, each bringing a different viewpoint to the process.  Links between blogs and references are like the connections between neurons, and since blogs are more or less persistent, once those links are forged, there’s a good chance that at least some of us learned something, and perhaps most importantly, that someone can come to it later and also learn.  Perhaps we can think of it as the wetware Skynet or something.

So, if you’re new to blogging, use those links!  Leverage the hivemind, jack your voice into the conversation.  When you’re reading someone else’s blog, chase some of the links sometimes, and see what’s out there to learn.  Learn how to read fast and think faster, making those links in your own brain.

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