Whatever Happened to the Hyperlink?

In the future of text, everything will be linked

Key Takeaways

  • ‘Contextual computing’ is the name given to interlinked applications.
  • Hyperlinks aren't just for the internet.
  • Links should be two-way, so you can always get back to where you came from.
A closeup of a hyperlink with the anchor text "click here."
Adamkaz / Getty Images

Why do our computers still pretend our documents are standalone pieces of paper? What happened to the promise of hyperlinked, interconnected documents?

If you write a note and email it, then you edit that note, shouldn’t the copy update itself? If you save an email or web page as a reference for a project, shouldn’t you be able to click instantly back to that page or mail?

That’s the promise of contextual computing. Apps like Notion, Roam Research, Obsidian, Devonthink, and Craft treat everything within them as a linkable item. Instead of maintaining many copies of one piece of information, you can link to the original, or embed it in other apps. 

"While this capability is customary in web browsers, it needs to be extended to all kinds of software (such as PDF readers, tasks managers, and editors)," Luc P. Beaudoin, researcher and developer of the Hook app, writes in his book The Future of Text.

"This would greatly facilitate information access, and personal information management."

Hyperlinks Everywhere

We’re very familiar with one kind of hyperlink, although we usually just call them "links" to pages on the web. But why is this limited to the internet? 

"When reading a knowledge-intense document (an ebook, long-form web page, or PDF), I typically create a bidirectional link to my notes about it," Beaudoin told Lifewire via direct message.

"This lets me navigate between the relevant resources within 2 seconds."

Someone working at a large desk with piles of information and papers all around.
 Reza Estakhrian / Getty Images

On a computer, too much time is wasted trying to find the things you’re working on. Where’s that PDF you were reading 5 minutes ago?

With paper on a desk, you can spread things out, and they stay where they are. They have a spatial relationship that is easy to hold in your head. This doesn’t exist in a computer—and yet our apps keep creating standalone documents that act like paper documents.

Interlinking

Instead, imagine if everything on your computer was interlinked. When you open a PDF of reference material, all the associated web pages, notes, and emails, are listed, just one click away. 

Then, there are "backlinks," found in apps like Roam. If you link to the same source document from several places, all those places will show up in a list of backlinks. You might discover you already linked to a note a year ago, and you could follow these backlinks to find out why.

"This would greatly facilitate information access, and personal information management."

With two-way hyperlinks, you can navigate in a web of connected knowledge, revealing relationships between ideas, and never lose those ideas again.

Can I Do This Now?

Beaudoin’s amazing Mac app, Hook, lets you use interlinking right now, "hooking" everything together, including folders in the Finder, all with simple keystrokes or drag-and-drop.

Many apps (mentioned above) already let you copy deep links to their contents, and paste those links onto other apps.

On a Mac, try this: Drag an email out of the Mail, drop it into another app, and it will create a link. When you click that link, the original email opens. 

I asked Beaudoin what would be needed to make hyperlinking universal. 

Apps should "provide a 'Copy Link' function in a predictably convenient location in...the menu bar," he says, "[and if] the app is part of a suite with a web app, the link should be universal."

Someone working on various information on paper with a whiteboard in the background that contains more.
Andresr / Getty Images 

With this built into your computer, you would build your own web of knowledge as you worked, with almost no effort. Finding interrelated documents would be easy.

Security

Linking everything on your own computer is fine, but what if we take this public? Perhaps you could share a link to a section of a document via email, with a collaborator, and perhaps it would live-update as it was changed.

What happens if someone forgets their copy is linked, and pastes in private information? Or worse?

"While this capability is customary in web browsers, it needs to be extended to all kinds of software..."

"The promise from 20-plus years ago of live documents with embedded apps turned out to be mostly a security nightmare," security consultant Greg Scott told Lifewire via email.

"I link to your app inside my document, that means I trust your app will not plant malicious software inside my audiences’ devices."

But that’s in the future. For now, the biggest frustration is never being able to find what we’re looking for. Contextual computing, where everything you need is automatically surfaced as and when you need it, changes this.

Maybe one day we’ll have to worry about yet more malware deliveries, but today I’ll settle for being able to find that email about that thing—where was it again?

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