The Social Life of Links: Network Influence and the New Economy of Discourse

The Hyperlink, Contained

There was a time when “hypertext” was a thing that people talked about. It was a novel discursive adventure to create and explore documents with multiple access points. The form bred another term we rarely hear today: “hyperlink.” The word “link” no longer requires a qualifier. It is a fundamental part of our daily digital lives that has been imbued with cultural significance. Through a gradual evolution it has become an essential component of discourse on the web, taking on its own rhetorical function. In the social world of blogs and tumblogs (Kottke) a link signifies any number of things beyond a single author’s original intent.

In the early ’90s a small group of academics explored a new idea of unstable text—text that is linked and linked back within itself. Doug Brent at the University of Calgary considered what role hypertext might play in discursive rhetoric. He and his peers talked of “nodes” within a text—units of information represented by a discrete hyperlink—and their struggle to find the balance between guiding the reader along a prescribed path versus letting them bounce around “through a cloud of random associations,” (Brent). Proponents of this new form of writing explained that it created opportunities for each reader to build and interpret a text differently. However, in terms of their rhetorical value, Brent claimed, “When one has a specific claim to make, hypertext may not provide much advantage over linear text except for an ability to embed longer quotations and handier references. But when one wants to explore and to question, the more radical forms of hypertext help one think (not merely write) in an exploratory mindset.”

James Bridle addresses the limitations of this discussion in his post Starbooks and the Death of the Work, explaining that the early model failed “because it attempts to discard the linearity of the text without dissolving its boundaries.” And even back in the ’90s Brent himself noted: “This will be difficult when some of the links lead out to other parts of the WWWeb, each with its own links to yet more texts.”

That scenario describes exactly how we now write and read the “WWWeb.” A core tenet of discourse on the web is its ability to endless link out to evidence, definition, or far more detailed information. We’re no longer obliged to justify a stated fact, illustrate a dictum, contextualize an in-joke—a link is considered sufficient. Our ability to read and interpret this interplay of links is now an assumed part of digital literacy (Hawisher, Selfe, Moraski, & Pearson).

The New Link Economy

Links are reshaping our approach to discourse. But they are also redefining our perception of authority. They determine what voices are authoritative on the web. In terms of clout—in the good old fashioned sense—the web defers authority to Klout. The ultimate currency on the web is the link.

The number one arbiter of what content matters, Google’s PageRank algorithm, bases results primarily on the number of relevant inbound links, and on the PageRank of those inbound linking pages (Wikipedia, PageRank). Meanwhile Wikipedia is built on premise that in order to earn a wiki you have to first be worthy of an outbound link. The link must exist before the page can exist, as a signal of a topic’s notability (Wikipedia, Notability). To be anyone on the web, you better have some serious links.

For a time Google’s model led to an economy of link-swapping that diluted the authority of PageRank. Google’s smartypants have stayed ahead of these (now antiquated) “blackhat” SEO techniques, but in the blogosphere there is still a genuine link-based popularity contest—one that actually counts.

In the words of John Maxwell: “Measures like PageRank are an institutionalization of the idea. How does it work in the blogosphere, though? Reach trumps authority (I mean, really, Buzzfeed has ZERO authority, but they have reach like nobody)” (personal communication). Indeed, Buzzfeed, and its counterparts—Upworthy, BoredPanda, Reddit—are built on the premise that reach equals value. In some cases content may be initially managed by a team of curators who take editorial merit into account, but ultimately the content that rises above the fold is that which earns the most social media shares and likes (or “link karma”).

There are various terms for this new link economy, but for lack of an official label, I’ll borrow from the artist Jesse Darling who tidily called it “network influence.” This is a new type of authority that may be legitimately earned through expertise and first-rate content, but can also be a byproduct of tweeting about Robert Pattinson at just the right moment, dancing to Beyonce in your living room, or simply being “really good at tumblr” (Darling). One voice can become an authoritative source just by virtue of being linked to multiple times, regardless of earned merit—but maybe that in itself is earned merit.

Meaning Beyond the Text

The voice that rises to the top of the heap may not even be the original source—just the “node” with the greatest network influence. In this new economy, the original source no longer matters. It’s the digital fulfillment of Derrida’s notion of Déconstruction—the idea that there is no ultimate reference point; that in art and discourse, everything points to something something else (Wikipedia, Déconstruction). This has never been so literal; as network influence of a particular piece of content grows it can be nearly impossible to find a single point of origin.

In the process, the original intent or meaning of that content is typically diluted or entirely lost. At least 20 years before the advent of the Internet, this is precisely what Derrida described when he claimed: “texts outlive their authors, and become part of a set of cultural habits equal to, if not surpassing, the importance of authorial intent” (Wikipedia, Déconstruction).

The author who links to another text gives it fresh context within his or her own discursive framework. One author may use a specific node to prove a point, while another may use it to discredit an idea; still another might use it to define their online identity (Lenhart, p.20); and yet another might use it as a tool for irony or humour. Links remove texts and ideas from their original contexts. Déconstruction has some bearing on this too: “Terms do not have an ‘absolute’ meaning, but can only get it from reciprocal determination with the other terms” (Wikipedia, Déconstruction)—in the same way, links are reciprocally assigned meaning by that which they are linked from. And the greater the network influence, the greater the multitudes of meanings inherent in a single node. Collectively all those links give a node value and authority.

As a reader travels deeper into this forest of links, their starting point (if they can even trace one) is being constantly redefined by additional context. Again, Derrida preemptively gave this endless extension of digital discourse a name: “différance.” He explains, complete meaning is always ‘differential’ and postponed in language; there is never a moment when meaning is complete and total” (Wikipedia, Différance). He would have illustrated this theory by pointing to a dictionary—where a reader may look up a word, and then look up another word found in the original definition, and possibly turn to another source to clarify that second word in an endless thoroughfare of language and meaning.

In his post “Starbooks and the Death of the Work,” James Bridle explains his belief that the result of this never-ending network is the advent of *books (starbooks) and the demise of the standalone “work… not of the author, but of the work—of the singular, whole, completed, standalone work. [*books] are hybrid, unformed, inconclusive—inconclusive not in the sense of vague, but their conclusions are not located exclusively within the work, but are distributed across the network” (Bridle).

Because of this, authorship and origin just aren’t important anymore. What matters is collective hyper-referentiality. The co-produced work—likes, comments, retweets, which are now fully integrated into the work itself, a form of collaboration with the audience,” Bridle claims. “Every time a weird twitterer retweets their favstar ranking they’re incorporating the audience into the work itself.”

In this nebulous discourse of link after link after link it may seem impossible to ever make meaning. But in the new economy of links, the connections matter more than the conclusions; and meaning-making becomes a completely personal and self-directed process.

As readers of the “WWWeb” it’s no longer about achieving a conclusion but about the inherent instability, complexity of impossibility of a single meaning or (thanks Derrida), “pursuing of the meaning of a text to the point of exposing the supposed contradictions and internal oppositions upon which it is founded.”


Works Cited:

Brent, Doug. “A Further Discussion of the Rhetorical Form of This Text.” Online article. Rhetorics of the Web. No original post date. Accessed January 24, 2014 from

Bridle, James. “Starbooks and the Death of the Work.” Blog entry. December 5, 2012. Accessed January 24, 2014 from

Bridle, James. “The internet considered as a fifth dimension, that of memory.” Blog entry. July 24, 2012. Accessed January 24, 2014 from

Darling, Jesse. “Artist Profile.” Blog entry. Rhizome. November 5, 2012. Accessed January 24, 2014 from

Déconstruction. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 28, 2014 from

Différence. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 28, 2014 from

Hawisher, Gail E., Selfe, Cynthia L., Moraski, Brittney, & Pearson, Melissa. (2004). Becoming literate in the information age: Cultural ecologies and the literacies of technology.College Composition and Communication, 55(4), 642–692.

Kottke, Jason. “Tumblelogs”. Blog post. October 15, 2005. Accessed January 28, 2014 from

Lenhardt, Amanda B. “Unstable Text: An ethnographic look at how bloggers and their audience negotiate self-presentation, authenticity and norm formation”. (April 2005). Georgetown University masters thesis, 20

Maxwell, John. Personal communication, January 24, 2014.

Notability. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 28, 2014 from

Pagerank. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 28, 2014 from

One Reply to “The Social Life of Links: Network Influence and the New Economy of Discourse”

  1. “Deconstruction [claims] that language is nonreferential because it refers neither to things in the world nor our concepts of things but only to the play of signifiers of which language itself consists.” -Louise Tyson, Critical Theory Today

    I have a couple problems with your argument, first and foremost that I’m not entirely sure what you’re arguing. You state at one point that in lives of links “the original intent or meaning of [the] content is typically diluted or entirely lost.” But you conclude your essay by stating that readers of the web should not be concerned with conclusion but with “pursuing of the meaning of a text to the point of exposing the supposed contradictions and internal oppositions upon which it is founded.”

    There’s a contradiction here, in that your initial argument implies that the original intent is lost in the process of being linked, but end by talking about a deep engagement and parsing of that meaning.

    Deconstruction is a slippery theory to apply to the web, and I kind of feel like throwing the two at one another is sort of like trying to use a spoon to put together a car-it could work but it might not be the best tool for the job. It seems like you used deconstruction, and all the related verbiage that comes with it, to position linking but I think you could have done more to deconstruct linking. To tear into the societal and ideological and whatnot preconceptions that we bring to linking, that are inherent in us and our solipsism.

    Deconstruction also deals with the formulation of identity, about how the world as a whole and every person and thing in it can be read (and misread) as texts. About how our sense of personal identity is defined by unwitting societal/ideological/other-al preconceptions that we bring to the table. How we define ourselves in relation or opposition to other things (which does itself harken back to the Master/Slave Dialectic, which is just as agonizing to parse as deconstruction), how we place ourselves in reference to other things in an effort to form identities for ourselves.

    I could talk about deconstruction forever, and no one wants that. I’ve probably harped on about it too much already. On the whole I thought your paper was interesting. You said in your comment on my paper that we had arrived at the same place but by different avenues (horrible paraphrase on my part), and I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but I definitely get why we were paired up for the critique. I hope my comment was of some help (or at least made some sense).

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