Rules on links I don’t understand

by Yule Heibel on September 30, 2003

Dave Winer has posted an essay, The Rule of Links, where he states that linking is “one of the fundamental ideas of the Web.” I understand that, and I also understand his analogy to footnotes or endnotes, and that links are an incredible improvement over both. But I don’t understand why links shouldn’t open in a new window. Dave says that “links that open in new windows are non-web-like.” This makes no sense to me, although I’m ready to hear explanations from the “same-window” camp — maybe I’m missing something. But here’s why I don’t understand the new-window-is-a-no-no rule: a link that opens in a new window allows me to look at both sites simultaneously, and allows me to compare and contrast, or to read the link-site even as I glance at the source-site. Opening in new windows, for me, makes the link similar to footnotes — they are on the same page as the printed text of the book, meaning I can see text and footnotes simultaneously. This is wholly unlike endnotes, which are tucked away at the back of the book and which involve a lot of flipping around. I like footnotes, and I really dislike endnotes. Links that don’t open in a new window are, to my mind, exactly like endnotes: they don’t allow me to stream two or three things simultaneously, they force me to flip back and forth. Then there are sites that develop some kind of tic: Chris Locke for example added a talking fish a while ago. Since the arrival of the dratted fish, his site has become user-unfriendly for me: one, I can’t hear the fish, even though I have the plug-in, thank-you; two, I get an error message every time I go to his site telling me I don’t have the plug-in. Now, his links don’t open in new windows, and consequently I almost never click on them now, because if I do, I have to reload Chris’s site when I hit the back button, and when I do that, I get the error message all over again. If, however, his links opened in new windows, this wouldn’t be a problem. (Aside from the initial problem, which I’m apparently incapable of fixing, unless this is some stupid Freudian joke. But honestly, I have the plug-in.)

And whether my link opens in a new window or the same window, why is the one not web-like while the other is? Just because spiders spin their webs in two dimensions doesn’t mean we humans can’t spin them in 2 or 3 or 4 …windows. When did this no-new-windows rule get made, and who made it? Anyone?


Joel October 1, 2003 at 6:02 am

Insisting that they not open in a new window is like saying you can’t bookmark your page when you flip to the back to check the endnotes.

Wendy October 1, 2003 at 10:12 am

Also, for people with vision impairment or learning disabilities who use screen readers, having a link open a new window is very disruptive to their web experience. I’ve never used one, so I don’t know exactly what happens, but I have been instructed that making web pages accessible includes this rule.

jr October 1, 2003 at 11:05 am

Cripes, now we gotta have rules. I always set my links to open in new windows. This may be an old marketing trick. You must close out my page specifically. Makes sure that you read my other stuff too. Because one link may be come two or three links and soon to quote David Byrne , “How did I get here?”.

Yule Heibel October 1, 2003 at 12:48 pm

JR, apropos marketing, I thought that perhaps the new-window/same-window question worked the other way around, that opening in the same window makes you reload the “source”-page and thereby increases the “hit” traffic on your site

Wendy, you’re the first person to mention screen reader issues, which I hadn’t heard of (my bad). If it’s a significant problem for the visually impaired we should all know more about it. But while it’s a good reason to change the m.o., I still don’t get why one is web-like and the other isn’t.

Yule Heibel October 1, 2003 at 12:56 pm

The superb Mark Woods (Wood’s Lot, see blogroll on right) has an elegant solution, incidentally: his site has a box you can check, “links open windows,” whereupon it then does exactly that.

brian moffatt October 7, 2003 at 7:25 am

‘Dave Winer’ strikes me as a bt of a control freak. Not that the world doesn’t need control freaks. Without them nothing would ever get done and the rest of us wouldn’t have these easy marks, people we can easily make fun of. However.., it does strike me that ‘Dave’ – and I’ve never met the man, I’m only basing this on what he has written, what I have read, and I am not quite sure that the ‘Dave Winer’ we read read is ‘the’ real Dave Winer at any rate – anyway, ‘Dave Winer’ seems to confuse his personal preferences for universal truths. I see this only because I have that tendency myself.

Yule Heibel October 9, 2003 at 12:40 am

I don’t even care about Dave Winer in this equation. I just wanna know why “new window” and “same window” would make enough of a qualitative difference to justify “not web-like” and “web-like” appellations. Seriously, I don’t get it on a formal level. Wendy’s explanation makes some sense, but that’s not the web-like vs non-web-like explanation I was looking for. I can get terribly hung-up on formal issues — it’s my training. This is like someone saying a leftward curve is baroque, but a righward curve isn’t. Why / why not??

Dave Winer October 12, 2003 at 6:12 pm

Opening links in a new window breaks the Back button.

Yule Heibel October 12, 2003 at 6:51 pm

Ah, that makes some sense. But now I have another question: doesn’t that make the linking-surfing process linear, which sort of contradicts the weblike aspect? But overall, your reason makes sense, …even though, being such a bitch, I’m left wondering why the Back button should have a higher value than the Close window button…

Anonymous October 12, 2003 at 9:37 pm

But if you open links in a new window you don’t need the Back button.
Personally I prefer for most links to open in new windows for the same reason that I often have several books open on my desk at one time. If I need to look up a definition in a dictionary I want to do so without having to close the book I am reading.
What does “web-like” mean anyway?

Yule Heibel October 12, 2003 at 10:49 pm

Well, I don’t know which I prefer for myself. I recently began using the same window for links, partly ’cause it’s less of these “”<>a href=<>””thingies to type, and have found the strictures of that linear path weirdly comforting. On the other hand, I still like the new windows approach for precisely the reasons you cite. It’s a bit like using a light table when you’re preparing an art history lecture: there are a bunch of slides that you have in front of you and you swish them around. It helps you put your thoughts in order while letting you see several things at the same time.

Sofia August 25, 2005 at 3:47 am

Thank you for the info.

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