Gemini's different approach to links

I have lately been reading many pages on Gemini. There has been a lot of interest around it on the blogs/microblogs I follow, which has lead to me check it out as well. The project is very interesting, and if you have ever been interested in how much bandwidth the current web wastes, the lack of privacy there is when we navigate it, the constant security issues that come up with browsers, etc., I recommend you to take a look at the project and read the FAQs. This post, however, is not about the Gemini protocol, but about how the text/gemini media type handles links in comparison to HTML.

text/gemini is a very lightweight markup format. It only allows text, headers, sub-headers, sub-sub-headers, preformatted text, unordered lists, quotes, and links. As you can see, it has a (small) subset of the functionality of other hypertext formats such as HTML, Markdown or org-mode. On top of that, links have to be on their own line, and you can optionally give them a title. If I wanted to link to the Gemini homepage as I did in the last paragraph using text/gemini, it would have to be in its own line:

That sounds very inconvenient, right? Why not just put the link inside the paragraph like in HTML? I have found this way of linking a lot more pleasant when reading articles, and that's the reason for this post.

When links are in the middle of text, sometimes you click on them while reading—maybe even before you've finished reading the sentence! Even if you don't, they are distracting, you will probably have to make a mental note: read the link once done with the paragraph, or you'll have to think: is this link worth it? To decide whether to do the mental note in the first place. If you don't do this, then you probably rescan the whole paragraph for links you have ignored (or just ignore links altogether). By having the links at the end of the paragraph, you won't get distracted in the middle of your reading, and you won't have to rescan for ignored links.

Aside from that, HTML links don't take up any space, they merely decorate a word that was already there, while in text/gemini they take up a line of text, which means authors will probably think twice before linking to 5 different websites that don't provide any useful knowledge to the reader. But even if that doesn't stop them, now links have titles, which means the visitor knows what the link is about before clicking it. That is a nice feature because it makes it easy to ignore anything you are not interested in. If the author doesn't specify the title, the URL will be shown in its place, and that already gives a lot of information. I know that in most browsers, you can hover over a link to see the URL, but you have to reach for the mouse to do it (and it is even harder to see the URL when on a phone or tablet).

But the words with HTML links already tell what the link is about!

Not always. For example, let's look at the start of the post, where the word Gemini links somewhere. Three options of possible links come to mind: I'm linking to the homepage of the project, the Wikipedia page (or some other wiki), or a previous post where I talk about how I've been using Gemini lately. Two types of readers also come to mind: someone that doesn't know what Gemini is (interested to click if it's one of the first two options) or someone that knows about Gemini, but is curious about others' experience with it (interested only in the last link). So it's not only about whether the link is useful or not but also about the particular visitor. However, if at the end of the paragraph there was a line with one of the following texts, it is obvious for the reader what kind of content the link is pointing to.

  • Project Gemini
  • Gemini — Wikipedia
  • Why I started using Gemini — Oscar Benedito

Two notes: this way of writing titles is the one I follow for HTML's a tags' title attribute, but other authors will do them differently. Also, the correct way to link to a blog post would be to link using the whole sentence ("I have lately been reading many pages on Gemini"), but not everyone does it.

Final thoughts

When first reading about links in text/gemini I thought they were too limiting, but they turned out to be quite nice. Don't get me wrong, links inside text can be very useful, especially considering that the web is not only made of large articles but, for this particular type of webpage, I find Gemini's approach better. This also made me realize how distracting links can be, and I am now trying to reduce the amounts of links to a minimum, as well as footnotes, to reduce the distractions caused by them. For now, I will still use links the "HTML way" because this blog is hosted on the world wide web, but I might change my mind in the future.

On another note, if Gemini sounds interesting, check out the specification, it is easy to read and the approach is very interesting.