The Evolution of Hyperlinks and the Decline of the Footnotes

Categories: Computers

Can Hyperlinks be the Evolution of Footnotes?

The footnotes have been an indispensable scholarly tool since the 18th century and seemed to have served their purpose quite well. Some treat the usage of the footnotes as a necessary evil, some as a matter of taste. However, not all academics employ the footnotes equally and not all seem to find them as necessary as, for example, historians do. Moreover, in the current digital age the role of the footnote is changing. Many state that the footnote is experiencing its hard times.

The authors find them difficult, publishing houses find them expensive (when in print) and many readers find them too distracting. So, what happened to the delight the footnote once used to bring? The emergence of the hyperlink might be regarded as a cause of the footnote’s decline. Some scholars state that footnotes have been a dying form until the Internet had saved them with hyperlinks. Such claim offers that hyperlinks are taking over the footnotes in the digital world.

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This essay will try to draw necessary parallels and comparisons in order to see whether a hyperlink is a counterpart of a footnote or a completely new entity. The aim is to reveal whether is it sensible to compare these two literary tools in general.

Footnote Functionality

It is important to mention a classic definition of the footnote which shapes it as a note of reference, explanation, or comment usually placed below the text on a printed page.? Interestingly, a footnote in a digital document has almost an identical definition, it is a text that appears at the bottom of the page that adds explanation; it is often used to give a credit to a source of information.

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In this paper the main focus will be on the digital footnotes. Initially a footnote was referred by historians as a high form of a literary art. The historical footnotes were the most creative and diverse. Some of them did not only provide an extra explanation or reference but entertain, engage or open a discourse with the reader. Such footnotes were revealing the controversies the author had with his fellow scholars, friends or even his disagreement with political systems. This style of footnote usage knew no boundaries and at the same time it was capable of supporting the writer’s personal story. It is difficult to find a better example of this than in E. Gibbon’s “History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire” where the author devotes one-quarter of space to the sarcastic and polemical footnotes.

Many consider these annotations to be the best part of the book for its humorous and illuminative nature. Besides being creative, footnotes can provide with detailed information, take away doubts, persuade in author’s views, and educate the reader on many levels. Others, however, think that footnotes interrupt a narrative, as Noel Coward expressed in Grafton’s “The footnote: A curious history”: “Having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love”. Some scholars note that the footnote secures a moment of rest for the reader, especially when something intense and complicated is read. One of the footnote admirers is Chuck Zerby, he poetically said that it “can preserve a collateral thought”.

According to Zerby, the footnote organises and disorganises at the same time representing the unsettled nature of our mind. It is commonly believed that footnotes are solely apt in scholarly literature, but this can be easily disproved since many fiction writers extensively use footnotes as well. Many of these footnotes are usually part of the story or at least they enhance it, for example, like in some Douglas Adams books. In other cases, footnotes explain the underlying concepts, but do not affect the story otherwise. Some footnotes begin an argument with the main text and get their own attitude. J. Fowles, for example, deployed footnotes in his “French Lieutenant’s woman” as an impression of historical authenticity. Footnote falls under the category that Gerard Genette has identified as paratext and it plays a crucial role in extending the boundaries of the narrative frame. Moreover, the footnote suggests alternative narrative threads and introduces new models for interpretation. Nonetheless, one should bear in mind that there are other types of footnotes that only indicate reference to an author and not necessarily need to be read unless the reader wants to check the source.

Despite what is mentioned above, many modern scholars are not so enthusiastic and positive about footnotes. Some claim it to be obsolete and too difficult to render. Its role is being questioned and in many e-documents even substituted with another entity, the hyperlink. Hyperlink functionality Hyperlinks or simply links are hidden bits of code that take the reader from one location to another; typically activated by clicking, tapping or hovering on a highlighted word or icon at a particular location on the screen. It points to a whole document or to a specific element within a document. The term “hyperlink” was coined in 1965 by Ted Nelson. He was inspired V. Bush’s 1945 famous essay “As we may think” describing a micro-film based system on a machine called “Memex”.

It was a device where one could link any two pages of information. Later it was transposed into the computer context which enabled scrolling within one document, then between paragraphs within several documents and finally in the 90th the first protocol that included hyperlinks connecting one Internet site to another was used. The hyperlink may function as a reference mechanism of navigating footnotes, tables of contexts, bibliographies and glossaries. Depending on its hypertext system, most links cause the target document to replace the document being displayed, but some are programmed to be displayed in a new window. To open hyperlink from an e-document on a personal computer one needs to hold a Ctrl button on a keyboard and click on the link that would open a target page in the Internet browser. The hyperlink is meant to help users to access information, facilitate navigation and, when used correctly, organise information.

Footnote and Hyperlink Parallels and Conventions

Together with drawing parallels and comparing footnotes and hyperlinks it makes sense to also try to identify some of their conventions. Typically, footnotes are used in scholarly and scientific works and are intended to provide the reader with further information or to share copyright permission information. However, any writer in any genre can make use of footnote and not just for offering additional details but also for explaining his personal views or making all sorts of remarks. Conversely, hyperlinks do not seem to be attached to any particular genre and are widely used. Categorizing footnotes and hyperlinks creates unforeseen obstacles in identifying differences between their functionality. Both footnotes and hyperlinks for referencing can be transformed into the endnotes if it is needed. That would not change the structure of the text much or the linearity of reading unless the reader would have an urge to check the source immediately.

However, hyperlinks that are simply used for navigation on the website remain an absolutely crucial tool since they allow readers to travel not only across a specific website but across the whole World Wide Web. It is not the same with footnotes. Some footnotes guide to a different location within the same document, but others, whether they are at the bottom of the page or in the end of the document (endnotes), are unable to teleport you into the libraries where those sources are stored. Interestingly, these days this is not entirely the case. Many scholars use the footnote that contains a website address and it can be easily copied by the reader into the address line of a web browser. Thus, with a little more effort, even not hyperlinked digital source can be accessed in a relatively short time. Both, a footnote and a hyperlink, being combined makes them even a more powerful tool.

Since hyperlinks have been around for much shorter than footnotes, they do not have strongly established rules or conventions. Nevertheless, some can be identified and we shall look at them along the lines of footnote conventions. Simply put, it is expected from a footnote to be at the end of the page or document while hyperlink can be anywhere it is needed on the web page. Footnotes are numbered consecutively throughout the text, not restarting the numbering on each page, while hyperlinks do not have any numbering. Hyperlinks are a fundamental element of any web page but are not compulsory in regular digital document. In a case of scholarly footnotes, they can be omitted by effectively integrating them into a literary narrative without damaging the quality of the text. We used to recognise hyperlink as a piece of underlined text on the web page highlighted with a blue colour.

However, that is no longer the case for Google, which removed the underlines in 2014.” Underlines only appear on hover. Supposedly, since so much of the page was clickable, eliminating the underlines thereby would increase readability. Conventions help orient people but now a big number of websites attempts to establish their own styles. After all, footnotes are referenced using a superscript number while hyperlinks should stand out not only from the background but also from the surrounding text. Footnotes remain the same no matter how many times we read them, on the contrary, visited hyperlinks change colour, traditionally becoming purple. Footnotes are always accessible in contrast with hyperlinks. Links often become invalid, lead to the pages that were removed or point to the different content than was intended. Dead links are a vexing issue in academic citing. This matter will be discussed more in the last chapter about hyperlink citation.

Is a hyperlink an evolution or substitution of a footnote or a unique entity on its own?

In the light of the footnotes and hyperlinks origins and functionality, it is sensible to attend to the ongoing scholarly discussions about the hyperlinks presence. These tools are interconnected and it is quite difficult to talk about hyperlinks without relating them to footnotes in one way or another. The footnote in many cases is considered to be a precursor of the hyperlink. What is not taken into account by many is that it is not only the footnote that is an ancestor of the hyperlink but also citation and any system of cross-references. Scholarly reasons to write a footnote, cite or use cross-reference vary dramatically, which makes them similar to hyperlinks. As it was mentioned before, it is rather difficult to make clear divisions and thus we should be cautious with identifying any type of cross-reference system and should not assume that they bear any straightforward, universal function.

Both hyperlinks and footnotes play a distinctive role for scholars in various disciplines. For example, historians that always heavily relied on footnotes now can go digital and use hyperlinks instead. This development makes a core historians’ activity – their interpretation of primary sources a more public process. Digital media allows scholars to offer an opportunity for people to contribute or challenge new interpretations, or see how historians analysed the materials. Not surprisingly, Thomas Cauvin is convinced that hyperlinks are an evolution of footnotes since it challenges the chronological approaches of the past. 12 He suggests that hyperlinks can replace traditional footnotes without rendering text too dense.

Moreover, historians can add images, maps, audio and video files just by inserting a link which makes the process of digital writing even more creative. This is impossible with the footnotes. All these new possibilities and advantages of hyperlinks convince a growing number of scholars to employ them. This trend provides a ground for thinking that footnotes are being taken over by hyperlinks in digital text. However, it is essential to note that not all footnotes can be replaced by hyperlinks since they perform different functions. Hyperlink almost never explains the author’s ideas or attitude to a certain subject, it never presents an entertaining remark and it rarely points us to the information that was written by the same author. What a hyperlink does instead is taking us to another source of information or web page that would provide more details to what was being said. Thus, if we dare to say, footnotes allow more creativity, hyperlinks increase practicality.

By the early 90s’, to the authors’ dismay, an academic footnote was not in a favourable position anymore. The footnotes were becoming the endnotes which made footnote fans even more upset. Fortunately, according to J. Bader the footnote was rescued and revived by the hyperlink: “The Web has spawned a cross-referencing craze that renders the formerly complete media event into a reference-laden, link-dependent, list-spewing wallflower waiting to be courted by the next available annotator”. footnotes traditionally contained, only with the new benefit of proximity. The hyperlink does something that footnote fails to do – make sources proximous. Neither V. Bush with his “Memex” nor D. Englebart with his early hypertext ideas could not have possibly known to what scope their remarkable inventions would develop. “Memex” was only meant to bring together the information from different sources but has become a predecessor of the modern World Wide Web. Ted Nelson probably did not realise either that his hyperlink idea would have such a crucial impact on how we use the Internet these days. He would not know what social significance the links would have and the special relations hypertext and users would develop. The hyperlink has become not just a mere digital development of a footnote but as A. Van der Weel puts it, has the much greater dynamic possibilities.

Even though footnotes and hyperlinks seem similar we do not have to treat them equally, especially when it is evident that footnotes and hyperlinks do not make the same impact on the audience. Authors’ earlier concern was how to keep the reader on the page but in a digital age the main focus is on how to make the reader to leave and come back again. Footnotes do seem distracting to some people, but according to the majority, hyperlinks are a real threat to the reader’s seemingly peaceful linear reading process. The hyperlinks change the direction of the reader’s experience relocating one’s attention through the page or document. According to Brian Carroll, a new rhetorical style is needed to recognise this non linearity and that now the reader dictates how the information is being read or accessed. Hyperlinks’ influence on the reader is a subject of vast controversies and must be briefly mentioned in this paper.

N. Carr’s book “The Shallows” has caused a wave of heated discussions about the impact hyperlinks cause on the readers. He calls the link a technologically advanced, more violent form of a footnote that is also distraction-wise. 17 According to the research results mentioned in the Carr’s book hyperlinks have a detrimental effect on the reading: “Deciphering hypertext substantially increases the readers’ cognitive load and hence weakens their ability to comprehend and retain what they’re reading”. Carr offers concept of delinkification when all the links are pulled to the bottom of the page, just like footnotes. By doing so, the reader would get a chance for more concentrated and calmer reading One of the authors that severely disagrees with Carr is S. Rosenberg. He is convinced that abandoning links is like killing your curiosity.

Others go even further with disagreeing with Carr delinkification. M. Ingram suggests that by avoiding hyperlinks the authors probably are unprepared to have their ideas tested by comparison to others; it is a sign of intellectual cowardice. He also claims that it is an indicator of intellectual arrogance when a writer thinks all the ideas are his own and have no link to the thoughts of others. Ingram concludes his provocative rampage with saying that either way, getting rid of the links is a failure on the writer’s part.20 It seems unlikely that such claims would be made about footnotes. Therefore, we might consider them as another sign of hyperlink having more influence than a footnote. If we would like to get rid of the footnote on the end of the page, we could either try to ignore it entirely (if possible) or resize our reading window to not see them. The case with ignoring hyperlinks is more complicated since they conventionally stand out of the main text.

What some scholars suggest now is to have an option to make hyperlinks inactive so they would not distract the reader. Perhaps, this would please both Carr and his opponents. Footnotes as well as hyperlinks can be terribly misused by the writers and content creators. For example, when there are too many of them, they result in becoming a major distraction. It is more complicated with hyperlinks, however. Many authors that create digital text do not wield the knowledge about the parts of content that can be hyperlinked which results in inappropriate linking or misleading the reader. This sheds light on the thought that only links used inappropriately are distracting. Some are just better at linking than others. There are many other more perplexing issues that are attached to hyperlinks that footnotes admirers would unlikely have. Infringement, false advertising and misappropriation are only some of them. A growing number of individuals and companies are being sued for bypassing the homepages of the websites but linking to their content without mentioning the source. “Inline” linking and “deep” linking brings information inside the website and are common violations of copyright on the Web. To our surprise, it is only big companies who would prosecute these sorts of plagiarism and piracy, the rest does not seem to be too much bothered by them.

Hyperlink Citation in Academia

A hyperlink has a potential to change current reference systems in the scholarly world. Many believe that this so-called revolution has already started but lacks the support to break through. The reasons for this revolution are clear and well-known in academia. The citation process of an academic paper many students and scholars can hardly call enjoyable. A big number of citation conventions (e.g. APA and MLA style) and strict academic requirements demand hours of meticulous unnecessary work. The digital non-natives shy away from using hyperlinks in their papers. This makes an impression that they refuse to employ the full potential of hyperlinks, not being able to part with the paper world conventions. Only randomly, without any specific system, their students are encouraged to employ hyperlinks. The paper-based reference system clearly lacks value in a digital age. Therefore, many scholars suggest that conventional citation styles nuisance can be put to an end with the hyperlinks provision. The main idea of referencing is to provide the reader with the access to primary sources and hyperlink is believed to radically enhance this purpose. There are several hypothetical ways how hyperlink can do this in practice.

To begin with, hyperlinks can be given in footnotes which would allow direct access to the sources without debatable hyperlink “distraction” in the middle of the text. S. Tønnesson even offers to apply this concept by accompanying every printed book with extendable and updatable reference documents on the web.21 Feasible or not, the advantages of hyperlink citation seem obvious. It would allow more proximity, more transparency and less fraud in scholarly referring. Another way is to format hyperlinks directly into the text with a number that would contain DOI (Digital Object Identifiers). DOI is a registration agency that attaches unique identifying character string with a relevant data to the document and allows the file to be accessed regardless of changes to the URL. DOI plays a significant role when it comes to the ignored issue of dead links. The amount of broken links in online scholarly journals is overwhelming. According to the research conducted by J. Ho, nearly half of all the hyperlinks used in three researched academic journals were broken. This raises a question of credibility of mentioned source. The readers with their high expectations of reference system hope to connect to the cited material and misleading and broken links are clearly disappointing as they jeopardise the very nature of hyperlinks. Thus, if a hyperlink is an enhanced version of a footnote, the hyperlinks citation can be considered as an innovative approach to reference systems. Perhaps, it is to start a citation revolution in academia.


It is sensible to compare footnotes and hyperlinks when it comes to digital documents. However, the comparison will not be over soon as the function and use of hyperlinks are still evolving. In the light of the arguments provided in this paper, we can agree that in some way hyperlink can be called an evolution of the footnote. However, the function of a footnote is more diverse than the function of a hyperlink. The ability to engage, entertain and even be part of the narrative is a unique footnote feature. Although, the hyperlink can open a table or a multimedia file, it never makes a personal impression as opinionated footnote does. What must be considered is digitization. The footnote has had its birth, revival and decline until it has received another chance with the invention of hyperlinks. The internet has empowered the hyperlink to a remarkable scope, allowing instant navigation to most sources.

The footnote lags in this respect but has other strengths. They both have similar functions like providing access to primary sources or additional information. In terms of using footnotes and hyperlinks in reference systems, it is clear that a new modern approach needs to be set up. Proximity of the sources has to be prioritised. In a digital age new conventions need to be formulated for a new medium, a movement towards a new convention can be seen with the emergence of hyperlinks. It is still uncertain to speak of established new conventions and how much the use of hyperlinks will change in the near future. Evolution or not, footnotes and hyperlinks can be employed together, combining personal creativity, providing more access and becoming more useful. It is too early to say whether the footnote-hyperlink changes are for the better or worse, all we can do is to be critical about them and look for opportunities to harness their powers while mitigating the negative effects some people claim they have.


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The Evolution of Hyperlinks and the Decline of the Footnotes. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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