Function: What do anchors do?

Text Menu

Open doors to new content

At its most basic level of interpretation and interaction with the text, the function of an anchor is simply to provide access to the link. Rosenberg proposes analyzing the activity of reading hypertexts into "a three-layer scheme."  The acteme defines as "an extremely low-level unit of activity, such as following a link. [109, p. 22] "  He further states that one of the ways to engage a link is by "clicking on an anchor either graphically visible or inferred by the reader. [Rosenbergbib, p. 22] " We would extend this to defining an acteme as the decision to engage or interpret the anchor within the reading.


Bridge between content

For some, clicking on an anchor is akin to turning a page in a codex. It is merely a mechanism required for accessing new content, even randomly. Yet, anchors do more than this. Nicholas C. Burbules, in "Rhetorics of the Web: hyperreading and critical literacy," asks us to consider link a little more critically.  Burbules suggests that the link is "the key element in this hypertext structure" but that "links are not all of the same type, and that selecting and following any particular line of association between distinct textual points involves an interpretation of the nature of the association this link implies" [75, pp. 103-104] .  That is, as we move from actemes to episodes, one needs to pay close attention to the links that one follows because considering the pathways that one has followed can themselves lead to acts of interpretation.  For instance, Burbules provides the example of "a link from a page listing Political Organizations to a page on the Catholic Church" [75, p. 111] .  This link can lead to readers reflecting upon the Catholic Church in new ways, but only if they consider relationship reflected by the link as well as content of the two nodes.  Burbules calls the process of reading the links as well as the contents of the nodes, "hyperreading" [75, p. 117].

Hold deep semiotic potential

Hyperreading should be more than just looking at the types of associations implied by the link's connecting the arrival and departure nodes. We need also to look at the function of the anchor in context to both arrival and departure nodes to determine its semiotic function (connotatively and denotatively or even ambiguously). Looking at the anchors that serve as the entryways into the links can also lead to acts of interpretation and help one more critically assess the hypertext.  For example, when one clicks on the text anchor "father" and traverses the link to a node describing a scene about adultery, readers are led to ponder what the relationship is between the father and the scene.  Even if the father is not a participant in the act, the mere fact that the access to the adultery scene was through the anchor, "father" will start to tinge how one views the father. In this way, the anchor ("father") becomes a connotative signifier for the new node (about adultery) and, hereafter, the signified (node about adultery) affects how the reader will view the signifier ("father") in the context of its own node. The anchor becomes a signifier for the new node, and carries the emphatic significance of the original node through the reading of the new node. The anchor works the other way as well, carrying the significance of the new node back into re-readings and re-visionings of the original node.

Phillippe Codognet [80] states that the anchor serves the added sign function of what Charles S. Pierce [106bib] labels an index. According to Pierce, an index is something that indicates that existence of something else, for example a bullethole is an index that indicates the presence of a bullet. Arthur Burks [76] further explains and defines the term “index” so that it indicates signs such as the word “this,” which takes its meaning only when its signified is discovered. For example, if I say “I will buy this,” the signifier “this” is ambiguous until the signified (the item I’m about to purchase) is discovered. In this way, indices are used and convey meaning by pointing to something else. It is in this manner that Codognet is using the term “index” when he states, “links are obvious examples of indexes, with a word pointing to (referring to) its definition or to some related piece of information." As an index, the anchor points to the presence of something more, and thereby signifies the relationship between the arrival and departure nodes.

As such, the function of the anchor is more than just something that one clicks on in order to travel to another node.  Indeed, others have seen the potential for many other kinds of meanings---many critics [118], [98], [linktypbib], have hailed the potential for taxonomic functions for anchors, to signify types of links and connections. However, this potential has gone mostly unrealized. While authors have not availed themselves of formal taxonomic anchor typing, many authors have used anchor properties to reveal the anchors' potent semiotic functions.

Journey & Arrival: Aesthetic & Efferent

In his “The Rhetoric of Hypermedia: Some Rules for Authors,” George Landow presents the following questions for hypertext authors: “First, what must they do to orient readers and help them read efficiently and with pleasure? Second, how can they inform those reading a document where the links in the document lead? Third, how can they assist readers who have entered a new document feel at home there?” [94, 83]. From these initial questions, Landow develops nineteen rules to guide hypertext authors. The first three rules acknowlege the semiotic potential of links:

  • Rule 1. The very existence of links in hypermedia conditions the reader to expect purposeful, important relationships between linked materials.
  • Rule 2. The emphasis upon linking materials in hypermedia stimulates and encourages habits of relational thinking in the reader . . .
  • Rule 3. Since Hypermedia systems predispose users to expect such significant relationships among documents, those documents that disappoint these expectations appear particularly incoherent and nonsignificant [94, 96-98].

Landow later provides specific rules for anchors to facilitate these relationships:

  • Rule 8. Never place link markers independent of accompanying text or image.
  • Rule 9. When creating a link or positioning a link marker that indicates the presence of a link, remember that all links are bidirectional.
  • Rule 10. Avoid linking to words or phrases that only provide appropriate points of arrival but give the reader no suggestion of where the link might lead on departure.
  • Rule 11. Place the link marker in close proximity to a text that indicates the probable nature of the link destination.
  • Rule 12. When creating documents, assist readers by phrasing statements or posting questions that provide obvious occasions for following links.
  • Rule 13. When possible provide specific information about a link destination by directly drawing attention to it. [94, 96-98]

Some of these rules are only applicable to earlier hypertext systems like Intermedia and Hypercard. For example, with html, it is not possible to create a link that is independent of an object (e.g., text or image); there has to be some element that serves as the anchor. Yet, if Landow means by this that anchors should be embedded in the text, then we can see that this "rule" is regularly violated. Similarly, Rule 9 is not regularly followed. Even though Gundar [gundarbib] postulates these biconditional links as homoanchoral and heteroanchoral, these are not a convention and were extremely rare in our sample. With the rest of Landow’s rules and in context of his overall aim in the article, Landow asserts that anchors should provide readers with a clear idea as to the destination of their links. This way, readers can select anchors in an informed manner. The purpose here, according to Landow, is to help readers read “efficiently and with pleasure.”

Such denotative efficiency is certainly a contributing factor in the anchor construction of Wikipedia [68]. Wikipedia is a heavily anchored site that clearly shares Landow’s views towards creating anchors that guide readers. For example, readers are greeted with the sentence, “Welcome to Wikipedia! We are building an open-content encyclopedia in many languages.” In this sentence, the words “Welcome,” “Wikipedia,” “open-content” and “many languages” are anchors. Each of the links leads to fairly a obvious node considering the anchor. Clicking on “Welcome” leads to a node that welcomes newcomers to the site and provides information about how to use the site. Clicking on “Wikipedia” leads to a description of the project as well as its history and policies. Clicking on “open-content” reveals information concerning copyright. And clicking on “many languages” reveals a list of languages supported on Wikipedia.

Conversely, Terrence Harpold problematizes Landow’s desire for efficiency. In “The Contigencies of the Hypertext Link,” Hapold questions the common view of the link “as an instrument of textual communication (movement and meaning)” [90, 132]. Instead, Harpold sees the link as a way to open, “indiscriminate possibilities for deferral and contingency” [90, 130]. In this way, Harpold uses the navigation metaphor to describe reading hypertext as a journey. With this metaphor, Harpold explains that traveling does not simply involve arriving at one’s destination. Instead, the process of being on a journey involve that one is “not there yet” [90, 128 italics Harpold’s]. In short, Harpold ends up disagreeing with Landow’s rules and concludes, “Misdirection is, then, not a secondary or unfortunate consequence of the narrative excesses of hypertexts. The accidents of reading a hypertext (changing your destination, forgetting your point of departure, or getting lost along the way) are not a priori the effects of inappropriate cues, misinterpreted references or poor design, but the general condition of hypertext as text (a fabric of iterable marks), amplified by the narrative turns of the link (the trace of the marks’ iterability)” [90, 137]. The goal of reading hypertext is not always efficiency. Instead, sometimes the goal is merely the experience of traveling along the linked pathways of the text.

The Unknown embodies this journey as a densely linked site of connotative contemplations always leading somewhere else. In Iowa, readers find: “But Dirk wanted to get there, wherever it was we were going, ASAP. He said he was getting sick of Midwestern driving, that it seemed like everything was the same everywhere in the Midwest, he said, “Ohio is Indiana is Illinois is Wisconsin is Iowa is Nebraska.” Ohio is an anchor leading to a rant wondering about the name Cinncinnatti; Indiana a node starting out asking how many miles to Denver and ending on faking french; and so forth until William chokes in Nebraska on a cheeto while Dirk and Scott range from Keith Moon to the Beatles to find a parallel situation. The Unknown offers a series of anchors that promise to tell about William's nearly fatal bungie jumping accident, but while readers travel to the Sierra's and through verse, they never hear about the accident.

We found that these two views towards links (efficiency vs. contingency) were some of the more distinguishing traits of between efferent and aesthetic sites. Efferent sites tended to apply Landow’s views towards non-ambiguous anchors and tactics to help readers achieve goals efficiently. This sets up a denotative strategy where anchors name the arrival node. Aesthetic sites, on the whole, were more likely to delay gratification and to use anchor strategies that led to further wanderings in what Harpold calls a “dilatory space” [90, 133]. This sets up a connotative strategy where anchors are a handy jumping off place to connect journeys.


Function summary table
Property   Bottom line Efferent.: Get information Aesthetic: Explore, uncover meanings or experience emotion
Anchors that add another layer of meaning, content, or interpretation beyond a navigational function.

Efferent sites very rarely used embedded or connotative links. Aesthetic sites rarely used a simple denotative structure and relied primarily on connotative anchors with secondary menu or map denotative anchors.

The potential for connotative interpretation varies with anchor properties.

A List Apart [2] (to a limited extent in embedded text links.)
Saturn [60](to a limited extent in picture/text/ maps)

_][ad][Dressed in a Skin C.ode [44]
Afterimage [7]
afternoon, a story [27]

Ferris Wheels [33]
High Crimson [11]
I'm Simply Saying [35]
In the Changing Room [8] (text, icons)
Lexia to Perplexia [43]
Marble Springs [36] (text)
Notes Towards Absolute Zero [42]
Patchwork Girl [26]
Penetration [30]

Reach [28]
Reagan Library [47]
Sand Loves [38] (text)
Samplers [37](text and map)
The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot [61]
The Jew's Daughter [45]
The Pines at Walden Pond [39]
The Unknown [56]
True North [62]

Victory Garden [48]
~water ~water ~water [59]
Zenobia, Queen of Palmyria [10]

  The same anchors can be both connotative and denotative. Poems That Go Archives peomsbib] (graphic) Afterimage [7]
Diagrams Series 5 [57] (content is the anchor)
Joe's Heartbeat in Budapest [49]
Six Sex Scenes [14]
What We Will [66](larger connotations of the implications of time/space)
Anchors that denote the name or subject of the destination node.

Denotative anchors name the node they link to. On aesthetic site, the node names often had connotative interpretive potential. On efferent sites, node names were usually more straightforward.

Adaptive Path [1]
Bankrate [3]

BBC [4]
brandchannel [5]
Cooperstown [6]
Doonesbury [64]
Earthtrends [12]
Idea Line (selective navigation)
FirstGov [18]

Garnier Fructis [20]
Hummer [23]
IDEO [24]
Kidbuilding [31]
Nevada Division of Environmental Protection [50]
PeopleSoft [53]
Poems That Go Archives [54] (text)
Questacon [55]
Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children [58]
Wikipedia [68]

Charmin' Cleary [16] (only case found of embedded hidden denotative anchors)
25 Ways to Close a Photograph [41]
(graphic denotation)
Ferris Wheels [33]
In The Changing Room [8]
Marble Springs [36] (Directory)
Same Day Test [25]
Sand Loves [38] (graphic)
Six Sex Scenes [14]
storytelling banner ads pop up ads (new screen and embedded)
Ambiguous Anchors can be so uniform (e.g. radio buttons on Him [9]) that they do not yield interpretations or the connections can be so obscure as to render interpretation meanIngliss.  Fuddruckers [19] Him [9]
The Rainbow Factory [22]
Random Random events have their own connotations of serendipity and happenstance.   Marble Springs [36] (hidden)
Pax [46]
Reagan Library [47] (text)
War Games--Catch The LandMine!! [40]
Taxonomic Anchors can be used to denote the type of material triggered, but this is rarely found in websites and we did not identify any taxonomic structures in the sites we surveyed.  


abstract definition metacommentary references uniformity Density Location type decoration