We don’t even notice it anymore — “link in bio”. It’s a pithy phrase, usually found on Instagram, which directs an audience to be aware that a pertinent web link can be found on that user’s profile. Its presence is so subtle, and so pervasive, that we barely even noticed it was an attempt to kill the web.
Links on the web are incredibly powerful. There are decades of theory behind the role of hyperlinks in hypertext — did you know in most early versions, links were originally designed to be two-way? You'd be able to see every page on the web that links to this one. But even in the very simple form that we've ended up with on the World Wide Web for the last 30 years, links are incredibly powerful, opening up valuable connections between unexpected things.
For a closed system, those kinds of open connections are deeply dangerous. If anyone on Instagram can just link to any old store on the web, how can Instagram — meaning Facebook, Instagram’s increasingly-overbearing owner — tightly control commerce on its platform? If Instagram users could post links willy-nilly, they might even be able to connect directly to their users, getting their email addresses or finding other ways to communicate with them. Links represent a threat to closed systems.
Precarity and Scarcity
Here's the thing, though: people like links. So closed systems have to present a pressure release valve. Hashtags are a great way out. They use the semiotics of links (early versions of hashtags on social platforms were really barely more than automated links to a search for a particular term) but are also constrained by the platforms they live on. A hashtag is easier to gather into a database, to harvest, to monetize. It’s much easier, sure, but it also doesn’t have all the messiness of a real link. Instagram doesn’t have to worry that clicking on its hashtags will accidentally lead people to Twitter, or vice versa.
And the ultimate triumph of being anti-web is to make links scarce. The smallest possible number of links a platform could allow is zero, so Instagram gets as close to that theoretical limit as possible, and gives you… one. You can have one link. Aren’t you grateful? One!
There are some legitimate reasons platforms limit links. Spammers abuse links. Trust is hard to verify around links — too many scammers make links that look real, but lead to sketchy sites. Building a system to monitor all the links being posted on a big platform does take some cost. Maybe you can have a link again, if you are already in the 1% most influential users on the platform and put it in a story — the part of Instagram's experience that drives the engagement metrics they care about. Maybe you just give up, and pay for links, by buying advertising.
But killing off links is a strategy. It may be presented as a cost-saving measure, or as a way of reducing the sharing of untrusted links. But it is a strategy, designed to keep people from the open web, the place where they can control how, and whether, someone makes money off of an audience. The web is where we can make sites that don’t abuse data in the ways that Facebook properties do.
Links take us to places where we can make choices that Instagram never would.
Imagine Something New
With billions of people using the major social platforms, and the people who remember a pre-social-media web increasing in age while decreasing as cultural force on the internet, we’re rapidly losing fluency in what the internet could look like. We’ve almost forgotten that links are powerful, and that restraining links through artificial scarcity is an absurdly coercive behavior.
I don’t care about the imagined “good old days” of the web, and I’m not a pollyanna about the wild, open web being some panacea for all the harms that technology and the internet can enable. But I do think coercive methods of controlling people are a danger, and some of the most insidious techniques are when a platform subtly erases empowering opportunities for its users. So let’s look at all the apps that live under our thumbs, and interrogate the choices they’re making, and then imagine what they would look like if we demanded that our tools don’t tie our hands.
Flashback: From 2011, Facebook is gaslighting the web.