From a craft point of view, dealing with inbound and outbound links on a fiction blog is less problematic than allowing readers to post comments. While concerns about the fourth wall should be paramount in any storyteller’s mind, links are an indirect threat. Between the functionality of modern blog software and the limits of authorial control in an open medium such as the internet, there isn’t a lot of innovating that needs to be done.
Link Types and the Fourth Wall
On any blog, links come in five types. Here’s how I anticipate dealing with them on my character blog, NeilRorke.com:
These are links that point to another page on the site the reader is on. Because Neil’s entire site is fiction (including reader-submitted comments), there are no fourth wall issues to worry about.
These are links that take readers to another site. As such, they’re no different than links a real person would use to connect readers to information of interest.
My concern with outbound links is minimal, and mostly character-centric. Any outbound link needs to be governed by who Neil is as a character, but that’s Storytelling 101. The only way an outbound link could blow a hole in the fourth wall would be if Neil linked to an article about fiction blogs, or worse, an article about himself as a fictional character. (It’s presumptuous to imagine anyone writing an article about Neil, but I’m trying to be thorough here.)
Outbound Pingbacks and Trackbacks
One step I have taken is to turn off the auto-notification feature in Neil’s blog software (WordPress). Here’s the relevant text for that setting, from the help file:
Attempt to notify any blogs linked to from the article
If you check this box, WordPress will send out a ping to a site or article you have linked to in your post. Your mention of their site or article will show up in the comment section of their site, if that site allows pingbacks.
I turned this feature off because I don’t want readers who follow a link to another site to run into a comment like this: “D’oh! You’re getting pwned by a fictional character!” Preventing outbound pingbacks or trackbacks increases the chance that Neil’s readers will be able to maintain suspension of disbelief even on a nonfiction site that Neil links to. (The only exception I can imagine to this global ban is the possibility that Neil might link to another fictional site. In that event WordPress allows me to change the auto-notification setting on a per-post basis, enabling a pingback or trackback to be sent.)
These are links to NeilRorke.com from other sites. Even if I wanted to worry about such links, there’s nothing I can do to prevent them. If somebody wants to rip Neil to shreds, or blast me as a writer, I can’t prevent them from including a link to Neil’s site. People get to say what they want to say on the internet.
Inbound Pingbacks and Trackbacks
As noted above, pingbacks and trackbacks give notice to other sites that they have been referenced in a blog post or article. Because pingbacks and trackbacks often post in the same space as reader-submitted comments, inbound notifications are a clear threat to the fourth wall on Neil’s site. Fortunately, while the author of a fiction blog can do nothing to prevent inbound links from other sites, pingbacks and trackbacks can often be denied with a simple checkbox setting. Again, here’s the relevant text from the WordPress documentation:
Allow link notifications from other blogs
Check this box so WordPress to [sic] accepts or declines the pings from other sites which may reference your site or an article on your site. If this box is checked, pingbacks and trackbacks will appear in the comments section of your posts.
The only way Neil’s readers will know if other sites have posted about Neil is to search for those references themselves. Again, because I can’t do anything to prevent that, it’s not something I’m going to worry about. What I can do is prevent someone from injecting content into Neil’s world without his or my permission
The big takeaway here, if you’re planning to write a fiction blog, is to make sure your blog software allows you to control pingbacks and trackbacks. This technical capability will do far more to protect the fourth wall than any decision you will make at the post/link level.
If there’s anything that still concerns me, its the various legal issues that might arise if I include embedded links (YouTube clips, say) in Neil’s site. I don’t know if content sites cover such things in their terms of service, and I have no immediate plans to embed any video clips, but it’s something I think about. Then again, I see no substantive distinction between Neil’s site and Ditchwalk or this site or anybody else’s blog. As long as no content is appropriated (either directly or through claims to copyright), I don’t think there’s meaningful legal exposure. Or if there is, at least Neil’s in good company.
From a character perspective, I have noticed that the thought of linking to commercial sites makes me uneasy. Part of the problem is that Neil’s only been posting for a little while, so there’s no accumulated gravitas to his character or point of view. My other concern is that such links might be interpreted as product placement, or saddle Neil’s fictional world with narrative baggage I don’t want to take on. In this context, government sites and sites like Wikipedia strike me as a godsend because they allow Neil to reference information and sources that are relevant but not particularly controversial. Even as I know such sites may contain information of dubious veracity, having access to them helps me as a storyteller.
About the only other link-related problem I can think of is the hassle of auditing and correcting dead or broken links, but that’s a chore for any blog author. Neil gets no sympathy from me on that score. (Welcome to the machine, Neil.)
— Mark Barrett