Warren Ellis, Reddit And Digg Will Destroy The Internet

So, there’s a nicely over-stated title to get me rolling…

Warren Ellis posted today about the Patchwork Years of the Internet, and how the “link curation” style of blogging — Jorn Barger’s Robot Wisdom, for example — is kind of a historical artefact, that BoingBoing and a handful of others have this taken care of. Most people are shifting to a more personal style of blogging — either the ever-popular navel-gazing, sending short messages, or linking to friends’ work. Or hiding behind walls, where we can’t see or interact with them.

There’s a certain amount of truth to this, but also a couple of missing pieces here.

The first is that, like with most media, there’s only room at the top for a few broad, “general interest” blogs. Those slots are already taken, so most curatorship blogs are focused on niche topics — of which there are now huge numbers, each with their own particular hierarchy of “A-list” “power blogger” “microcelebrities” or whatever you want to bandy about. When I launched Voluminous, you can bet I researched the “Apple software” blog niche to try and figure out how best to get the word out to people (with mixed results). You can find similar niches for everything from cute pictures of animals to… whatever it is monoscope does.

The second is the rise of the social aggregators. I suspect people are more likely to post a link on Reddit or Digg, than to their own blog. Apart from anything else, for most people, the site will get more coverage that way. It’s also less effort — maybe just clicking a single button, if you have it bookmarked.

There’s a sense in which they are in direct competition with, and antithetical to, curated blogs. If you link to something indirectly — eg link to BoingBoing’s coverage of X, instead of X — the aggregator crowd generally gets angry. There’s never any credit to the discoverer, except in some nebulous points system within the social aggregator itself, that’s essentially worthless in the wider world.

By contrast, when curating, it’s standard practice to give credit (and considered rude not to), and common to link to curators’ blogs for the commentary or context they provide. The only context provided by the aggregators is in the comments thread attached to each post, which are both somewhat insular and, for various social reasons, often require vaccination before you enter.

The Goog

So what? It’s more convenient, right? And it’s “democratised”! A site doesn’t have to somehow wheedle the attention of Powerblogger McLinksfast to zip around the internet — it’s in the hands of the people! That’s good, right?

The problem is that links are the currency of the internet.

Do you remember internet search, before Google? Even if we skip past the search engines that were outright auctioning off results placement to the highest bidder, and go straight to the decent, upstanding engines — they still sucked. Either they searched a tiny subset of the net and you never found a damn thing, or they searched everything — and found everything, and threw that everything in your face, in a big sticky undifferentiated mess.

I’m not going to rehash in detail how Google fixed this — is there anyone left who doesn’t know how PageRank works? All this article needs is: it’s all about links; mo links = mo ranking; a link from a highly-ranked site is worth more to your rank than from a nobody — but lots of nobodies added together is still useful.

People like to complain about Google, but they did make it possible to find things on the internet again, and that’s valuable.

And this is where curatorship blogs come in. Their value isn’t necessarily in the human readership, which may well consist of the writer’s mum, best friend, and a handful of squirrels. They have additional value in that each link is a vote for the target. Because there’s another reader: The Goog.

One Link One Vote

A link from an aggregator is just that: One link. Doesn’t matter if it has a bajillion upvotes or diggs or group hugs, it’s still just one link, and every post from the front-page hot topic to the spammers’ linkfarm on page 482 has the same value as far as The Goog is concerned.

So why not use those rankings as weightings? Basically, because they are (or can be, trivially) rigged. They fluctuate like crazy. People play games with them. Remember, it just takes one click to submit or upvote a link, there are botfarms and paid services to vote you up, and the same again to go around downvoting everyone else so you stand out. Ugh.

It’s more effort to set up and post to a blog about something. More effort means if you bothered, then that link is more valuable to you.

Sure, it’s not like the net isn’t full of spamblogs, too. But because they are websites, with a certain amount of infrastructure surrounding them and a certain amount of transparency implied by that, it’s easier to analyse them for at least a basic minimum standard of legitimacy.

This is Matt Cutts’ territory. It’s that all-important context again. A link on an aggregator is just a drop in an ocean of links with nothing to distinguish it. A blog has lots of sources of “side-band” information: When was it set up? How frequently does it update? On what sort of topics? Who else does it link to? Do other people link to it? Are those people legitimate? Has care and attention been paid to its HTML? Does it contain relevant keywords?

These and many other clues help determine whether a link should count as a vote or not. None of this is available on an aggregator.

It’s not just for The Goog’s benefit, either. Those clues are useful to the human observer. It’s the context, again. You know that Cory is going to link to Disney World news and decry the abuse of intellectual property lawfootnote 1, or that Warren is going to post pictures of voluptuous women of his acquaintance, or that Gruber is going to complain if the typography isn’t up to scratch, so when you see some news, you have some idea of what their biases might be, and make judgements accordingly. An aggregator strips all this bare, and leaves just (largely sensationalist) headlinesfootnote 2.

The Practical Upshot

So, I don’t really believe the title of this post. Warren’s really just advocating actually writing about stuff instead of just linking to it. And for my own part, I do skim “socially aggregated news sites” every day.

But I do also think that there’s potential for the quality of search to go down if too much of the web’s “social currency” is exchanged on mostly centralised and anonymised sites, instead of spread out across the open internet. The structure of the web comes from its links and I think people should pay attention to how these form, cluster and grow.

Anyway, this is all wildly off-topic for the Wooji Juice blog, but I woke up at about 4am this morning and this was rattling around in my skull while the anemic sun rose.

1. the central contradiction that gives him his power, in a Postmodern Magick sort of way.

2. yes, I’m being a hypocrite for the purposes of this post. For bonus irony points, I’ll probably post it to a social news aggregator…