The linking economy fails because social currency became financial currency

Trust is a difficult subject. How do we trust someone? It’s pretty difficult in real life. We tend to trust people we know well or people that are trusted by people that we know well. We gain trust by interacting with people, by seeing consequent behavior. Reputation is an important factor too. Without realizing we use body language and all kinds of senses to build trust.

Online this is even harder. We miss most senses and can only rely on electronic interactions and referrals. The interesting thing is that unlike in real life trust has been made quantifiable on the web. It’s called Google Juice. With their PageRank algoritm Google has defined a defacto standard for trust. The underlying assumption is that if a lot of people refer (link) to a site it probably contains important stuff and can therefore be trusted.

While PageRank has brought us a lot of great things and helped us to find things we need quickly, it also comes with downsides (as with any algorithm). It can be tricked, optimized, tailored to fit your needs. That is probably why there are so many ranking systems on the web. We have Google, Technorati, TechMeme, all kinds of leaderboards, there is a ranking for anything we can think of. The main motivation for having these ranking systems is measure trust. If you’re high ranked you can be trusted.

Linking has become the main currency on the web. By linking to external sites you provide them with a trust referral. It’s an important process as it immediately affects PageRank. It is also a system that breaks down easily, especially if you in some way or another monetize your site. That is why all of the big blogs seldomly link to external sites. TechChrunch, CNET, they all love to link to themselves. The motive is pure financial, and has nothing to do with content, trust, or any other factor.

I think Mathew Ingram nails it when he says:

When I come across a site — whether it’s Ars Technica, or CNET, or the New York Times — and most of the links are internal, I instinctively don’t trust what I’m reading. Maybe that’s just me, but I think excessive internal linking is almost worse than no links at all. At least having no links at all could be a result of plain old ignorance; linking only to yourself means you know full well that links are valuable, and you know how to do it, but you either can’t be bothered to look for other material or you want the Google juice all for yourself. It’s fundamentally anti-Web. We already have lots of places that don’t link — they’re called the mainstream media.

The big blogs have become exactly that what they loath about traditional media. They may have started as open and trustworthy initiatives, but with the monetization that is taking place now it has become crucial to their survival to act as old fashioned media corporations.

It’s a bit ironic that Mathew, who also happens to be a journalist, needs to point this out to us. Mathew is someone that always links to others, which is why I trust and respect him. Tim O’Reilly started this discussion a while back when he wrote:

When this trend spreads (and I say “when”, not “if”), this will be a tax on the utility of the web that must be counterbalanced by the utility of the intervening pages. If they are really good, with lots of useful, curated data that you wouldn’t easily find elsewhere, this may be an acceptable tax. In fact, they may even be beneficial, and a real way to increase the value of the site to its readers. If they are purely designed to capture additional clicks, they will be a degradation of the web’s fundamental currency, much like the black hat search engine pages that construct link farms out of search engine results.

I have a lot of respect for Tim too, but it’s a bit ironic that the O’Reilly blog tends to link internally too. They use a tagging system below every post that leads to O’Reilly articles only. It’s just a variation of the same theme. It seems that as soon as a blog becomes monetized or written by more than one author linking to the outside world is under pressure.

And with all the aggregators popping up the social media community is searching for trust again. We think of new algorithms (trust filters), people ranking systems, we rank content, people, anything to get a grip on trust.

Personally I think it’s best to use common sense. If you interact or follow people you will soon enough develop a feeling about their skills and value for you. It will help you to build trust. This is important in a world where anyone can act like an expert and publish anything boldy without the restraints traditional media have (they have a news redaction, editors, policies). As I said in a discussion on this very topic at Friendfeed:

On FF or anywhere else on-line it is hard to decide to trust the ‘expertise’ of someone making bold statements. I for one would warn you not to assume everything I write is correct. It is, and remains to be, my personal view of the world 😉

Maybe the linking economy went bust when we started treating it as an economy.


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8 Responses to The linking economy fails because social currency became financial currency

  1. Nicolas Caitan says:

    Linking as an standard for trust has its historical roots in what we in Library and Information Science call citation analysis, with Eugene Garfield and the ISI (Institute for Scientific Information) as its main promoters. The ISI publishes the citation indexing, ISI’s Web of Knowledge database, and annual Journal Citation Reports which list an impact factor for each of the journals that it tracks, taken by scientist as an indicator of journal and papers quality and impact. I would like to quote Prof. Birger Hjørland on information retrieval algorithms: “We all use Internet search engines and are rather impressed by their capabilities. How does the question of social and cultural awareness and responsibility relate to their principles and design? Is this not a purely technological problem where questions of values and goals are misplaced? In general, when an algorithm retrieves something, other things are left behind. Now, if an algorithm ranks a page high, other pages are ranked low. In both cases the algorithms provides priority to what should be visible and what should remain invisible to the user. In practical reality the programmers of the algorithm have made a decision about what should be available to the user. This is a highly political decision with many levels.” And to further clarify his point: “This conclusion is very much in line with findings of Introna & Nissenbaum (34), who argue that search engines raise not merely technical issues but also political ones. Their study of search engines suggest that search engines systematically exclude (in some cases by design and in some cases accidentally) certain sites, and certain types of sites, in favor of others, systematically giving prominence to some at the expense of others. They argue that such biases, which would lead to a narrowing of the Web’s functioning in society, run counter to the basic architecture of the Web as well as the values and ideals that have fuelled widespread support for its growth and development. They consider ways of addressing the politics of search engines, raising doubts whether, in particular, the market mechanism can serve as an acceptable corrective.”

  2. Rich Pearson says:

    Your last point is dead-on – links are indeed a currency which leads us to a situation where relying on the honor system is likely to fail. We see evidence of this every day . . . and it’s surprising as bad for bloggers as it is for MSM sites.

    I’m curious if you (or anyone else reading this) would be interested in a feed that shows you all the sites where your work is re-used without links.

    If so, shoot me a note or respond in the comments.

  3. The currency of the social Web is not the link. It is not the brand.

    The currency of the social Web is reputation. And your reputation is not built upon links, or pagerank, or google juice. It is built on the interaction and engagement you have with the rest of the community.

    Just because you have a lot of currency doesn’t mean it’s worth anything.


  4. @Stephen while that may be true for individuals this certainly is not true for large blogs or websites. They still need Google Juice to monetize their site. And to a certain extend you see the same thing happen in services like Friendfeed. Reputation is definitely becoming more and more important.

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