November 10, 2005

to link, or not to link - On the mechanics and ethics of linking

Cas is currently

The following is a really rather long post. It has been sitting in my folder of shame for several months now and, whilst I have been working on it on and off all that time, I never really gave it the time it deserved. Today I polished it up and decided to present it to you. Why is it I can write near 3000 words for my blog in an hour, yet can’t do the same for my thesis? Anyway, enjoy, or not. I’m just talking to the dog here.

I once again find myself musing on the vagaries of the information age whilst riding on a relic of in the Victorian era (train) using a technology thousands of years old (pen and paper). For a while I have been thinking on and off about linking, both the mechanics and ethics of. I have talked a bit about this before, or at least pointed you in the direction of people who have been making sense on the topic lately, but I've never directly talked about my own views on whether/when you should link in the first place.

Regular Bright Meadow readers will be familiar with my Sunday Roasts - roundups of stories from that week. The majority of these posts comprise links to news-stories and cartoons, though a goodly proportion are to other blogs. Mainly these are to posts containing funnies, but with some regularity I link to posts containing peoples thoughts and opinions.

The fuss being, I hear you ask? Surely one of the beauties of the web is that all information is only a hypertexted click away? And it is. But a vast quantity of things stem from the difference between what a hyperlink actually is and what it is perceived as being.

A hyperlink, at it's simplest, is a connection forged between one point in your hypertext document and another point somewhere on a vast connected network of computers and servers known colloquially as 'the Internet', or the 'Web'. Despite the imposed functionality of the 'back' button and 'history' functions of browsers, hyperlinks are one way. Nor do hyperlinks have meaning built into them. They simply are. Any semantic meaning is imposed on the link afterward by the manual addition of some form of clarification (most often text).

Again, all happy and shiny.

It is a given that you should always credit where you get your ideas from. In the academic world you reference pretty much everything, and there are strict conventions on how you reference, be it from books, the internet, newspapers, archives, even personal conversations. It is imperative that, if you have used or mentioned another person's ideas, you give your reader the means to track down that idea or result, to see it in its original context, so they can make up their own minds about whether you are drawing valid conclusions. This is a part of scholarship, I am more than OK with this, and frequently find myself champing at the bit when some journalist/blogger/author has quoted someone as saying something (or made a statement as fact), and hasn't provided me with the means to check up on them. Hyperlinks provide a handy and fairly elegant way of doing this, either with internal links to a bibliography and reference list, or external links direct to the given source.

Yep. Got that.
Simple, even, you might say. Linking is good, that's that, and this is going to be a short post.

Alas, no. Whilst the ethics and mechanics of academic linking are pretty much solidified into convention (which is often more binding than law), how to link on the Internet, and within the blogosphere (*chokes on the word*), is still being worked out. It is wonderful, and exhilarating to be writing the rules as we go, but it can lead to a whole host of unexpected complications.

The 'problems' start when pages, sites, and blogs (for example) are ranked in search engines and 'Top Ten' lists by computer algorithms that look at all the in-links into a document. The theory being the more in-links a document has, the more authoritative or popular the source must be, so the higher it appears in the search results listing (or on the Top Ten). The higher something is, the more often it gets linked to, the higher it appears in the rankings and so on till we all get dizzy. Computer algorithms, no matter how cleverly written, still just see a link, not any attached qualification as to whether it is positive, negative, or just plain indifferent. When you link to something you confer, without really thinking about it, a measure of approval. Even if you qualify your link with "I really, really don't agree with what this person says", you are still providing them with an in-link so making them seem (in many ranking mechanisms) more authoritative than perhaps they deserve to be.

(Now see if you understand the prevalance of 'link-spamming' in the comments fields of blogs. Caught on yet? ... Good. Clever boy.)

9 times out of the 10, this is not a problem at all. We link to things that we think deserve to be shared, or agree with, or think explain a point better than we ever could. It stands to reason that such sites deserve to climb higher in the rankings of, for example, Google or Technorati. But then, how do you deal with sites you disagree with so strongly that you want to share your displeasure with your fellow readers? A "Warning, Here Be Dragons" kind of link. "Read At Your Peril", if you will? You want to share the link to save those you care for stumbling across it by accident - in much the same way I tell pretty much everyone I meet that The Da Vinci Code is a shockingly badly written book that I wouldn't recommend as toilet paper, to save them the pain of reading it. But, if your blog is popular, and people link to it, then slowly but surely this evil link you think is a pimple on the face of the Internet will rise in the rankings, till lo! It is high on the hit parade.

So that is an extreme example, but it could happen. Rather than napalming this site off the surface of the Web (denying it readers) you have conversely exploded its traffic beyond its creators wildest dreams.

Bummer.

There's not much you can do about this, apart from not linking to sites you don't like. A few clever people have been attempting to come up with alternative ranking systems, and ways of conveying inherent meaning with a link, and in a year or so I wouldn't be surprised if everything was different, but for now, we'll all just have to deal. From a personal blogging standpoint, the knowledge of this has skewed my linking style somewhat. I no longer (or very rarely) link to a post I disagree with. If I find myself linking to such a site, I try and link at least once to a site with a diametrically opposed viewpoint to balance everything out.

Now we've got our heads more or less around the idea that linking can have outcomes we never anticipated (or wanted), I would like to introduce the thought that perhaps there are times we shouldn't link. Yes, you heard me. There are times when it might not be appropriate to link. For this one I am going to be focusing more on the special case of blogs, but the general idea holds true for pretty much everything on the web.

Take a moment and think on what blogs are. Blogs are a special case in internet publishing in that they can be incredibly personal, often containing intensely held personal beliefs and opinions. Therefore, when you link to them, you are holding up a flashing neon sign saying "Look at this! Look at this!", and some people might not want their personal diaries gawped at by all you voyeurs out there. You could argue that, by publishing these opinions on the internet, the author is begging for it, but that argument gets you perilously close to JB's ongoing observations that, in Japan, apparently girls who wear short skirts are just asking to be raped.

Yes, I agree that by putting my opinions out there on the great wide Internet I am saying "this is what I believe, this is what I hold to be true, these are my views" and giving my implicit permission to anyone and everyone who cares to, to do what they want with those views (so long as they credit me). And who can deny the pleasure and mini-(sometimes midi- or even maxi-) ego boost you get when someone links back to our carefully crafted words and says "I like this, this makes sense, you are a clever and wonderful person". Sadly, the flip side of this is that for every nice thing said out there, there seems to be another ten nasty things being said.

Of the many instances I am aware of where in-links have not been as welcome by the linkee as the linker might have hoped, one springs to mind. One of the many blogs I have stumbled across over the past year is the blog of the divine Profgrrrrl, an academic blogger whose take on life I always enjoy (though I have yet to comment and tell her so. Yes, once again, do as I say not do as I do). Somehow or other she discovered that she had been linked to in a Wikipedia article that discussed the mini-phenomena of academic blogs. That is, blogs written by people in academia, but who only tangentially talk about their research, focusing more instead on their daily trials and tribulations. She wasn't overly enthused that she had been linked to (without her permission) from such a visible source as Wikipedia. This I can sort of understand. Whilst we all want readers, I guess being linked to from Wikipedia is a bit like jumping up and down on the roof of your local department store in your underpants screaming "LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!!!!!" Sure, your readership will go through the roof, but a fair number of them might be the unsavoury nutjobs who would spoil the 'friend-circle' atmosphere of most personal blogs. Thanks to the beauty of wikis (ah, the blessed wiki) she (or someone else, I can't tell, damn culture of anonymity and never signing edits!) quickly edited the article so that another academic blogger was linked to as an exemplar. (What this other person had to say on the matter of being linked to I can't say.)

My point being, you may think that giving a link is a lovely gift (unless your aim is to be mean, and then shame on you), but the recipient of your link might not feel the same way. We do have a habit of getting disproportionately attached to our little domains on the web, and I can think of people who I wouldn't want to link to me. It is rather silly thinking that I can vet who has access to my blog, but I still find myself relying on this illusory sense of control to ausage my occasional jitters at how much of my daily life I find myself talking about on the web.

So, when should we link? Should we even be linking at all? That second is a silly question - of course we should link. I think you would be hard pushed to find more than a handful of oddballs who support the position that every web-document should be an island. Linking together is part of what makes us a community and, just in case you've been asleep whilst reading my posts this past year, I think community is great.

Personally I've started to practice what I like to think of as 'Karmic Blogging'. Blog unto others as you would be blogged to yourself. If I can't think of something nice to say, then I try to say nothing at all. If I can't find a happy link, then I don't link. *1*

When I do link, I make sure (to the best of my ability) that I link to the primary source, rather than a secondary summation of that source. If I was wearing my academic hat here, I would try to link to the original article/report/document, rather than some fellow academics spin on that article/report/document. If, for whatever reason, I do link to a secondary source (normally because they've added commentary I think is pertinent), then I try to make sure that the primary is still accessible, either through their post or through mine. Over time you come to find secondary sources who you trust and link to them more often. There's no sure fire way to find out who these people are - you just have to discover them for yourself. If a blog is part of a network (9rules is one that springs to mind *2*), you can be a bit more assured that the content you find there is trustworthy, but that is still not a hard and fast rule. Use the brains you were graced with, with a healthy dose of skepticism to help it all down.

Addressing the issue of whether people want to be linked to, just use common sense. Whilst you can't assume totally that, because they are on the internet they want to be linked to, the balance is probably leaning toward the "I want readers!" camp. If you think it's appropriate, provide a link, but be prepared to take down the link if you are asked. Asking before you link is just not practical, nor necessary for the average post. If you are linking to something incredibly personal, maybe take a moment to think, and if in doubt either ask, or refrain.

While the above holds true for personal blogs, if you are linking to someone with the mind that you are publishing for a wider audience, say in a newspaper article, it is common courtesy to inform people that they are being quoted. A little while back, the really rather lovely Danah talked about blogs and the mainstream media. Not only is the post partly responsible for setting me off thinking about linking again (and so could be considered part-parent to this mutant of a post), but as she says, it raises another question. How long are we to be held to task for our views? I am on the fence on this one. There are times that it is useful to see how one persons ideas have evolved. At the same time, I can think of instances when it is better just to let the past lie beaten in the dust. I would be mortified, and I know many fellow academics would also, if, for example, someone turned round and started quoting my undergraduate dissertation at me as an example of what I believe now. Yes, it reflects the opinions I held at the time I wrote it, but they are not the same opinions I hold today, and who knows what I will think in the future? Again, there is no hard and fast rule on how you should quote somebody's work, but if it is over a year old, please consider that they may have changed their mind by now and quote accordingly. "Cas thought..." rather than "Cas thinks..." Easy.

Oh, and don't misquote me. I will find out, hunt you down, and beat you with sticks of celery. Not fatal, I know, just unpleasant for you and therapeutic for me.

Do, please, always try and include a short intro/description/pointer with the link. Something might not offend you, but there are some rather sensitive bunnies out there, and it's only fair that you give people the chance NOT to click on something that might be offensive to them. Also flag up items that might require you to subscribe to a site to view them (certain newspapers, journals etc). If you can find an alternate (totally free and open) source, that would be even better.

And bear in mind the slightly dubious legal ground bloggers stand on with regard hyperlinking to illegal content. But that's not a worry for us, is it, because we are all good little boys and girls. Aren't we?

There endeth todays lesson on the ethics and practicalities of linking.

Now, because all of the above is just my opinion, feel free to disagree with me. That's why I have a comments field after all.
Endnotes:
*1*This is a guideline not a rule. Sometimes I just can't help myself. Yes, I know, I'm a bad Buddhist. I kill bugs and eat meat as well.
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*2*One other network that will hopefully prove to be successful is the Wikablog. Still in its infancy (it's barely even crawling yet), I think it is a brilliant idea. A community of like(ish)-minded bloggers coming together and saying "This is my blog, and these are the blogs I like, and these are the reasons why". Though this does slightly fall foul of the whole linking to people without their permission issue, I think that the benefits might outweigh the drawbacks. We'll wait and see. If there's one thing I have learnt over this past year it is that you can never, ever, ever predict how a community will act, let alone whether you wiki will (a) be a success or (b) turn out how you wanted it to.
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