Thursday, October 31, 2002

The Web's Missing Links

From this month’s Technology Review, The Web’s Missing Links:

Webloggers, or “bloggers,” say recent experiments with backlinking could benefit all kinds of online publishing. Instead of pointing readers only to sources for the item they have just read, backlinks also point to newer material that item inspired, making it easy to follow a path through the Web’s marketplace of ideas. And because they can be updated automatically to reflect new incoming links, backlinks turn static Web pages into active hubs of related information.

(Update: David Gallagher has put the full text of the article on his site here.)

I’ve been meaning to post why I think TrackBack, or backlinking is so important. Reading this article just reinforces my belief that this will become an important element of weblogs moving forward. Denise and Ernie have both had good posts on this in the past couple days as well. (Denise should be credited with finding a way to work lap dancing into a blog post about weblogs, by the way.)

Let’s say Alice shows up at my weblog by way of a link on Bob’s site. Bob evidently said something compelling enough to convince Alice she should check it out. When Charlie shows up at my site by some other source, he is presumably interested in the same ideas. Without backlinking, Charlie has no way of easily knowing that Bob said anything worthwhile.

In the same way that Google interprets a link as a “vote” for a page, backlinking is an attempt at exposing the possible connections to an idea or expression that a reader may be interested in. John Robb expressed his lack of interest in TrackBack last month, and he referred to Ray Ozzie’s lack of support as well.

With all due respect, I’m not sure they’re right. Read both of their comments: they express satisfaction with the feedback that they get through existing channels (server logs, referral tracking, etc.). But they’re missing the point that TrackBack is less for the writer than it is for the reader. In a relatively painless way, TrackBack (or some other iteration that tries to do the same thing) will connect the dots for the readers – so that they may see threads of discussions occurring across numerous sites.

Presumably some writers would be similarly interested – but in many ways writers can get this kind of feedback by monitoring their referral logs. It’s the readers – who either don’t know about or don’t have access to the source’s referral logs – who will gain tremendously by seeing the flow of traffic across sites.

Why I like the Technology Review piece is that it puts the focus squarely on the web’s “marketplace of ideas.” Think of TrackBack as a kind of idea-based roadmap. If I like the idea I’m reading right now, I sure would like to know how others got here.

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