Greetings,
As much of what actually inspires me to blog is responding to others blogging, this is a meta-blogging post. It’s both about and part of the conversation, really. Perhaps we’re all just standing on our soapboxes, saying our piece, but there has to be a way to connect the boxes, so we all know we’re part of the same conversation. I argue that it’s NOT feed search engines, and definitely not eliminating comments…

Jeremy Zawodny, annoyed with trackbacks, says:

Trackback is Dead

Very soon, I’ll disable support for Trackback pings on my blog. I’ll still get them via email but will not automatically link ’em. I’ll probably do the same on the Yahoo! Search blog. Luckily we have services like PubSub, Technorati, Feedster, and Bloglines to fill the void.

While it’s certainly Jeremy (and anybody else’s) perogative to turn trackback off, I wonder if it isn’t the beginning (continuation?) of the balkanization of the blogging world into those already known, the spammers, and those who will languish, hidden beneath the spam.

I discover new writers through trackback, reading people whose work I find intelligent, well thought out, and useful, and then skimming over the writings of the people who thought enough of the various topics to write their own posts, and trackback to the main author. This is easy to do when the links and a snippet of text are right there, as part of what you’re looking at. If you have to go off and hit a search engine, basically, in order to find out who’s referring to a given post, then the immediacy is lost, the context is lost, and depending on what segment of the market the search engine is targetting, and how spammed the search engine is, the link itself may be lost.

I don’t think that the Technorati, PubSub, and Feedsters are the answer to this problem, any more than the search engine obviated the need for links. (Actually, some people suggested that at times, replacing links to a concept with an ‘I’m feeling lucky’ Google search.) If you rely on the feed-search-engines only, then when those become useless for separating the wheat from the chaff, the words of millions of poorer writers, less ‘linked’ writers (yes, such as myself, in everything I try to be aware of my own bias) will become silent, or at least unfindable. As I personally loathe the idea of losing this voice (or, more accurately, this voice getting lost), just as I’m finding it, I’ve got a bit of a stake in this.

Will the feed search engines get bogged down in spam? Yes, I believe they will. If they become a source of information for a significant part of the populace, then they become targets for optimization by the same spammers who are making life so hard today. Is Jeremy Zawodny a popular blogger? Are people looking for people who are writing about his work often enough to drive noticable traffice? They’ll create blogs, link to his every post, generate interesting but not-quite-right seeming paragraphs around the link, and pingback all the services. They’ll create hundreds of these, interlinked, abusing the system. What will really happen is the centralized server that is supposed to save us from the horror of decentralized trackbacks will become the engine of a new form of spam, and once again the less-well-know bloggers are the ones whose names get buried under the weight of spam. (Yes, this is a relevance problem, but since relevance is a intelligence derived trait, I don’t see technical solutions working on it in bulk anytime soon.)

The other thing that seems to go along with this distaste for trackbacks, is a disregard for comments, as if comments also are ‘too much trouble’ or getting there. Robert Scoble has repeatedly suggested that comments are annoying, unnecessary, or will be. He’s wrong, though, and earlier this month it looked like he changed his mind somewhat about comments. If there are no comments, there is no conversation. Even if the conversation IS regularly a ‘mudpit’, it’s still a conversation, and that’s worlds better than a broadcast. If only 1 in 5 blog-readers have a blog of their own (the commonly accepted statistic), then removing comments and relying on services to track links removes 80% of the people who MIGHT comment, and silences them.

‘But they can just get a blog!’, you cry. No… Not really. Consider the technophobic masses, unwilling to put out the notable effort. Picture them having to go through the (often minimal, but still real) effort to set up a blog, and form their thoughts in a blog-post, including linking to the original article (critical for the above-mentioned tools to work), pinging a ping-server, and all the other things needed to make a comment-less system work. They will choose to be mere spectators instead, shrugging and turning away when they find they can’t comment. They will become television viewers, observing, but not participating, because the system makes it hard to participate. It sets a technical bar on a social interaction, something that should never happen, but does all too often.

Removing trackbacks, removing comments, and effectively relying on a central ‘source of all good bits’ (presumably the search engines) to validate the identities of those who wish to participate undermines the free and open conversation that was blogging.

Does trackback need an authentication layer? Why yes, so it does. Why not OpenID, with most of the major OpenID servers whitelisted, and conditional whitelisting of decent trackbacks from non-standard OpenID servers? We can ask a bit more of our fellow bloggers than we do of the random people who comment, because the fellow bloggers have already met that technical bar I spoke of earlier. Sender-Id-style schemes, DNS extensions, etc., are all options at this level. But the basic concept is, I believe, necessary for growth… We know where a lack of growth leads.

Is comment-spam a problem? Yes, of course, and horrific in places (although apparently moreso on MT than other places). However comments are so fundamentally critical to the nature of blogging, that it’s going to have to be solved the way we solve email spam; halfway fixes, workarounds, ‘human/not human’ tests, bayesian filters, and making it damn hard for the spammers to do their thing…but always aware that some will get past, and being okay with that, because the alternative of not having it should be unthinkable.

I freely admit, I speak without the personal experience of blog and trackback spam, but with the experience of horrific email spam for around a decade now. As owner of the domain this blog is on (vixen.com), a commonly used ‘fake domain’ when people are signing up for things, I get well over 10,000 spam a day. Plus I didn’t take care with my primary email address in the 90’s, when posting on Usenet. I still receive email at vixen.com addresses, and my primary email address from then is STILL my primary email address (supplemented by a liberal dosing of gmail now). The technical solutions I’ve had to implement have gotten successively more severe, and more levels involved over the years (procmail, spamassassin, sendmail-based ‘early denial’, ORB/RBL blacklists, and Mail.app’s bayesian filter are all involved at some level now), but it would still be impossible for me to surrender my old, hoary, spam-splattered email address.

Similarly, we shouldn’t surrender comments until blogs are as common as email…only then might it be reasonable to consider requiring having a blog to be able to respond to a blog post.

— Morgan Schweers, CyberFOX!


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