Some things aren’t worth saving

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I remember back when Trackback was first introduced. I was like everyone else, jumping up and down at this new way of ‘threading the void’. Well, we’ve just been hung dry on the threads and we’ve all come crashing down.

AKMA writes today, “Trackback is broken”, and I concur. It was broken right from the start, but we didn’t know it because it seemed to work, or at least, work the way most people thought it should work. As Phil Ringnalda recently wrote:

Where I thought TrackBack shone was as an unembarrassing way of leaving a comment that says “Hey, I said something about this too, over here.” By turning that awkward bit of self-promotion into something technological, and slightly less personal and needy, TrackBack opened up a way to let interested readers follow more of a cross-blog thread. But because they wanted to let TrackBack be anything, not just what it was, and because (I think, based on some really wide open sloppy holes at the start) they didn’t really think about the potential for abuse at all, it’s wound up being pretty much meaningless.

I helped several folk this week clean up their sites, and was fussing around in the code trying to figure out how to protect what is literally a hole into my site, when I read Joi Ito’s newest post, where he was encouraging Wikinews, the new Wikipedia news effort, to get trackback. Stopped me cold, stopped me dead in my tracks. We’re having such fun cleaning up trackback spam that we want to wish this on non-webloggers, too? Particularly a site as vulnerable as Wikipedia?

Oh yes, we can add tricks such as only allowing trackbacks from people in our blogrolls, and put everything else into moderation — but that’s 781 entries in moderation, by my last count. We can add more complicated code to figure out how to differentiate the spam; but at what point do our systems fail under the weight of our cleverness? Trackbacks are a hole. Have a problem with the hole, then you plug it. End of story.

Tonight I pulled my trackback code and the embedded trackback RDF and put in a kill switch into the trackback file, and this is one I’m going to walk away from. I’ve also pulled support for pingbacks, too, and I’ve turned off auto-pinging in all of my posts and won’t be sending trackbacks to others. I don’t like shutting the door in people’s faces (or in my own face, come to that), but if I’m going to fight to save one thing, I’m putting all my time and energy into saving comments. Comments are the one form of communication that allows webloggers and non-webloggers to communicate, equally, and that’s one I’m not giving up.

I figured if nothing else, people can add links to their posts in comments, if they feel it fits the topic. I not only wouldn’t mind, I’d encourage it, and no reason to be embarrassed. In fact, one modification I’m looking at is to add another line to a comment that contains a related URL link, in addition to the person’s primary web or weblog URL. Maybe the key to all of this is to take comments to a new level of power, functionality, and invulnerability, rather than spin off yet more new, and rickety, technologies.

As for referrers, I’ll probably add a link to the Technorati page, and possibly the Bloglines page, for each story. No, not the functionality that counts the number of links — just a plain old everyday link. No annotation. No brand new attributes. No moving parts. And no referrer listing, or have we forgotten how badly that’s been spammed now?

Some will say this is giving in to the spammers; letting them ‘win’. As I wrote in comments at Joi’s, this isn’t a war with a winner or a loser; this is a fact of life. And as a fact of life, I can either spend my time trying to control what flows through trackbacks, or I can work on solving world hunger–I can’t do both.

I’ll be sorry to see trackback go, but in the end we, or at least I, have learned from the technology, so it doesn’t go without leaving something positive behind. Even now we can learn a lot about each other and this environment if we seek to understand why we fight, or fought, so hard to save what is, a vulnerability into our systems. But that’s not my story to write–I have other technology to fry. My chapter on trackbacks is over.

Made this change just in time. I’ve counted several hundred trackback attempts against my site this afternoon. If this had been a moderated, or blacklisted site, I still would have felt the impact of that many hits at once. If the throttle was in effect, you couldn’t have commented while the hits were happening. Now, they just flow off like water off a duck’s back.

I’ve also added a Technorati link for each writing. If you want a how to for this, holler.

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