Diversity Technology Weblogging

Technology is neither good nor evil

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Technorati has been coming under fire a great deal lately, including this latest by Om Malik, who writes:

So this is where I lose the plot – I tag my post, Technorati benefits, and despite all that, my tags help spammers who clog my RSS readers gain more readers. That’s absolutely rotten! So essentially the spammers can write a script, generate tags, stay high on the Technorati listings and fool people into visiting their sites. By tagging I am helping this scumbags, the RSS-link blog spammers. This is clearly not going to help Technorati (or infact anyone’s reputation) as a good search tool.

This is a conversation we’ve been having for months, as I noted in Malik’s comments. He wrote an email asking for references, saying he’d searched on Google for the terms and I responded back with several links to several posts, including some of my own — most found by going to Technorati rather than Google. And therein lies the rub: a year ago, Technorati could do no evil. Now, Technorati can do no good. Neither is the absolute truth, because we’re applying terms such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to what is nothing more than technology, and technology just is. I don’t care for Technorati’s Top 100, because I see absolutely no value in it from a technological perspective, but much harm based on how the list is used to attach ‘authority’ to certain webloggers. However, I do like the ability to look at one of my posts in Technorati and see who has linked to it and, more importantly, what they’ve said. There is no inherent implication of authority in this, nor any indication of moral righteousness: it is just a reading of what is, and can’t be, shouldn’t be misused in implying value in the post. Now that many of the scaling and implementation issues are being taken care of, this service is very helpful. As for tags, I disagree with Technorati automatically converting categories into tags, as there is no overall value in this. I have categories that make no sense outside of the context of the weblog, and all they’re doing is polluting the environment. However, I found explicit tags to be helpful when I was trying to keep up with all of the recent BlogHer writings; not to mention those on Hiroshima. As for spamming, I’ve noticed that tags that are both very active and very time specific overwhelm the spam. BlogHer in a month may be filled with spam, but right after the conference, the links were relevant. Again, challenges in implementation aside, there is no implication of good and evil in tags; they are a service, nothing more. Not, I hasten to add, a way of ‘defining’ social groupings or any of the other glorious sounding purpose associated all too often with ‘authority’ (read that link) based technologies. Speaking of BlogHer, among those posts found in Technology, I was happy to read about the pushback against lists such as Technorati 100 that happened at BlogHer, but less than thrilled when this was, in my opinion, misconstrued as an ‘opportunity’ to replace ranking indexes such as Technorati 100 with something better. In particular Mary Hodder suggested …a community based algorithm, based on more complex social relationships than links. She had this idea going into the BlogHer conference, based on a dinner she attended one night with several people, including Ross Mayfield, who wrote at Many to Many:

Following Liz’s read of BlogHer, one of the more interesting points to come out of the conference is the need for constituent algorithms — ways of revealing hidden groups. For the BlogHer community, the Technorati 100 was more than a whipping boy, but an index where a group was under-represented. Mary Hodder’s approach, spot on, is to develop alternative indexes.

Ross then goes on to discuss the limitations on indexes, such as the authority implicit with each, which left me puzzled as to why he would approve of the development of alternative indexes. Yesterday, Mary released her new effort to identity alternate algorithms based on a dinner she had with Ross, Doc Searls, Halley Suitt, and others in Paris a couple of months ago. It’s a very detailed and thoughtful post, and I respect the amount of work she put in it, but it seems to me that no matter how much the community is involved in this effort, it’s just propagating the same problems, because the issue isn’t about technology, it’s about people and how we behave. If women are not as visible in weblogging (or technology or politics and so on) because of some esoteric to do with technology, then our problems could be easily solved. I would personally devote my life to finding the Woman Algorithm — the algorithm to give equality to women. But, as we’ve seen with the recent linking to BlogHer reports, the issue isn’t that simple. Even considering the fact that BlogHer was about women in weblogging, the single most linked individual post on the conference, was Jay Rosen’s–one of the few men to attend the conference. Why was Jay’s the most linked? Well, some of it was because he provided a viewpoint that led to debate. He used a ‘confrontational’ term that was guaranteed to trigger furious discussion. I linked to him for that specific reason, as did other people. However, Halley Suitt also wrote a post that generated much debate, and though it was also well linked, not as much as Jay’s. Does this, then, mean that Jay’s was a better post? No, not necessarily. If you look at those who linked to Jay, you’ll see two patterns: people who linked to Jay because of what he said, and others who linked to Jay because of who he is. What is the common characteristic of those who linked to Jay without specifically referencing the ongoing discussion? They were all men. Is this relevant? Well, considering the purpose behind Blogher, I would say the results aren’t irrelevant. I suppose we could compensate by having all the women at BlogHer link to Halley just because–but that doesn’t solve the problem, it just ‘hides’ it in this particular instance. Links based on the work are something that can be measured accurately with technology, and used to derive some overall value–interest if nothing else. But the latter, this linking because of who a person is, can’t be normalized with technology; no matter how clever the algorithms or how open the process. Not unless we start adding demographic metadata to our weblogs such as sex, age, economic classification, race, married status, political party, and so on. Though there are those who wouldn’t hesitate to put this information online, most would, rightfully, look askance at the process. Even if we tried to analyze a person’s links to another, we can’t derive from this anything other than person A has linked to person B several times. If we use these to ‘define’ a community to which we belong, and then seek to rank ourselves within these communities, all we’ve done is create a bunch of little Technorati 100’s — and communities that are going to form barriers to entry. We see this ‘communal’ behavior all too often: a small group of people who know each other link to each other frequently and to outsiders infrequently; basically shutting down the discussion outside of the community. Continuing, Mary writes:

So the tension is, do we in the blogosphere figure out a more sophisticated, open standard based metric that reflects the way we see blogs, within and across communities, in order to score blogs? And do we do this within topic areas? Or does using a more sophisticated algorithm across all blogs make more sense? Or do we allow this all to be done for us, possibly in an opaque way by some of the blog search engines or by people who are trying to figure out blogger influence and communities for their clients, or do we write off those efforts because we know they cannot possibly understand us anyway? I have to say, I’ve resisted this for the past year, even though many people have asked me to work on something like this, because I hate rankism. I think scoring, even a more sophisticated version of it, akin to page-rank, is problematic and takes what is delightful about the blogosphere away, namely the fun of discovering a new writer or media creator on their terms, not others. What I love is that people who read blogs are assessing them over time to see how to take a blogger and their work. But more recently, as I said, I’m seeing these poorly done reports floating around by PR people, communications companies, journalists, advertising entities and others trying to score or weight blogs. And after hearing the degree to which people are upset by the obtuseness of the top counts, and because they do want to monetize their blogs or be included into influencer ranks, I’m at the point where I’d like to consider making something that we agree to, not some secretly held metric that is foisted upon us.

I think Mary should stop with …I hate rankism. I understand the motivations behind this work, but ultimately, whatever algorithm is derived will eventually end up replicating the existing patterns of ‘authority’ rather than replacing them. This pattern repeated itself within the links to Jay Rosen’s post; it repeated itself within the speaker list that Mary started for women (“where are the women speakers”), but had its first man within a few hours, and whose purpose was redefined within a day to include both men and women. Rankings are based on competition. Those who seek to compete will always dominate within a ranking, no matter how carefully we try to ‘route’ around their own particular form of ‘damage’. What we need to challenge is the pattern, not the tools, or the tool results. Of course, I realize that mine is just one opinion among many and this work will continue regardless of what I write. As a tech, I’ll be interested to see the algorithm develop and even provide whatever insight I can. That is, if my rank gives me the necessary authority.

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