Blogrolls, Lists, Bookmarks, and So On

While I’ve been concentrating on other obligations, various ructions have caught fire concerning links and ranking. I haven’t wrestled with this topic before, but sooner or later I may as well step in it.

So, relative to blogrolls, I’ve got one, and I’ll keep it — not out of any militancy or point-making, but because Margaret uses it to navigate to recently-updated blogs from people she knows. I hardly ever look at it at all, so I’m very slow to make changes to it (I usually change it only when Margaret has reminded me that someone’s address has changed, or that there’s someone whose blog she wants to keep up with). I go to other blogs mostly from my bookmarks.

I see interesting arguments for and against having blogrolls, but none seems more immediate than the pragmatic criterion. There’s something blank about a blogroll link (as opposed to a topical, direct link). To draw on my favorite overburdened terminology, a blogroll link signifies a lot less; a link that persists on every page, regardless of context, and that points to an index paged rather than a particular post, lacks the rich texture of a topical link. Add the occasional social pressure for reciprocity, add the awareness that search bots index and rank links, and you can see reasonable grounds for opting out of the whole blogroll matter. As I say, I wouldn’t miss mine if it were gone; when goes down for a while (and my bogroll blogroll vanishes), I don’t even notice.

On the other hand, blogrolls do serve some useful purposes. Mine provides Margaret with information about which of her favorite sites has been updated recently. They might direct first-time visitors to other sites they haven’t seen yet (the most frequent defense of blogrolls). In that the blogroll typically combines more-familiar, more-prominent names with less-familiar, less-well-known names, blogrolls can serve a leveling function; through my blogroll, only one degree separates Dave Winer from Reverend Ref — the keynoter, bon vivant, and inventor of blogging from a parish priest in rural Montana. Few if any other sites mediate that connection.

Moreover, a blogroll attests to a set of affiliations — the convergence of particular circles of acquaintance. (Research project: find a threshold of common links that productively marks out “communities of online discourse,” particularly tightly-joined small pieces whose link patterns suggests a neighborhood hangout where denizens share conversation, interests, and demonstrated commitment to mutual attention.) Those links don’t reflect such patterns infallibily, but as a rough guide, they’re a lot better than a wet finger in the wind. When we attest to such social loyalties, we re-bind our attention to one another, and that’s not an empty gesture. (It may be a nearly empty gesture, it’s a highly ambiguous gesture, but it’s not entirely empty.) If I were to advance a reason other than Margaret’s convenience for me to keep a blogroll, it would be the community-signaling aspect of a blogroll (which I exemplify only very imperfectly).

Now, once you have an advanced network of links, you won’t be able to stop people from compiling and analyzing the patterns; no way. That information is too richly interesting, too easily available, for motivated geeks to ignore. One of the most obvious interesting things to do with that data would be ranking blogs by a nuanced algorithm for authority; hence, we see bloggers fretting about their Technorati authority or their Google PageRank. We can opt out of contributing to that system by banishing blogrolls (or, I suppose, ultimately by not linking to other bloggers), but there’s no escape from being linked-to short of trying to keep all bots at bay.

So I don’t so much see any of the or PageRank, best-of lists, annual awards, whatever, as a problem for Blogaria as I see them as a predictable concomitant of measurably-linked human interactions. They bother me precisely to the extent that I pay attention to all the politicking, begging, exulting and weeping — that is, “not much.” It’s pretty much the same with these barometric representations of popularity as with pay-for-blogging: some folks won’t be changed by the recognition, some will, some are only in it to gratify their narcissism, and some stand for a popularity-neutral policy of saying what they want to. If we take away commercial (or attention-economic) motivators, a certain constituency of bloggers would find some other way to clutch the spotlight. Even ranking engines, though, serve the useful function of signaling that someone else’s blog interests a lot of other people, whether I’ve heard of it or not.

I don’t blame anyone for resisting the star-maker machinery behind the popular blog. I don’t feel guilt-stricken about keeping a blogroll. I’m not wounded that I’ll never win an award or make the Top XXX list. If by a weird quirk of voting or categorization (“New category: Best Theological/Technological Blog by an Episcopal Priest Named ‘AKMA’ ”), I did win something, I might well be tickled. I’m very impressed at how rigorously my neighbors are thinking through the complexities of these phenomena, but I don’t have enough time, energy, or indignation to lend to a movement for or against.

(Oh, and I don’t have any non-obvious nominees for Dave’s list. Does the world need my testimony to affirm that the names you already know are famous, got there first, wrote the software, and supply the capital? I know, respect, and like the bearers of the names of those who show up in everyone else’s ballots — but so do many other people, and my word can’t possibly matter much in ascertaining who should be recognized.)

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