Fear of links

While professional journalists turn up their noses, weblog pioneers invent a new, personal way to organize the Web's chaos.

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From the day in 1994 that I first fooled around with the Mosaic browser, I thought it was obvious that, on the Web, links are good. They’re a service, a boon, a new kind of communication that distinguishes this strange new medium from its antecedents. I’d always assumed that, as journalists moved onto the Web, they’d welcome their new ability to use links — to document their sources, explain obscure facts and terms, point people to deeper reading on a subject or just offer wittily ironic asides.

So I was taken aback recently to hear a Wall Street Journal reporter, one who covers the Internet industry, refer to a new breed of Web journalists as “linkalists.” It was not a compliment.

The occasion was a panel discussion at a new media conference at the UC-Berkeley Journalism School earlier this year, and the message was clear: People who provide links to other people are performing a low, menial task that any boob can handle, and that doesn’t deserve comparison to the hallowed labors that constitute the august tradition of “journalism.”

Well, I beg to differ. And, more importantly, the behavior of millions of Web users suggests that they place an extremely high value on the reliable, timely provision of useful — or quirky, or overlooked — links. A journalist who today disdains the very notion of providing links to readers may tomorrow find himself without a job.

On the Web, with its unspannable abundance of chaotic and ill-organized information, pointing people to good links is a fundamental service — a combination of giving directions to strangers and sharing one’s discoveries with friends. All of which explains why a phenomenon known as the weblog is one of the fastest-growing and most fertile creative areas on the Web today.

Weblogs, typically, are personal Web sites operated by individuals who compile chronological lists of links to stuff that interests them, interspersed with information, editorializing and personal asides. A good weblog is updated often, in a kind of real-time improvisation, with pointers to interesting events, pages, stories and happenings elsewhere on the Web. New stuff piles on top of the page; older stuff sinks to the bottom. (At Salon, we’ve been using the “log” label a little differently, to denote short, newsy items that are posted frequently on our sites.)

Since weblogs are usually one-person operations with no editorial hierarchy or institution to say “no” or impose a house style, they tend to embody the strengths and weaknesses of any labor-of-love operation: They’re often impassioned and sometimes sloppy; they frequently surprise and just as frequently lose focus.

More fleshed out than a simple link list but less introspective than an online diary, a good weblog is also a window onto the mind and daily life of its creator. By providing an up-to-the-minute and also fully archived record of what they’ve found in their browsing and what they think about it, weblog creators provide their readers with evolving snapshots of the Web, refracted through a single editorial mind.

At his Obscure Store weblog (and its new offshoot devoted to media gossip), Jim Romenesko offers a daily compendium of news-and-gossip tidbits with a tilt toward the underground. Over at the Robot Wisdom Weblog, Jorn Barger serves up a list of links each day shaped by his own interests in the arts and technology. Several times a day, Lawrence Lee pumps new links about Web design and the Net business onto his Tomalak’s Realm weblog; Lee does a particularly good job of hauling old links out to provide context and depth for breaking news. Ric Ford’s no-nonsense Macintouch has been keeping Mac addicts on top of things since the Web was young.

Unsurprisingly, the Web itself is a frequent focus of much weblog activity, from Peter Merholz’s Peterme.com (with the emphasis on interface design) to Paul Kedrosky’s Grok Soup (Internet finance) to Dave Winer’s Scripting News (coding issues). If you follow any of these sites over a period of time, you get to know the enthusiasms of their proprietors, along with their blind spots. You can see what the Web world looks like through their eyes — and figure out where you trust them and where you don’t.

There are all sorts of hybrids of the weblog format. For one thing, a weblog makes a great e-mail newsletter, and some weblog operators bundle their links into daily mailings. At the popular “news for nerds” site Slashdot, links are posted by a cadre of regulars and each new link provides the starting point for a bulletin-board discussion. The San Jose Mercury News has been running its own technology news weblog called Good Morning Silicon Valley for several years now. The Mercury News’ page is intended to be an informal tip sheet to interesting technology news around the Net, and it fills that role well; but more recently, it’s been dominated by what seems like an increasingly higher percentage of links to the Mercury’s own stories.

Commercial Web outfits — particularly those that are primarily in the “content” business, like the Mercury — tend to be wary and suspicious of providing too many links beyond their own pages. They ask, “Why should we send our readers away?” That’s a short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating way of thinking, though: A weblog that’s mostly a table of contents for a single Web site is going to lack the variety of one that casts a wider net, and in the end it will fail to build the regular and growing following that the for-profit owner seeks.

Weblogs aren’t exactly a new phenomenon: Justin Hall’s long-running Web diary has always been a link list as well; Matt Drudge’s Drudge Report would be a weblog if Drudge were a more interesting and self-revealing writer. But over the past year weblogs have become a lot more common — in part because the software to maintain them has become a little more easy for writers to set up. That process is likely to accelerate: Dave Winer, whose Frontier software is used by many weblog pioneers, is busy developing new programs for Web writers that will let them build and update sites directly from their browsers, without needing to bother with file uploads.

Of course, a weblog is useless unless there’s somewhere for its links to point. The emergence of weblogs doesn’t eclipse the importance of timely news and entertainment on the Web — if anything, it enhances the value of such original content. Mostly, it’s a sign that we’re only beginning to discover the best tools and strategies for helping Web users cope with the vast media terrain we all now inhabit. The webloggers have found a new and fertile niche in the Web’s information ecology. They’re fulfilling the predictions by Internet visionaries of the rise of a new breed of personal journalism online — only instead of pounding the physical pavement, they forage for news on the Net itself.

This is the sort of thing that gets some journalists riled up. “Reporting isn’t just finding links!” they cry. “It’s interviewing people. Checking sources. Digging for the truth.”

To which the only sane answer is: of course. No one’s suggesting that weblogs are any sort of replacement for the old-fashioned virtues of good journalism. But the defensive hostility of some journalists does make you think a bit about how much today’s “professional” media are already behaving like the link-happy new medium they fear. After all, magazines and TV stations pick up most of their stories from newspapers. Newspapers troll the Web for gossip and leads. The press became a giant echo chamber long ago; the Net just boosted the volume and cranked up the speed. The big difference between online and offline news is that the offline press will “pick up” a story without bothering to credit it — let alone link you to the original source.

So the next time you hear reporters sniffing about “linkalists,” ask them just what their beef is with links, anyway — most likely, the problem is in their heads. As Dave Winer put it when I called him up to talk about weblogs, “Any time a conventional journalist looks down their nose at me, I know I’m doing the right thing.”

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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