Bootstrapping Blogs

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Steve at Deep Calls to Deep thinks Christian bloggers are deceiving the Ecosystem. His reason is something I've noted before. When you end up in lots of people's thematically-oriented blogrolls, you get extra links from all the people who put those blogrolls on their blogs. Sometimes people will have a few of them in their sidebar, and you'll get a few permanent links from all those people if you're in more than one of their blogroll lists. Since there are getting to be a lot of such lists among Christian bloggers, it sort of feels like bootstrapping. The links go up without anywhere near as much increase in traffic, so lists like the primary Ecosystem list that track only links are deceptive in not tracking actual traffic. So Steve thinks Christian bloggers are deceiving the Ecosystem. While there's something to his argument, I disagree with the conclusion.

The first thing I want to point out is that Steve is wrong to connect this with aggregators in any way. Aggregators increase traffic, not links (except by increasing other people's chances to see posts that they might thereby link to).

Another thing to keep in mind is that the Ecosystem has two ranking systems. One is based on links. The other is based on traffic. Getting more links brings you up higher in the link ecosystem. Is it thus deceiving the Ecosystem if you have far more links than your traffic might lead people to expect? Absolutely not. The traffic list reflects traffic, and the link list reflects links. Those who care about traffic can go to the traffic rankings to see which blogs are most popular in terms of traffic. If the kind of popularity you care about is how many people visit a blog, that's the place to look. If the kind of popularity you care about is how many links a blog can achieve, you go to the link rankings, the ones TTLB originally cared about and decided to rank first, before he discovered that people also cared about traffic and thus added another list.

Another observation worth noting is that this isn't a phenomenon exclusive to Christian bloggers. Instapundit is #1 on the link rankings by almost twice as much as anyone else, but Kos beats him by something like 2.5 times as much when it comes to traffic. That's because Kos is a community of discussion groups masquerading as a blog. As of this post, a full three blogs in the top ten according to traffic don't even come close to the top in the link rankings, and a quick scan down the list reveals quite a few disparities between links and traffic. It may be that Christians have become good at getting lots of links without that much an increase in traffic, but it's not something only Christians do.

Finally, it's not just that people can get the ranking information if they want it, and it's not just that other people are doing it. I would argue that this is part of the conventions of blogging. When we live among a community, we often will find certain conventions on how to do things. For instance, in North America and most of Europe, you drive on the right side of the road, while in the U.K. and many of its former colonies you drive on the left. Such conventions must be observed, in this case for safety, but also for mere community interaction. Many elements of language are conventions. Most conventions are behavior-guiding. I don't think even close to most moral requirements are merely due to convention, but some are. In certain parts of Asia, you take your shoes off in the house. You don't put a bag down on the floor if you're also going to put the same bag on a table. In some cultures, you don't show your legs at all, whether you're a man or a woman.

In the job market in much of the world, you present yourself in certain ways, emphasizing the ways you can contribute to the company and allowing the company to figure out any of your weaknesses themselves. Is this lying? It is deceit? I don't think so. It's assumed that the only things you'll talk about are your good aspects. That doesn't mean you're pretending you don't have any negatives. You're not expected to talk about them in that context, so it's not deceitful to do so unless you're asked about them and try to hide them then. A good job search will be able to find out what they need to know, and they'll know how to ask the right questions anyway. Your job is to make the case that they should hire you, not to give them reasons why they shouldn't, at least not in most cases. That's the convention of the job market.

There's something similar in the blogosphere. We have a convention. We link to people we like or want to be nice to. Why? Because linking to people increases their Google rating and elevates them in the Ecosystem. That's the convention. Your Ecosystem rating (the link one, anyway) reflects how many people are doing this for you. We also have an Ecosystem convention that allows people to put large numbers of people in their blogroll at once and to allow others to use the same list. Christians do this. There's the Blogdom of God for God-bloggers, not limited to Christians by the way. One of the higher-ranked members is a Christian-friendly Jew, and some of the people in it who call themselves Christians are only so in a very loose sense.

There's an evangelical blogs blogroll. There's a Protestant women bloggers who don't primarily blog politics blogroll. There are denominational blogrolls (e.g. PCA, Roman Catholic) and blogrolls gathering people of certain theological perspectives (e.g. Reformed). Sometimes it's as specific as the Reformed Charismatic blogroll. Sometimes it's as general as politically liberal Christians. Yet there are plenty of these blogrolls that have little or nothing to do with Christianity. I know that on the right side there are Blogs for Bush and GOPBloggers. We also have Pro-Life Blogs and the Conservative Brotherhood (black conservatives, libertarians, and right-leaning moderates). On the left, there's a group of liberal blogs promoted at TTLB, along with two politically neutral blog alliances that are officially based on one's attitude toward Instapundit's position at the top of the Ecosystem, though most of the people who join the one against him are doing it to promote him in a tongue-in-cheek way (one of the reasons he's so much higher linkwise than trafficwise).

This is all part of the blogophere's conventions on how people can indicate support for other blogs. They can do it en masse through these blog alliances. If someone happens to belong to more alliances, they can easily get a lot more links. If the groups they belong to don't have such alliances, some enterprising member of each group in question must do what the enterprising members of other groups have done. They must create such an alliance with an easily transferrable code for the blogroll, one that gets updated automatically as more blogs join the alliance. That's how the convention works. It's not deceptive to take part in the convention. Those are the rules of blogging and linking. It's not deceptive, because these practices are the community's conventions of accumulating and counting links. It's not breaking the rules of the community, because these are the rules of the community. May Christian bloggers continue to play according to the rules and thus support each other.

Side note: I do think there are reasons not to use these blogrolls or not to use them heavily, but those reasons depend on the individual blogger's purposes and blogroll intentions. My blogroll reflects the blogs I find most interesting and worth reading. I count a link from me not as an endorsement of the views of a blog but as an endorsement that a blog raises provocative questions, good analysis, or worthwhile information that you might not find as easily elsewhere. A good number of the blogs in the alliances I belong to do not fit my criteria, so I don't use these blogrolls whose membership I can't control. I want my blogroll to reflect what I want to highlight. I don't see anything wrong in principle with someone else's having a different purpose for a blogroll, e.g. to link to absolutely every blog that links to them without regard for content or to link to absolutely every blog from a certain perspective (e.g. Christian or evangelical) or on a certain topic (e.g. philosophy or legal theory or science). That's just not what I'm doing.

[Hat tip: SmartChristian Blog]

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Parableman responds to Deep Callx to Deep regarding blogrolls and aggregators. Let's take a look at what Deep Calls to Deep says first. Another blogger (I forget who) had a post about the new aggregator trend, and mentioned as part of it the use of mul... Read More

15 Comments

Hi

It was more of a question that a suposition, but there is something about the chase for higher links which makes me uncomfortable. Much as the ecosystem is based on this, it nevertheless strikes a discordant note.

I agree that the aggregators can be different, in fact I administrate an aggregator for Vineyarders, and my motivation is interest in bringing our voices together, and celebrating our diversity.

Interesting to read a little more on it. I thinko, on balance, not decieving, but certainly, perhaps, manipulating? Whether that's a bad thing is another matter.

Cheers -Steve

Jeremy - I, too, would disagree: who cares about the numbers? I'm sure advertisers (for those of you fortunate enough to have them) are not so stupid as to be deceived by TTLB stats.

Steve - You wrote,

"I agree that the aggregators can be different, in fact I administrate an aggregator for Vineyarders, and my motivation is interest in bringing our voices together, and celebrating our diversity."

I'm sure you meant no harm, but you might extend to others of us who maintain aggregators (I have four) the same grace and guileless motivations that you grant yourself. You seem to be cynical about the motives of others, but not your own. Certainly there are Christians who get caught up in such things, but don't paint with too broad a brush or without a mirror handy.

I think we need to distinguish between whether someone might do it from an immoral obligation and whether the action itself is wrong. One of the things every criticism of seeking links I've read has flat-out ignored is that some people do it to expose a greater number of people to the message of the gospel.

I don't see how any Christian can justifiably criticize that, assuming they don't fallaciously assume that the action itself is what's wrong. The argument seems to be that there's nothing in principle wrong with pursuing links but that the motivation for doing so is worrisome. If it's not the action itself but the motivation, then Christians should agree the action with a motivation that's not impure should be just fine.

Criticize the bad motivation all you want, but don't extend it to those who have a very different motivation. The kind of behavior I've been seeing all over the Christian blogs in criticism of these things just strikes me as thoroughly unChristian. I've chosen not to assume bad motivations, but it's actually been very hard to do that in some cases. The kind of criticism I've seen seems awfully like what I would expect to arise out of jealousy and covetousness, which have their root in the very pride that these criticisms are supposing to be pointing out in others. I'm not saying this is so in any particular case, but I wonder about the motivations behind those expressing these concerns just as much as I wonder about the motivations of those seeking to be high in the Ecosystem.

Just to be clear, I'm not assuming this of anyone. I'm just calling for fairness in recognizing that the bad motivations can be and probably are just as common among the critics of these practices as they are among those who use and promote them. I choose not to assume bad motivations. I call other Christians in the blogosphere to do the same, and I'm especially concerned about those who assume the bad motives only among those who engage in one practice. In that way and to that extent, I agree with Mike's mirror comment above.

Jeremy:

I agree with all you said - except for one thing: you wrote, "Criticize the bad motivation all you want . . .' I think this is exactly what Paul tells us not to do in such passages as 1 Co 4.5:

"Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men�s hearts; and then each man�s praise will come to him from God."

We are to criticize and judge behaviors, but not motives. As Paul says in v. 3 of that chapter, "it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself."

I cannot possibly be aware of all that motivates me to do the smallest of things, such as brushing my teeth or wearing clean underwear! To assume that I can rightly determine the hidden motivations of a brother in Christ without corresponding, corroborating behavior is quite narcissistic. (I speak in general and not to anyone specifically.)

What Paul said not to do was to pass judgment on what someone's motivation was. After my long explanation condemning the assumption that someone is acting out of certain motives, I thought that should be clear.

What I was saying was fine was criticizing, e.g., the motive of greed, whoever happens to be acting based on it. Paul did so himself over and over, at one point in Colossians saying greed is tantamount to idolatry. That's definitely criticizing a motive.

There is one sense in which Paul says motives don't matter. When the gospel was preached, he didn't care if people were doing it to try to best him or to make him feel terrible for being in prison while it was going on. He was rejoicing that the gospel was preached. That doesn't mean the people doing it were righteous in their actions, just that Paul was rejoicing at how God used it. That's not the same issue here, though. It can be applied in some of the cases I've been talking about, but it's just a related issue.

The important distinction that I think your comment missed was between criticizing a motivation and assuming someone acts out of that motivation. I said not to do the latter but to do the former all you want, as long as the motivation you're criticizing is genuinely wrong.

Jeremy:

Whoa! I think we're actually in agreement: are we not both saying that, without behavioral proof (like a profit motive due to advertising), the motivation of another should not be questioned? Certainly we should confront and rebuke when there is evidence, but in the absence of evidence we need to tread lightly.

In the passage you cite, Paul is judging the motives of those who preach the gospel for wrong reasons. Is he violating what he said to the Corinthians? Or is there behavioral evidence to support his contention? I would argue the latter to be the case, although the text itself does not elaborate re how Paul came to his conclusions.

I think I've inadvertantly hijacked this dialogue. Perhaps I need to back off and let others comment on what it was originally about: inflated numbers.

I think we agree on the substantive issue that you said you disagree with me on, which means we weren't in agreement in how to interpret my previous statement. I think we're on the same page now.

In Philippians 1, Paul was dealing with those who were upset about people who were preaching with false motives. To deal with those upset about it, he simply said he was rejoicing that Christ was preached. I don't think that requires saying anything one way or the other about what the motivations were. I'm not sure he was willing to do that in that case.

Hi Jeremy -

Absolutely - that's not what I meant, and I wouldn't want to imply that. I'm suprised that you read it that way - I guess the key words there are 'can be'. I was not intending to be unequivocal.

Certainly I have mixed motives, and I imagine we all do, aggregators are fun, and in fact only came into my post becasue of someone elses comment on the new aggregator trend....

Cheers - Steve

And again - having read the rest of the comments (which I should have done first, I know).


I wanted to say that I wouldn't want to question anothers motive, nor accuse anyone of anything (and I haven't) - rather it was a simple comment on something that made me feel uncomfortable.

Christians ganging together to inflate number seemd a little incongruent, and left me feeling a little unsettled. It was a reflection, (and one that I had to read agina to see what I said when I recdeived Jeremy's trackback....

The title itself was, (I admit) aimed at prodding a little to see what happened - which up to now - was nothing. I don't think people are decieving anyone, it's all playing with numbers, but I'm not a fan of the whole thing.

Steve

Jeremy thanks for the support for the notion of us all linking to each other just as much as we want to without feeling guilty about it. Have weighed in over on my blog and have an interesting mathmatical analysis which suggests even more strongly that these criticisms are unfounded.

*We have a convention. We link to people we like or want to be nice to.*

Yes and no. Again, it isn't an either/or.

I think Steve's question is extremely fair.
And many bloggers have questioned ranking for rankings sake. And I don't think we need to be upset with anyone who is uncomfortable with that.
I'm seeing new bloggers eager to find others.
But not everyone has a herd mentality, nor are many going to speak up and question. They'll just blog. I don't think question is about motivation, I hear him asking the how of marketing.

Is this criticism, as much as looking at the limitations of ranking systems and numbers?
Blog on!

The critism element was largely in the use of the word "deception" which has now been retracted. I agree that rankings for rankings sake is not a good idea.

Not retracted, just adjusted, the post still stands, and has as little critisism in now as it originally did. Adrian and I have talked about this some more.

There are many people in the world, not only Christians, who blog. And many of them do rise in the Ecosystem in many ways. The thing is why Steve limits it to Christians only? There should be no discrimination in this, as there is a great number of bloggers.

Steve was addressing Christian bloggers based on specific principles that Christians should agree on that others might not accept.

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