Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy

One of the first books I read about the web which really helped me understand the culture of the web and the concept of the web as a social network was the Cluetrain Manifesto. In it, David Weinberger stated "hyperlinks subvert hierarchies," a concept that helps explain a lot of the chaos in the current world.

The staggering rate of change and seeing cracks in imperfect structures makes us more likely to question authority. Fear slows down economic activity but it also creates the conditions to help speed up change through creative destruction, as insolvent structures crumble and are replaced by thousands and millions of online experiments ran in parallel due to forced entrepreneurship. As Clay Shriky puts it:

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.

Each link creates a new opportunity, which in turn creates new opportunities, giving our social nervous system many senses. And the web is just getting started. Watch this Tim Berners-Lee video and try to predict the future of the web. You can't do it.

As the web grows (and grows smarter) two of the biggest risks are machines learning too much about us (through spying on our browsing habits) and proprietary databases that lock away pieces of our culture while surfacing other favorable pieces (the divisions could be nationalistic, idealistic, or commercially driven - like "brands" that we are apparently "hard wired" to). For both of those reasons, Google's market dominance scares me.

On the above video by Tim Berners-Lee, Ralph Tegtmeier wrote the following

As long as we don't seriously do something about protecting people from the very abuse of their personal data (more often than not linked without their express acquiescence), we're merrily lighting the fuse to a humungous collective powder keg. (And it's really not helpful at all shrugging such concerns off with pejorative epitheta such as "tin foil hat", "conspiracy theories" etc. as is so common across the board.

Let's never forget that all the major atrocities committed in "civilized" countries ever since the 19th century, ranging from genocide to mass destruction, ethnic cleansings, wars, the holocaust etc. were only as scalable as they eventually proved to be because of just that: "linked data" ruthlessly leveraged and deployed by those who could get their hands on it.

Think about how distributed (and targeted) ad based business models work in a republic / quasi-democracy. Buy ads that change the opinion of couple percent of people and you change the course of a country, and perhaps the course of civilization. Think about how well Google intends to know your flaws, and sell them off to the highest bidder in any medium they can:

users that spend a long time bartering instead of stealing in a game may suggests that they are interested in the best deals rather than the flashiest items so the system may show ads reflecting value. As another example, users that spend a lot of time exploring suggest that they maybe interested in vacations, so the system may show ads for vacations. As another example, users that spend a lot of time chatting instead of fighting or performing other activities in online games suggest that they like to chat, so the system may show ads for cell phones, ads for long distance plans, chat messengers, etc.
The dialogue could indicate that the player is aggressive, profane, polite, literate, illiterate, influenced by current culture or subculture, etc. Also decisions made by the players may provide more information such as whether the player is a risk taker, risk averse, aggressive, passive, intelligent, follower, leader, etc. This information may be used and analyzed in order to help select and deliver more relevant ads to users.

And while we are being profiled, pieces of our culture are being locked up via anti-competitive agreements. Richard Sarnoff, the chairman of the Association of American Publishers, noted how they were hoodwinked in a deal with the devil:

Sarnoff also speculated that … [l]egal hurdles may make it infeasible for any other firms to build a search engine comparable to Google Book Search.

Many power structures that are being killed off by the web are the walking wounded, making deals that are rational only when paired against death. And we are stuck living with the consequences of those decisions.

With Google being so profit driven they are leaving room for a pure search play, if only someone that got branding, marketing, and the web would step up. I hope Rich Skrenta (or anyone) provides real competition to Google soon, before spying is seen as respectable and too much of our culture gets locked up in exclusive deals.

Published: March 14, 2009 by Aaron Wall in internet


March 15, 2009 - 3:17am

Thanks for these kinds of posts, Aaron. Normally I prefer how-to posts that appeal to my SEO-self interest ;), but these posts make sure I won't forget to make damn sure Google can't connect the whois data of my sites to one another once I start a second (and third..) site.

I consider myself a "whitehat", but am far from convinced that Google would have a problem with busting or penalizing all of my sites if they happen to come to the conclusion that one of my sites is SEO'd too heavily, and that it might make sense to connect whois data to webmasters and make it harder for someone who knows about SEO to rank his sites.....or possibly even put all of his sites on page 2 (or beyond) if they do it to one site.

Whenever, I say something like that people probably think I'm plain crazy, but I bet you (as an extreme example) wouldn't have too many sites where they rank if Google knew whose sites they are ;-).

March 15, 2009 - 9:20am

To be fair to Google, they do rank some of my sites that they know are connected to me. But I do know the sites are not perceived in a good light by being associated with me (even if other search companies and big publishers like the NYT hand selected some of those same sites as the best of breed category leader worthy of unsolicited editorial links).

March 15, 2009 - 12:44pm

Thanks for the reply, Aaron. I guess if they just nuked all of your sites without a reason that might not shed a good light on Google, either..and all....but I bet ever since your first site got a handjob from Google you probably (not sure if there was more than one - just remember your referring to that incident) avoid to leave any kind of footprints that could be easily traced back to you?

Of course, I'm not in that position (with all those webmasters out there and me probably still being a small fish for a while, I doubt I'll happen to be someone to who that happens)...and you're an extreme example when it comes to that (being one of the most-widely known SEOs), but it really makes me think that showing someone who can kill all of your sites, what other sites belong to you and handing over that data is a horrible idea if you want to build something long-term.

March 16, 2009 - 2:23pm

I have a client selling wood pallets. He has gone out on a limb with his dotnetnuke site and created website portals (parent portals) for all of his customers (a lot of mom&pop lumber yards). Each links back to him. It has worked wonderfully for his page rank but that was not his intent. His intent was to give these local shops a website where they might not otherwise be able to. Many don't even have web access. These sites are very simple brochure type sites and some are in the 2's and 3's for page rank. None of his customers pays for hosting. ALL of them appreciate it, google be damned. Portal sites operate on the same IP address as the parent site. I'm wondering if my client generosity will now make him a "suspect" and if I should tell him to stop doing this. What do you think?

Greg Newell

March 16, 2009 - 3:17pm

Hi Greg
We answer specific SEO questions inside our member forums.

March 16, 2009 - 4:24pm

It was rhetorical and fodder for comment.

March 15, 2009 - 7:19am

Just a guess, not valid legal opinion, get a lawyer etc yada yada...

Arguably, it was just speculation that there can't be competition. I also think the publishers might not sue if that competition did come around, and they had nothing to gain. Gooogle just has a license to the content, no? So theoretically, privity of contract (e.g. exclusion of third parties from reliance on a contract they didn't partake in) should prevent there being any effects on competitors to G Books. G probably also couldn't get standing to sue in the name of hte publishers.

But theory aside, practically, I think G are making moves to consolidate their monopoly.

What scares me most is the particular people they have the most data on - webmasters. Arguably the web's most powerful demographic. Seriously, if Googlers went around talking in 1337 speak, you'd probably hear them referring to this dominance over webmasters like, 'dud3, w3 t0ta11y pwn3|) t|-|0$3 n3\/\/b$.

March 16, 2009 - 9:11pm

My favourite sort of post :-)
The pieces of the jigsaw are there. It only needs one major crisis and one jerk president for 'private' data to become governnment data.
Anyway, it's the nature of monopolies to become too powerful. A smart company would never allow itself to get too big.
But then a truly smart company wouldn't be chasing pure profits, but would have a social agenda e.g. it existed for the benefit of its employees (John Lewis) or better still for the benefit of society as a whole.
So Google is already a dinosaur because it's mindset dooms it to come crashing down. The only question is, will it drag society down with it?
If it gets too powerful it has the potential to be the tool of the depraved and the evil.

Seo blogger
March 17, 2009 - 5:30pm

I suppose if misuse of personal info for any commercial or, what's worse, political purposes will become a real problem, the civilized goverments (or even international bodies) should issue a law prohibiting such abuse of personal data.

If not stopped timely, this will eventullaly lead to everyone spying on everyone... Ugh! That smells of a World Revolution :-)))

P.S. Aaron, I can see you have your posts heavily interlinked, what plugin are you using for that? (sorry for off-top)

March 17, 2009 - 6:38pm

I don't use plug ins to link to other related posts...it is all done by hand on this site. But if you use Wordpress to power your sites there are a lot of related posts plug ins available.

Seo blogger
March 18, 2009 - 5:41am

Yes, I use wordpress. Will look for one. Thanks.

March 19, 2009 - 4:52pm

Did Tim Berners-Lee actually suggest that the general public has a right to all data because they're tax payers? At 11:30, he says there is a right because we pay taxes, and not just government but enterprise data.

There's already so much data available about businesses available via things like ERISA. How much more does he want? Does he want my trade secrets? Does he access to my customer data? I realize I'm taking what he said to an extreme. And I do enjoy open data, but only to an extent.

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