Cloud Street

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A mean idea to call my own

Technorati's new "Filter by Authority" feature depresses me intensely - not least because I thought they'd abandoned the word 'authority' some time after my last rant on the subject. There are three problems here. Firstly, as I wrote last year:
Technorati is all about in-groups and out-groups. ... authority directly tracks popularity - although this is 'popularity' in that odd American high-school sense of the word: 'popular' sites aren't the ones with the most friends (most out-bound links, most distinct participants in Comments threads or even most traffic) but the ones with the most people envying them (hence: most in-bound links).
In other words, 'authority' is a really lousy synonym for 'high inbound link count', raising completely groundless expectations of quality and reliability. McDonald's is a popular provider of hot food; it's not an authority on cooking. The relative popularity (or enviability) of a site may signify many things, but it doesn't signify that the site possesses absolute qualities like veracity, completeness, beauty - or authority.

But hold on - is it absurd to call McDonald's authoritative? You've got to admit, they're good at what they do... There's a sense in which this is a tautology - because what they do is maximise the numbers who come through the doors - but never mind. Let's say that we can identify the McDonald's branch with the highest number of burgers sold (or repeat customers, or stars on uniforms - the precise metric doesn't matter). There's a good argument for using the word 'best': it looks like this is the best McDonald's branch in the world. And the best fast food joint in the world? Well, maybe. The best restaurant in the world? Um, no. Quality tracks popularity, to some extent, but only within a given domain - otherwise USA Today would be the best newspaper in the USA . (To say it's the best national mass-market tabloid would be less controversial.) [Edited with thanks to commenters who know about this stuff.]

This is the second problem with authority-as-link-count, and one which Technorati shows no sign of recognising, much less addressing. I can live with the idea that the Huffington Post is more popular than Beppe Grillo's blog - but more authoritative? I really don't think so. (Any right-wingers reading this may substitute Huffington for Grillo and Kos for Huffington, and re-read. And rest.) At bottom, Technorati's 'authority' ranking is based on the laughably outdated idea that there is a single Blogosphere, within which we're all talking to pretty much the same people about pretty much the same things. Abandon that assumption and the problems with an 'authority' metric are staringly apparent: who am I authoritative for? who am I more authoritative than?

But if this is an error it's not an error of Dave Sifry's invention. As I've said, within any given domain of ideas, it's not entirely meaningless to say that authority tracks popularity: among academic authors, the author who sells books and fills halls is likely to be the author who is cited, even if he or she hasn't written anything particularly inspired since Thatcher was in power. The question is whether this is a feature or a bug: if we're going to read one writer rather than another, should we choose the popular dullard or the unknown genius? Put it another way: if we're choosing who to read in the context of a new publication medium with massively lowered entry costs - and with an accompanying ideology rich in levelled playing-fields, smashed barriers and dismantled hierarchies - who should we be trying to seek out: Dullard (Popular) or Genius (Unknown)?

The third and most fundamental problem with ranking by 'authority' is that it brings to the Web one of the very features of offline life which Web evangelists told us we were leaving behind. This kind of 'feature' - and the buzz-chasing worldview that promotes it - is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I find that it often helps me to also answer the question, "Who is the most influential blogger talking about XXX this week, and what did she say?" - Dave Sifry

3 Comments:

  • Very nice post. One quibble, tho:

    Quality tracks popularity, to some extent, but only within a given domain - otherwise the National Inquirer would be the best newspaper in the USA. (To say it's the best supermarket tabloid would be less controversial.)

    According to the first stats I found on the web, the National Enquirer is the 68th-best selling magazine in the US, behind such powerhouses as Southern Living, Cooking Light, and Cosmo Girl!. The New York Times sells about as many copies in a day as the Enquirer sells in a week.

    Replace "The National Enquirer" with "USA Today," though, and you're golden.

    By Anonymous Angus, at 15/2/06 21:22  

  • Well, if you are going to mention USA Today as an example of popularity, you need to strike the supermarket observation too. I rarely find USA Today in supermarkets although its national coverage and presence creates a numerical advantage over all of the local papers. How would you classify The Wall Street Journal, also a national rag?

    By Blogger orcmid, at 16/2/06 14:51  

  • I strongly and deeply agree with you on the poverty of the high school popularity metric. And yet, when Technorati took the "authority" feature down for repair, I was sad.

    I use it in two ways. First, any of the settings that are higher than the lowest serve to filter out some noise. Blogs with minimal inbound links are more likely to be spam or not very thoughtful. A medium setting on a popular topic helps dampen noise and still explore a diversity of perspectives.

    Second, the highest setting is a conventional wisdom check. It doesn't satisfy my need to explore a diversity of views on topic, but it does register what the famous people think.

    By Blogger Adina, at 6/3/06 12:30  

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