Actual Internet Etiquette: Trackbacks and Spam

This all starts with comments on a previous post. The problem discussed cuts to the heart of actual, rather than imagined etiquette on the Internet. The short story is guy uses a tool, inadvertently spams, and apologizes while missing the heart of the problem.

The offending collection of tools are Zemanta1 and trackbacks2 The way these tools were configured in the offender's case made the offense look like a sping3 which is a particularly disappointing variety of spam for a number of reasons we'll get into here. As to why the fuss was made when you can identify what appears to be a bad actor that makes it through the automated spam control measures… You need to make the apparent bad behavior known. On the Internet and in life in general the greatest threats are of a social engineering nature.

How loud you scream and what you scream is dependent on whether you have any reason to believe the actor has been a victim of shitty tools. In that case lean towards informing them casually that "Dude your software is being spammy."4 If on the other hand you don't know the actor and they are for all purposes a stranger operating an aspiring outlet of "Journalism" you inform them privately and then publicly5 that they are acting as Spammers. If the actor is either huge like the New York Times or already known as a bad actor like Mark Zuckerburg you of course label them spammers and reveal to the world that this particular spammer enjoys a pate made from the livers of white Anglo Saxon protestant infants from time to time. The point is getting their attention so that they contact you and either reform their potentially inadvertent spammy ways or may for ever be known as an unrepentant spammer. The case for why this level and escalation of alarm is necessary and proper is contained in Mircea Popescu's seminal Anonimity, or the urban versus rural dispute.6

Now Trackbacks and related protocols are very useful tools enabling them should be considered whenever using blogging software that allows them. Their utility allows the piece's author and readers to find further discussion of the subject that cites the original piece. In academic writing citation indexes are generally expensive proprietary services, but with civilized blogging tools you can have this functionality available for free. Generally, there's a point of etiquette7 where if you send trackback you probably ought to be receiving them as well and displaying at least some of them.8 Note that none of this trackback discussion has mentioned links9 at all yet, because there is a crucial difference. A citation is a meaningful10 mention of a work in a context whether it is to use it as support for an asserion, to critique claims made, or simply because it is a funny.

In the instance being discussed it was pointed out by the other party that the post that got a sping is indeed linked in one of these things:

Spammy banner ad looking thing

The Zemanta thing that looks like the Outbrain thing.

For most people who have spent more than a few hours browsing the web these things constitute blind spots, as this related content structure has been used for too long for shady paid content advertorials by the likes of Outbrain. This means that despite all of the great intentions Zemanta might have, their widget get consigned to the blind spot most other advertising litter on the web does. In the end the issue was resolved:

Andrew says: July 28, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Sorry, I use Zemanta, which recommends related content. I didn't realize it was dropping pingbacks.
At any rate look again, your site is listed in the "related articles" section. So you're getting a direct link.11

I'll not include your website as a source for interesting related content in the future.
Reply

BingoBoingo says: July 28, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Apology accepted. Going back I do see that there was a link under the article in the giant blindspot.
Reply

So, the point was missed by the offender, but they apologized. At least now this exists for the next offender.


  1. Something I did not know existed before today.  But apparently it is some sort of outbrain look alike.  

  2. taken to include the entire family of protocols rather than just the one in particular.  

  3. A spam ping. This used to be a large problem with trackbacks, but largely isn't much of a problem anymore. At least no where near approaching the problem that comment spam is.  

  4. You may also take a lighter hand with say, small time blog with no apparent reason to spam.  

  5. The delay between the two can be microseconds or hours depending on your mood, but I see no reason to wait longer than an hour. Especially if you care to address the issue at all.  

  6. This is indeed the work to read on the problem of identifying bad actors in Bitcoin, Hollywood, or simple the world at large.  

  7. Actual etiquette in the sense of conventions that allow civilized life to proceed smoothly, rather than imagined etiquette in the sense of there existing some sort of polite company which must banish useful word like fuck, cunt, and idiot.  

  8. Things necessarily being unequal, especially cited posts may not be able to display all of them in an elegant and useful way.In this case someone may curate them to highlight the most interesting continuations of the conversation rather than tacking on every mention as though it is a trophy case for every mention the post received. Comments in general though are different. You don't "moderate" or "curate" them. So long as they make it through a basic spam filter you can prescreen them to make sure one last time they aren't spam, but they appear on the post eventually.  

  9. Linkbuilding and all of these other things the SEO crowd pushes are largely for naught. Your readers are your readers by virtue or lack thereof of your content so long as you keep up on the blogging long enough. Buzzfeed doesn't have reader's rather it has people who know it is a place to find gifs and cat pictures. Given time and other reading or discussion with other people readers find their content. The SEO game of imposing one's ads on passerby through Google is largely a dying game if it isn't dead already. This is actual organic linking, i.e. citation as opposed to the pretense thereof the SEO herd purports to sell.   

  10. Remember that all of scholarship is referencing other's work.  

  11. See previous note for why this is a meaningless thing. As links are not always citations.  

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