Why links matter: Linking is the lifeblood of the web

Every so often, a controversy erupts over something that seems relatively simple: Namely, the concept of linking to (and thereby giving credit to) the source of a news report. In one of the most recent examples, Instapaper founder Marco Arment — who broke the news about a wave of corrupted apps in the Apple store — kept track of both media outlets that repeated the news and whether they gave credit to him or not. Some did but others didn’t, and some hid their links or otherwise tried to make it look like they broke the news themselves. There are a number of reasons why this kind of behavior is still so common a decade after digital media became mainstream, but none of them justify it. Simply put, linking is a core value of the web, and if we lose that then we have lost something incredibly important.
Arment initially reported on Wednesday that corrupted apps downloaded from the Apple store were crashing repeatedly, something he noticed with his own Instapaper app first and then confirmed was a problem for close to 100 other apps. The news spread quickly throughout the tech blogosphere, but Arment noticed that many outlets were not giving him credit for breaking the news, so he started what he called “Rewrite Bingo” by cataloging the blogs that were duplicating his report.
[tweet http://twitter.com/marcoarment/status/220900868868947970]
In some cases, blogs such as CNET gave credit to Arment for the initial report and linked to him prominently, while others linked to one of the first outlets that repeated his news, such as The Verge. Some linked to subsequent reports at other sites without any mention of Arment. And several reports that didn’t initially give credit to him were updated to add a link after the Instapaper founder started tweeting about the lack of credit. Both John Gruber of the Apple blog Daring Fireball and Alex Howard of O’Reilly Radar pulled together Storify collections of his Twitter stream.
Virtually every blog or media outlet has probably seen similar kinds of behavior, and that includes GigaOM: Our legal expert Jeff Roberts broke a story on Thursday about a patent troll going after the popular travel site Hipmunk, and several outlets covered the same news without providing a link to our post on it. With other stories, including one recent one from Ki Mae Heussner about an Amazon acquisition, outlets such as the Wall Street Journal mentioned her report but failed to link. Although a link was added later after we complained, it shouldn’t take a complaint to get a media outlet to give credit to the original source of the news it is reporting.

Linking is a critical part of web culture

As I argued after a similar incident last year, this kind of linking isn’t just polite: It is also a crucial part of what makes the web function. Whether or not you believe in the value of the so-called “link economy,” giving credit to the sources of the information you used to develop a post or story is a principle that distinguishes ethical outlets from unethical ones. And as David Weinberger of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has pointed out in the past, the ability to link to sources is also a critical element of transparency and something that separates online media from print. As Om has said:

Links were and are the currency of the collaborative web, that started with blogs and since then has spread to everything from Twitter to Facebook to Tumblr. Links are the essence of the new remix culture. It is how you show that you respect someone’s work and efforts. It is also indicative that you are part of a community.

In the days when newspapers ruled the world of information, giving credit to other outlets was (and often still is) discouraged. Rewriting or “matching” a story that someone else broke — or taking wire-service reports and rewriting them a little — was standard practice, and code words such as “one report” were often used so a newspaper wouldn’t have to mention a competitor’s news story. This kind of behavior has spilled over onto the web as more mainstream media outlets have moved online.
One reason people often give for the failure to link (or the “hiding” of links at the bottom of an article, for which some have criticized outlets like The Verge) is that the financial model for digital media — that is, advertising — relies on page views, and one of the ways to juice those numbers is to pretend you broke a story. But regardless of whether this inflates reader numbers in the short term, it ultimately depreciates the value of the blog that does it, and that leads to a loss of trust. And trust is far more important than pretending you have a scoop, the half-life of which is now measured in minutes.
But this isn’t just about the media. Despite skeptics like Nicholas Carr, who has argued links interrupt the flow of reading and confuse readers, linking of all kinds is one of the crucial underpinnings of the internet and the web. That’s why the attempt to criminalize links via lawsuits like the one the U.S. government has launched against website operator Richard O’Dwyer (who linked to copyright-infringing video streams), is such a dangerous phenomenon. Links are the lifeblood of the internet, and it is up to all of us to see that we keep them — and the collaborative nature of the web itself — alive.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Skedonk and Robert Brook