Link Attribution, the Early Blogosphere and the Arts & Letters Daily

The blogosphere emerged in 1998 from a loose confederacy of distributed “news pages” that were patterned after Dave Winer‘s Scripting News. Dedicated to the pursuit of scavenging the web for interesting reads, the network of the nascent blogosphere shared the purpose of acting as “a useful filter for the vast amount of news and information on the Web.”[1] The formation of this network was driven by link attribution, the expedient of crediting a “borrowed” link to the weblog from which it was taken. This expedient was tentatively introduced by the late Chris Gulker of in the summer of 1997, it was then adopted and systematically practiced by Jorn Barger of in February 1998, and it came to facilitate a sustained mutual exchange of links and attributions between Barger and Steve Bogart of from April 1998, spreading further from there.[2]

The networking strategy of link attribution remained the most frequent source of links between weblogs for the remainder of the year 1998, during which time it became an accepted norm across the emerging network. In late 1998, the practice entered a minor crisis, however, with the arrival on the scene of Denis Dutton and his Arts & Letters Daily. Dutton’s site resembled a weblog and was enthusiastically embraced by the nascent blogosphere, yet Dutton refused to adopt the norm of attributing his borrowed links, and, when pressed on the subject, decided to post an article in which he firmly disassociated himself from the webloggers. The incident makes for a case study of the early blogosphere and showcases the attribution of borrowed links as a core norm observed within a distributed peer production network.[3][4]

Arts & Letters Daily

Denis Dutton is a professor of philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is also the author of a book, The Art Instinct, which has been praised in the New York Times as “uniformly insightful and penetrating”[5] and by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker as “the future of the humanities.”[6] Dutton has served as editor of the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature since founding the publication in 1977[7] and has attracted some attention through the journal’s Bad Writing Contest, in which, between 1995 and 1998, he purported to act as arbiter of clarity in academic writing.[8] His fame, however, as one of the “most influential media personalities in the world”[9] and as New Zealand’s “foremost media don,”[10] rests on Arts & Letters Daily, a website that, for more than a decade, has been highlighting arts and humanities articles in English from across the web.

Dutton launched his site in September 1998[11] and soon came to be counted among the “competitors in the web-log business.”[12] His site has been rated “one of the earliest and most popular weblogs,”[13] and praised as “no conventional weblog.”[14] While Time has reported in glowing terms on “the blog Arts & Letters Daily,”[9] literacy scholar Dennis Jerz noted with a degree of wonder that Arts & Letters Daily’s status among early weblogs wasn’t “canonical.” [15]

Link attribution

When, in the first half of 1998, Jorn Barger came to think of himself as “a leader among the growing network of weblogs and news-pages,”[16] his self-proclaimed leadership rested both on the prolific example of Robot Wisdom Weblog and his public reflections on the new form of web authoring, especially his attempt to define the rules of art that weblogs should adhere to. These rules changed from their initial announcement on usenet in January 1998 as a six-point programme[17] to their first appearance on the web in late July 1998 as a ten-point set of “design suggestions.”[18] The most significant change in the revised list is the final item, which states that “crediting links borrowed from other weblogs is good etiquette.”[18] This new rule reflected an evolving practice that Barger had first introduced to Robot Wisdom Weblog in February 1998. Steve Bogart was the first to adopt the practice of link attribution in April that year, engaging Barger in a sustained exchange of links and corresponding attributions. As link attribution became more widespread, it triggered a sharp increase of cross-linking among weblogs; remaining the most numerous link type between weblogs for the remainder of the year, it drove the process of network formation in the emerging blogosphere.[2]

Barger never elaborated in any detail on the “good etiquette”[18] of link attribution, except for a few passing remarks suggesting that link attribution was “publicity,”[19] that it amounted to a “vote of confidence”[19] in the source being attributed, and that webloggers “ought to give enough credit that readers can check out that source for themselves.”[20] Barger, however, did view the process of relevance generation, of finding and promoting the best links in the seemingly boundless, ill-structured information environment of the web, as a networked endeavour. Moreover, he believed that the effectiveness of this undertaking could be improved by the borrowing and attributing of links from other weblogs, and that its impact would crucially depend on this practice. Predicting that there were going to be “hundreds of people maintaining pages like this,”[21] and that they would form a “new network of web-surfers,”[22] Barger reasoned that the process of relevance generation would benefit from borrowed links: “new URLs will propagate thousands of times more efficiently, because each zine author can re-filter a dozen other zines that match their interests.”[23] Link credits were going to boost the power of such participatory filtering: “We vacuum the Net for stories that the major outlets haven’t noticed yet, and pass along our sources so we can all get more and more efficient at this vacuuming.”[16] As Barger thus attempted to “make the web as a whole more transparent, via a sort of ‘mesh network,’ where each weblog amplifies just those signals (or links) its author likes best,”[24] he did, in fact, envisage and instigate a process of relevance generation as commons-based peer production.[3][4]

Bogart, who was the first of many to call his weblog “a useful filter for the vast amount of news and information on the Web,”[1] and who, shortly after adopting link attributions, referred to the nascent network of bloggers as “the merry band of linkers,”[25] describes the reason that compelled him to adopt Barger’s innovation of attributed links as a social dynamic within a peer network:

On the one hand, I didn’t want to just avoid using any links other people saw first. For a little while that was in fact my instinct, because there were few enough sites to follow that it just felt like if one site had the link, everybody who was reading me would see it anyway, and I didn’t want to be seen as just parroting other people. But it became a very limiting principle to try to adhere to; how many times would I realistically be the first person to mention something?

On the other hand, taking the opposite approach, I could just use any and all links I found without worrying where they came from, as though I found them all myself. I resisted this, because I seem to remember having the experience of seeing a link I had found make its way around other sites and thinking, “hey wait, you got that from me”. So it would feel wrong to just do the same thing to other people.

In hindsight, it’s obvious how to navigate between the extremes; just give credit when you got a link from someone else.

It was a bit of extra work to add attributions, but it was the best choice as far as balancing my peace of mind with not wanting to be limited in what I could write about. (Plus, eventually the ‘via’ shorthand evolved, which made it a little less cumbersome to do the crediting.)[26]

The sense that it was wrong to appropriate another weblogger’s links without giving credit for the borrowing came from an appreciation that finding good original links was an effort that required work which shouldn’t go unrewarded. Emerging within the context of a participatory effort of filtering the web, link attribution thus embodied the intention to facilitate relations and reinforce cohesion within the network; it fulfilled the need to build trust by honouring and rewarding proficiency in the one skill that, collectively, the network valued most in its members: the ability to turn up fresh links of interest, to make original contributions to the collaborative effort of distilling relevance from the web’s overwhelming chaos.

By introducing the expedient of link attribution and establishing it through their example, Barger and Bogart managed to introduce a cultural norm to their peer network that fellow blogger Cameron Barrett, in his seminal essay “Anatomy of a Weblog,” confirmed through the very act of suggesting exceptions.[27] At the same time, the limits of this norm came to be tested by Dutton’s Arts & Letters Daily.

Arts & Letters Daily embraced by early bloggers

Dutton launched the Arts & Letters Daily to serve a purpose that was identical to the cause to which the nascent network of webloggers were committed. Dutton preferred mining to Bogart’s filtering as the guiding metaphor of his enterprise, as he promised to “pan and sift from among the most intellectually stimulating sites on the Internet, updating daily,”[28] yet the intention was the same: When Dutton started his project to “find the best writing available on the web,”[29] it had already been some time since Barger advertised his weblog project as an attempt to “discover all the best reading on the Web.”[30] However, the agreement on the aim did not lead to an agreement on the means.

Shortly after its launch on 28 September 1998,[11] Barger came across Arts & Letters Daily and, crediting Progressive Review for the find, exulted over a “rich academic weblog,”[31] thus appropriating Dutton’s site to the cause of the nascent blogosphere. Barger’s peers shared the enthusiasm: Raphael Carter of Honeyguide Weblog, crediting Barger for the discovery, commended the new site as an “outstanding new Web log,”[32] and Michal Wallace of Manifestation, equally crediting Barger for the discovery, praised the high quality of Arts & Letters Daily’s links, noting that the site had an “interesting look as far as meta-journals/weblogs go.”[33] After a while, Laurel Krahn of Windowseat Weblog also credited a link from Dutton’s site,[34] and by the end of the year 1998, Barger, Wallace, Carter and Krahn had borrowed more than a dozen links from Dutton’s site,[35] all of which were painstakingly credited to their origin on Dutton’s site, as the norm of link attribution demanded.

Despite the enthusiastic reception that Arts & Letters Daily found among the bloggers, relations between Barger and Dutton got strained almost instantly over Dutton’s refusal to reciprocate and observe the link attribution norm, as Barger found that the Arts & Letters Daily had featured links from Robot Wisdom Weblog without crediting the weblog as a source. Barger wanted Dutton to play by the rules of the nascent blogosphere, and protested against Arts & Letters Daily’s violation of the link attribution norm, at first in a private message to Dutton on 19 October 1998[19] and then in a post on Robot Wisdom a week later, accusing Dutton of “borrowing links, and not even acknowledging requests for shared credit.”[36]

The matter came to a head on 26 January 1999, when Cameron Barrett of CamWorld affirmed link attribution as an established norm in his “Anatomy of a Weblog” essay.[27] Barger decided to use the occasion to highlight Dutton’s failure to honour that norm, denouncing him as a plagiarist and declaring a boycott of his site because “Dutton acknowledges he’s been taking freely from my links for months, but has somehow never found the time to give me the slightest public mention.”[19] To back up his case, Barger made an economic argument for link attribution, calculating from the going rate per page-view for banner ads that Dutton’s refusal to attribute Robot Wisdom Weblog as a source cost Barger “$2000 worth of foregone publicity.”[19]

Dutton eventually responded to Barger’s request by posting a brief article to Arts & Letters Daily which listed “a few of the most interesting weblogs.”[37] These were, in order of perceived interestingness: Jim Romenesko’s Obscure Store, Jorn Barger’s Robot Wisdom, Dave Winer’s Scripting News, Raphael Carter’s Honeyguide and Laurel Krahn’s Window Seat. Krahn, who supported the link attribution norm and held that, “Folks should at least make an effort to acknowledge sources,” [38] was pleased with the article, noting: “they’ve got a page devoted to weblogs, now. Pretty minimal, but still it’s nice of them.”[39] Unlike Krahn, Barger refused to be placated by Dutton’s offering. He declared himself happy to be found “worth stealing from,”[19] renounced seeking the “approval of such people,”[19] enjoined others to “boycott this plagiarist,”[40] and, naturally, stopped crediting any further links to the site that had been among his “major sources of links”[41] in the latter part of 1998.

Not being a blog

Having been denounced for his failure to honour the norm of link attribution, Dutton’s article of February 1999 offers a brief definition of weblogs, instantly followed by a denial of its applicability to Arts & Letters Daily:

Weblogs are among the more engaging epiphenomena of the Internet. Combining aspects of Victorian commonplace books, scrapbooks, and diaries, they are personal records of favorite sites and websurfing experiences. Weblogs are published by individuals or collectives in the form of updated Web pages. Arts & Letters Daily has been called a weblog, but true weblogs are far more personal and idiosyncratic in their choice of links and commentary. They tend to be directed toward a small and familiar audience of like-minded souls.[42]

The three dimensions along which Dutton claimed his site to differ from weblogs — personal focus, idiosyncrasy, and audience size — reward some scrutiny. In a more recent attempt to distinguish the Arts & Letters Daily from weblogs, Dutton characterised his site as a “directed reading list with attitude,”[29] thereby dropping the dimension of audience size, legitimising the dimension of idiosyncrasy as attitude, and offering the directed reading list, an attribute of his work in higher education, as a signifier of professionalism elevated above the provision of mere “personal records.”[42] With the least convincing criterion of audience size dropped and the criterion of idiosyncrasy happily embraced, it was, then, the criterion of professionalism that accounted for Dutton’s refusal to be associated with the amateurs of the emerging blogosphere.

Dutton’s preference for the professional over the amateur is highlighted by his willingness to include a link to his favourite early weblog, James Romenesko’s Obscure Store, in the Recommended section of Arts & Letters Daily’s sidebar,[28] but drawing the line at any further endorsements from among the network of bloggers.

Romenesko, a working journalist initially running his weblog as an avocational side project, was considered “absolutely the best”[43] at his chosen pursuit of web scavenging and took pride in having a “certain talent [for] finding the most interesting links out there.”[44] Celebrated as a “gatekeeper for gatekeepers”[43] and a “cloistered digital monk, rising at 5 a.m. every day to begin doggedly posting tidbits,”[45] he declared himself “mostly interested in finding and linking to pieces that people probably wouldn’t find on their own,”[46] implying that, rather than propagate and cite the links of others, he would present his links as exclusive firsts in a display of conspicuous workmanship. The pursuit of this ruggedly self-reliant editorial regime, of purveying only links “that people wouldn’t find on their own,”[47] incidentally, would also make him the first person to attain a salaried position as a full-time blogger in September 1999.[47]

Barger approved of Romenesko’s Obscure Store as a “professional-looking weblog-like page”[48] and in late 1998 made it his most frequent source of borrowed and attributed links “by a mile.”[41] Romenesko for his part appreciated Robot Wisdom and kept a link to Barger’s site in his sidebar,[49] but Romenesko’s self-sufficient editorial practice was incompatible with the idea of participatory filtering as peer production. Romenesko, the “lone Web maven”[50] was, and needed to remain, a “one-man show.”[45]

Dutton cultivated a similar image of editorial probity that was self-sufficient and would stay above propagating second-hand links. Confidently describing his site as “not actually a proper blog”[29] but, in fact, “the only game in town,”[14] Dutton would identify the uniqueness of his site exactly in the self-reliant and un-premediated originality of an editorial process that was “arduous”[28] and traded in links that were “hard to locate.”[11] As noteworthy articles were “scattered so widely over the Internet that people need a single, central site from which they can access newspapers, magazines and provocative, thoughtful readings,”[29] the exclusiveness to which Dutton’s site aspired depended on the perception that its links came only from fresh sources and were discovered independently.

The peculiar quality of Dutton’s site as an autonomous “mechanism for finding [first-rate material] and bringing it to the attention of people who are too busy to do the kind of intensive browsing serious web-reading requires”[51] is most readily apparent in the twin aspects of its internal division of labour and its intended readership. When launching Arts & Letters Daily, Dutton set up shop with a Managing Editor and two Contributing Editors, [11] who were “paid for the work.”[52] Dutton relied on his employees to supply a daily shortlist of links; he would then pick three of the links, write the teaser paragraphs and put them online.[29] Intended as “a thinking person’s guide,”[14] the site served “the interests and needs of people involved in academic pursuits.”[11] Dutton’s audience were “readers with an intellectual bent”[29] who made up the “large group of internet users who are turned off by the frenetic ‘hot picks’ and ‘cool links’ of the brain-dead surfing community.”[51] The Arts & Letters Daily took pride in a conventional editorial process serving a conventional upscale readership.

Both the site’s internal division of labour and its intended audience contrast starkly with the distributed peer production model adopted, cultivated and propagated by Barger and Bogart. Far from addressing peers engaged in the same process of filtering the web, Dutton conceived of his readers as an audience rather than a network of peers. As there was “no way to mass-produce good editorial work,”[53] Dutton worked in “a very traditional business”[53] for which Romenesko, the “online pioneer with old-fashioned newspaper values,” [45] served as a perfectly plausible foil.

Dutton’s article on weblogs failed to address the link attribution issue that occasioned the piece in the first place. The omission not only reflects Dutton’s unwillingness to concede publicly the minor point that his editorial team wasn’t always providing fresh links; more interestingly, it reveals his unwillingness to honour or even discuss the norm of link attribution that had taken root in the early blogosphere. Such acknowledgement would have tied Arts & letters Daily to the blogosphere, yet Dutton’s commitment to a conventional idea of editorial professionalism made any association with the peer production approach of the “merry band of linkers”[25] an impossibility. The fact that Barger’s repeated request for link attribution occasioned Dutton to disassociate himself from the emerging blogosphere as merely one of the “more engaging epiphenomena of the Internet”[42] indirectly confirms the potency that link attribution had as the early blogosphere’s principal means of network formation.


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