Trackback is dead. Are Comments dead too?

04/27/2005

I think it’s time we faced the fact that Trackback is dead. We should state up front – the aspirations behind Trackback were admirable. We should reassert that we understand that there is a very real need to find mechanisms to knit together the world of webloggers and to allow conversations across multiple weblogs to operate effectively. We must recognise that Trackback was one of the first and most important attempts to work in that area. But Nevertheless, we have to face the fact – Trackback is dead.

It has been killed by spam and by spammers – by the sheer horror of ping after ping pushing mother/son incest and bestiality links. It has been killed by the exploitation of human beings quite prepared to desecrate the work of tens of thousands of people in order that they should scrabble together a few coins. It has been killed by the experience of an inbox overwhelmed by the automated rape of our creative endeavours.

In a way it should have been predictable from the beginning – we should probably all have spotted that functionality that allows individuals to place links on other people’s sites could be exploited by spammers. Some people did spot these problems, but even they had no sense of the scale. Their responses were – at best – muted. But now I think we have to accept that the evidence is in. The situation is clear and it is not good. We’re engaged in an arms race with the worst kind of people, an arms race that has raged across other communications media and which we show no sign of winning. For me, the negative experience of dealing with trackbacks has long-since overwhelmed the benefits it brings. For these reasons, I’m turning off all incoming Trackbacks on plasticbag.org from this moment on.

Of course the problem isn’t restricted to Trackbacks. The systems we’re using to manage comments on our sites are probably under even more strain from spammers. The only reason I’m prepared to put up with this in the short term is because the comments seem to be more useful to more people at the moment. But I’m clear in my mind – we’re rapidly approaching a crisis here as well, and it is likely to be one that ends in the abandonment of comment systems as well.

And how to solve this problem? I don’t think it’s a matter of iterative improvements. I don’t think this problem can be solved by engaging in the arms race. MTBlacklist has saved my life, but it’s a patch, not a fix. No, any solution for this problem will be conceptually distinct from our current approaches. It could be a centralised approach – letting professionals manage the data that links our communities together. It could be a radically decentralised one beyond what we’re working with at the moment. I don’t know for certain. But I think we should be looking back to the origins of the weblog and seeing how things operated then.

Originally there was no weblog spam and yet conversation and discussion still existed. If an individual posted something and another individual wanted to respond to it, they simply wrote a post on their own site linking to the original. This environment was entirely free of spam. It was completely clean. I can’t help thinking that maybe we need to start thinking in terms of approaches like that – where there is no automated functionality that could be robotically exploited. Or perhaps we should be looking in other directions – how can we abstract out the kind of social networks that lie behind Flickr to structures that we could overlay across the internet as a whole. A question I think we should be asking is how could we build services that let you decide precisely which groups of people should be able to see, link to, ‘trackback’ or comment on the work you do in a decentralised, disaggregated way?

But this is to get ahead of ourselves. Today, we are here to mourn the passing of a great friend and a solution designed for happier and less cynical times. Trackback, I come to praise and bury you. May you rest in peace…