Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Wikipedia and the Question of LinkSpam.

As more and more readers become aware of the extremely unfortunate incident of misusing browsing information - described in Wiki Watchdog's earlier piece Is Wikipedia Handing Out Your Browsing Information to Thousands? - they may find themselves asking the question: "What exactly is LinkSpam?" If they had even so much as heard of it before, they probably thought it referred to links inserted by machine ("bot") into blogs and public pages, the defining quality being that they link to pages that have little or no genuine content other than advertising.

The terms "Spam" and "LinkSpam" have become perjoratives - even extreme perjoratives - on the Internet given the degradation of the browsing experience that they represent. It is not difficult to understand the stigma that goes along with being a "Spammer".

Wikipedia, in its own definition of LinkSpam goes a bit farther. In Wikiworld LinkSpam is any link that:

...takes advantage of link-based ranking algorithms, such as Google's PageRank algorithm, which gives a higher ranking to a website the more other highly-ranked websites link to it.

Being one of the most visited sites on the web, and linking to it being easier than writing out and maintaining one's own definition pages, Wikipedia's definition is powerfully supported by the fact that Google links to it.

But what does Google or any other entity link to when they link to Wikipedia? They link to a page that is open edited on a continuing basis with a few persons checking off on the changes when they can find the time. From one day to the next Google has no idea what precisely is the content of the page.

Again, Wikipedia is one of the most visited sites on the Internet. This creates an interesting example of convenient reasoning: being a "highly-ranked website", any link that has been removed from it can be labeled "LinkSpam" because it was presummably posted at Wikipedia in order to "take advantage of link-based ranking algorithms, such as Google's PageRank algorithm". Because any user can remove a link that they personally find unacceptable, without having to cite any specific rule that prohibits it, each of the thousands of registered users of Wikipedia individually defines whether a link meets the criteria of Spam or not. In Wikiworld LinkSpam, it turns out, is nothing but a link a registered user of Wikipedia does not like. And because Spam - as was mentioned above - is a perjorative of the first order, that registered user is released to publically defame an unwelcome guest as a "Spammer". How convenient!

This is exactly the present situation. If your link has been removed you are a Spammer. Let the matter lie and perhaps it won't be too highly publicized. Perhaps your browsing information won't be tracked in order to network an end to your access to the Internet. If your link has not been removed, you are not - at least until another user with a different set of personal interests comes along and declares the link to be Spam.

Other more legitimate terms, such as "reverted link," are available, and perfectly expressive, but it doesn't have the force of defamation - and it is clear that that is the point. Not only is it a wilfull attack, but, repeated in high-traffic Wiki chat-pages, it is an attempt to effect the reputation of a third party by the misuse of tools provided one through being registered with Wikipedia.

Variations upon this type of behavior are not at all uncommon in chat-pages, it is true, but can Wikipedia actually think that their "Administrator Chat" (or any Wikichat, for that matter) is just another chat page? That it need not hold itself to any standard? How, then, under such circumstances, can legitimate companies such as Google continue to support it? It is a sad day when Wikipedia stands quietly by and allows its users to defame third parties and to track them via their browsing information looking for vulnerabilities that might be exploited.

Related Story:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Following an experience with Wikipedia for which at first I thought I was at fault (for I had posted a few links which someone immediately scrapped as objectionable), I soon found myself wondering, What is it about this situation that just doesn't sit well? It took me a while to stop feeling guilty, when in fact I had done nothing worse than posting a few questionable links that were not outrageous, and refusing to engage in discourse about them.

Something isn't right when a user, no longer editing any articles, is repeatedly unable to eliminate those talk page warnings without their being instantly reverted back into being - like those trick candles that you can't blow out. Something is wrong when one has to do intensive research just to find a way to remove from easy viewing some frivolous insinuations that could harm one's reputation.

Something just doesn't smell right when I, as an anonymous user, find myself easily able (1) to view thousands of blocked IP addresses and their associated accusations 500 at a time, and (2) to click on someone's username and see the words, "It is suspected that this user may be a sockpuppet of so-and-so who is banned; look to these contributions for evidence."

The historical treatment of one banned user whose misfortune I chanced to research in detail was the clincher for me. It seems that person had been considered a vandal of the worst kind for continually blanking his user talk page, and then removing newly introduced content that was defaming him on the main talk page - in short, for defending his privacy and reputation in spite of some administrators' false sense of their own superior judgment.

Wikipedia is a fine project which deserves its reputation in some ways, but its popularity seems to have gone to some people's heads, with unfortunate results. I truly hope that your article and others like it continue to wake people up as time goes by. Public awareness probably will prove key to showing the Wikipedia administration that there will be limits to what they can pull off.