The Networked Public Sphere: Traditional Media and Outlinks

July 26, 2008

Catching up on my RSS feeds, I followed one of Eszter Hargittai’s links to this thought provoking chart from Dave Eaves at the SEO Company that looks at the inlink/outlink ratio for major traditional news media sites.

The creators of the chart suggest that the deep inequality in inlinks/outlinks among the oft-villified “MSM” reflects some sort of scandalous refusal to play by the rules of the blogosphere. They have a point, but I want to think this through a bit more.

As Yochai Benkler, Matthew Hindeman and others have discussed in their writings, citation links (in-text links to other sites – contrasted with “static” blogroll-type links) function as key structural determinants of popularity and visibility on the Internet. Even though Hindeman’s notion of a strict “googlearchy” whereby citation links create search engine rankings which create power is overly stated for my taste, the fact remains that the structure of the net drives large masses of eyeballs in predictable directions along the pathways set by hyperlinks. For my money, Benkler does a more effective job in not overstating the case by situating his argument about the structure of discourse on the Internet in relation to the structure of discourse in the era of traditional broadcast media (see ch 6 and ch 7 of The Wealth of Networks).

Similarly, as the recent attempt by the Associated Press to squelch Fair Use for bloggers makes clear, many traditional news organizations do not want to play by the rules of the Net. Hell, in some cases, it seems like they and their shareholders would be happier if the Internet had just never happened.

For some organizations, the dearth of outlinks reflects the standard aversion of traditional journalistic writing style to the use of hyperlinked citations in stories. This is consistent with the widespread perception that the “MSM” has a willful disregard for Netiquette. It also makes Eaves’s conclusions (applying an equation to calculate the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient) that out-linking behavior predicts in-links in return that much more suggestive. If the out-linking practice truly predicts in-linking, these news organizations risk slipping into the dustbin of information history as the rest of the Internet slowly ceases to pay attention to them.

The truth, I suspect, is more complicated. While traditional news outlets may not yet take advantage of the practical benefits of out-linking, they enjoy a comparative advantage in terms of social status and network centrality (among politicians, news organizations, businesses, intellectuals, etc.). This social status and network centrality should (I predict) translate into a steady stream of hits and in-links from other sites no matter what standard practices predominate across the rest of the networked public sphere.

To put that in less abstract terms: even if CNN and the Washington Post continue to refuse to use out-links in their primary coverage, their corresponding level of in-links is unlikely to decline to zero simply because they are still CNN and the Washington Post.

Whether this is the case or not, the fact remains that the traditional media are all scrambling to figure out why they can’t seem to stay afloat on the Internet. By identifying another potential factor in the equation, Eaves’s study makes a useful contribution to the debat

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