The hypertext link is one of the greatest inventions of the information age. Despite it’s simplicity, it continues to fuel innovation along with debate. The latest conversation centers on trackbacks and pingbacks. Both programs automatically notify a site any time another site publishes a link back to them, albeit in slightly different ways.
As often happens in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world of the Internet, cool things are developed well before there is a chance to consider the consequences (Ray Ozzie, Zeldman, diveintomark share their concerns on this issue). Pingback code has only been available for a few weeks and trackback code from Moveable Type was released in June.
While it is unclear if these early implementations of this idea are good enough for news sites to use, the idea is worthwhile to consider for at least several reasons:
Realtime feedback: The moment someone posts a link to a news story, the news site can know about it (assuming they “ping” your news server). It would give a news site the ability to gain immediate awareness of related content and discussion on the Web without having to slog through day-old access logs.
Judge community interest and experts: In the spirit of Dan Gillmor, readers collectively know more about a subject than a reporter does. The track/pingback system, even if only internally deployed, can help identify those on the Web who might prove as valuable sources.
No need to host a forum thread for every story: Recognize people for commenting on their own site without having to manage forum software or worry about libelous postings on a news site. Media lawyers, we suspect, will still lose sleep over outbound links as “endorsements”.
Become a good Netizen by example: Acknowledging the conversations that are emerging around news stories online, shows that a media organization is aware of the diversity of discussion and cares enough to encourage it and point users to it.
Bring awareness of Web community inside the newsroom: Just the discussion of building in a track/pingback system could bring in some much needed discussion about the symbiotic role between news sites and blogs. Many news sites continue to enforce prohibitive “deep-linking” policies and limit outbound links to the rest of the Web. Perhaps a small experiment in track/pingbacking can change some minds.
Note to the “practice-what-you-preach” squad: We’re planning on experimenting with both track and pingback methods but we’re on deadline this month. Last year, however, we did manually collect a trackback list for a whitepaper we wrote. This might be a more comfortable option for news media - manually constructed trackbacks.