A few years ago, I wrote a piece on Why Academic Blogging Matters: A structural argument. This was the text for a presentation as part of the SAA in Sacremento that year. In the years since, the web has changed (again). It is no longer enough for us to create strong signals in the noise, trusting in the algorithmns to connect us with our desired publics. (That’s the short version. The long version is rather more nuanced and sophisticated, trust me).
The war between the botnets and the SEO specialists has outstripped us.
In recent months, I have noticed an upsurge of new ‘followers’ on this blog with emails and handles that really do not seem to be those of actual humans. Similarly, on Twitter, I find odd tweets directed at me filled with gibberish web addresses (which I dare not touch). Digital Humanities Now highlighted an interesting post in recent days that explains what’s going on, discusses this ‘war’, and in how this post came to my attention, points the way forward for the humanistic use of the web.
In ‘Crowd-Frauding: Why the Internet is Fake‘, Eric Hellman discusses a new avenue for power (assuming that power ‘derives from the ability to get people to act together’. In this case, ‘cooperative traffic generation’, or software-organized crime. Hellman was finding a surge of fake users on his site, and he began to investigate why this was. Turns out, if you want to promote your website and jack up its traffic, you can install a program that manufacturers fake visitors to your sites, who click around, click on adverts, register… and in turn does this for other users of the software. Money is involved.
“In short, your computer has become part of a botnet. You get paid for your participation with web traffic. What you thought was something innocuous to increase your Alexa- ranking has turned you into a foot-soldier in a software-organized crime syndicate. If you forgot to run it in a sandbox, you might be running other programs as well. And who knows what else.
The thing that makes cooperative traffic generation so difficult to detect is that the advertising is really being advertised. The only problem for advertisers is that they’re paying to be advertised to robots, and robots do everything except buy stuff. The internet ad networks work hard to battle this sort of click fraud, but they have incentives to do a middling job of it. Ad networks get a cut of those ad dollars, after all.
The crowd wants to make money and organizes via the internet to shake down the merchants who think they’re sponsoring content. Turns out, content isn’t king, content is cattle.”
Hellman goes on to describe how the arms race, the red queen effect, between these botnets and advertising models that depend on clickrates etc will push those of us without the computing resources to fight in these battles into the arms of the Googles, the Amazons, the Facebooks: and their power will increase correspondingly.
“So with the crowd-frauders attacking advertising, the small advertiser will shy away from most publishers except for the least evil ones- Google or maybe Facebook. Ad networks will become less and less efficient because of the expense of dealing with click-fraud. The rest of the the internet will become fake as collateral damage. Do you think you know how many users you have? Think again, because half of them are already robots, soon it will be 90%. Do you think you know how much visitors you have? Sorry, 60% of it is already robots.”
I sometimes try explaining around the department here that when we use the internet, we’re not using a tool, we’re sharing authority with countless engineers, companies, criminals, folks-in-their-parents-basement, ordinary folks, students, algorithms whose interactions with other algorithms can lead to rather unintended outcomes. We can’t naively rely on the goodwill of the search engine to help us get our stuff out there. This I think is an opportunity for a return of the human curated web. No, I don’t mean building directories and indices. I mean, a kind of supervised learning algorithm (as it were).
Digital Humanities Now provides one such model (and there are of course others, such as Reddit, etc). A combination of algorithm and human editorial oversite, DHNow is a cybernetic attempt to bring to the surface the best in the week’s digital humanities work, wherever on the net it may reside. We should have the same in archaeology. An Archaeology Now! The infrastructure is already there. Pressforward, the outfit from the RRCHNM has developed a workflow for folding volunteer editors into the weekly task of separating the wheat from the chaff, using a custom built plugin for WordPress. Ages ago we talked about a quarterly journal where people would nominate their own posts and we would spider the web looking for these nominations, but the technology wasn’t really there at that time (and perhaps the idea was too soon). With the example of DHNow, and the emergence of this new front in botnets/SEO/clickfraud and the dangers that that poses, perhaps it’s time to revisit the idea of the human-computer curated archaeoweb?