Links aren’t messy anymore

“Hyperlinks,” David Weinberger wrote in the Cluetrain Manifesto, “subvert hierarchy … Hyperlinks have no symmetry, no plan. They are messy.”

I found those words through – surprise – a hyperlink. And I found that link, via another link, on Doc Searls’s blog, where today he writes, as I wrote yesterday, on Ted Leonsis’s strategy of using a blog to manipulate what people see when they google his name. I had called Leonsis’s strategy Machiavellian, and asserted it ran counter to the conversational ethic of the cluetrainers. Searls agrees, and disagrees: “Ted is being both Machiavelli and Cluetrain compliant. (It isn’t like the guy isn’t getting clues, is it? He’s not bunkered down in what Dr. Weinberger aptly called Fort Business.)”

The Cluetrain Manifesto was written at the end of the 90s, and it catches and reflects the spirit of that heady time. Back then, the hyperlink did feel like a subversive tool, a virtualized and more subtle version of a Molotov Cocktail. There didn’t seem to be much symmetry or plan to linking. It was messy – a free-for-all. And for those of us who aren’t fond of bureaucracies or artificial hierarchies, it was liberating. Or, at least, fun.

But can we still say that hyperlinks subvert hierarchies, that they have neither symmetry nor plan? I think Doc Searls needs to look a little more closely at what Leonsis’s blog strategy is telling us. He was able to control the conversation, to get the content he wanted to the top of Google’s results, through a simple, three-pronged strategy for attracting links: use his position as a leading business executive to gain attention, use his meetings with celebrities to gain attention, and use links to popular bloggers to gain attention. Leading business executive, celebrities, popular bloggers: This is entirely about using social or professional hierarchies to manipulate hierarchies of information. It’s about understanding the plan and the symmetry that have come to define – not entirely, but in large part – the flow of information on today’s PageRanked web. It’s about seeing the structure in the mirage of messiness. It’s about being “clued in,” though not at all in the cluetrainers’ sense of that phrase.

What Leonsis is doing, in short, is working the system. And isn’t that what climbing and controlling hierarchies have always been about?

12 thoughts on “Links aren’t messy anymore

  1. Phil Gilbert

    Well, he’s increased his control of the conversation on Google. But there are other conversations going on – you only have to go to the second listing on the page. Now, I don’t buy into a lot of the Cluetrain proposition, but one thing is for sure: there are a million more “channels” today than there were 20 years ago. Therefore any one person or company is less able to control “the media” than ever before. I think the interesting thing is that because of his presence, now, the conversation is richer because “his side of [any] story” can get out. I applaud any CEO or other executive who blogs conscientiously, understanding the risks, because I think we’ll find that those who blog will generally operate more transparent organizations in other respects, too. And my experience has been that transparency drives better business, and better business results.

  2. Nick Carr


    All good points, but the question on the table is whether hyperlinks still subvert hierarchy or whether they now tend to establish or reinforce hierarchy.

    By the way, the vast plurality of searchers do not go to the second result on the page and almost none go to the second page.


  3. marc moore

    Links are content producers’ way of defining relationships, as opposed to methods that aggregators, governments, and some consumers would no doubt prefer.

    Links also fly in the face of the so-called “Web 3.0” malarkey that’s been getting press lately.

    PageRank will never be perfect, thankfully; obscure links are too interesting to kill off by organizing everything.

  4. Seth Finkelstein

    Let me indulge myself by putting here an old post of mine:

    Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy Meets The Internet Oracle

    The Internet Oracle has pondered your question deeply. Your question was:

    I guess we should just govern out lives by whatever marketing slogan makes us feel good about ourselves.

    Markets are conversations. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. And Technorati is the authority on what’s going on in the world of weblogs. (But please don’t rely on that authority, because they accept no responsibility for it. It’s just a marketing claim. Your mileage may vary. Sold by weight, not by volume. Results not typical. Closed course, professional driver. Do not attempt.)

    I’m so frustrated because I’m not irritated by hierarchy. Yes, it can be pernicious, but so are ants and we need both. I am irritated by slogans accepted as common wisdom that illuminate nothing.

    But that’s what the world becomes when most of what we read and hear is “just marketing.”

    Because “markets are conversations.”

    I give up.

    I for one welcome our new hyperlinked overlords. I await the delivery of technological nirvana from their wise and skilled hands. I will be pleased when all my sins are washed away once I accept the World Live Web into my heart as my personal savior. Um, is that going to be Web 2.1, or is nirvana a feature planned for 3.x? Just asking. And will that be a free upgrade, or we will have to pay for it? Because, you know, I can just wait for 3.x too.

    And in response, thus spake the Oracle:

    Nirvana will always be in The Next Release. It’ll be implemented Real Soon Now.

    Ponder these Koans 2.0 :

    If a hyperlink leads to a web site, but nobody follows it, does it exist?

    What is the sound of one BigHead “conversing”?

    If we’re writing ourselves into existence, what is your original face before you were written?

    A Zlister heard an Alister speak of the riches and power and influence of bloggers. The Zlister pleaded: “MasterHeader, I have bought an account, and commented much, and linked to many. Yet I remain poor and marginal and unrespected.”. The Alister was angered and unleashed flames: “Arrogant one, is not writing your diary sufficient? Off with you. I must meet with my accountant about a BigCo buyout for blog services, and prepare for my BigConference panel on how blogs subvert hierarchy, and be interviewed by BigMedia as to why blogging will

    destroy them.”. At that moment, the Zlister was enlightened.

    [You owe the Internet Oracle an Emergent Cloudy Semantic Tag Folksonomy, and a copy of an A-lister’s next book]

  5. Mitch Ratcliffe


    Good comments on Ted’s SEO strategy, but I think you go too far in saying that he “controlled” the conversation. I’ve replied at length at the BuzzLogic blog, because what we’re talking about relates to the technology we built there.

  6. GaryValan

    Hyperlinks could possibly subvert hierarchy but I am skeptical. The blogger can pick and choose which hyperlinks to include to prove or disprove a point and this will be be “bought” by most uncritical readers. To the more clued in (no pun intended), it is just more information.

    Ted Leonsis did a brilliant job managing his profile on Google and I agree that most people will not go beyond page 1 or 2. That I think is the fault of current day search engines that are designed for more is better than relevance. Looking for relevance beyond a few pages is like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

  7. Sid Steward

    Great piece. I believe hyperlinks create new hierarchies — emphasis on the plural. Google gives us The One Hierarchy, but it’s really superficial. I bet many users navigate their communities’ hyperlinks all day w/o using Google. Ergo vertical search.

    What might be intersting would be identifying hierarchies (okay, communities) using hyperlinks and then measuring the relationships between these communities. Call these connections meta-hyperlinks. You would be able to answer questions like: how closely related is ‘vegetables’ to ‘blogging’ to ‘news’ to ‘law’ to ‘insurance’?

    Anyhow, what I really wanted to say is that this bears out a notion of mine: online identity is links. No more, no less.

  8. Nick Carr


    I probably should have said “managed” the conversation rather than “controlled” the conversation. I didn’t mean to imply that I think he exerted absolute control over the information flow, which would obviously be a ridiculous thing to think.


  9. Chris_B

    Seth: I laughed, I cried, I bought the souveneirs in the lobby.

    Nick: Given that hyperlinks are actually document structure, and that humans must create them, it seems to me that any author who links to something is building their own heirarchy rather than subverting it. Since more than one structure can exist simultaniously, one may “subvert” another or may be ignored by members of the other. In short I think that David Weinberger’s words were puff.

  10. cafulcura

    Dear Nick,

    “Hyperlinks still subvert hierarchy” YES ever!

    The problem with your question is Googlebot and the Google HUB (Barabassi help me!).

    Do you remember HAL 9000 ?

    Well… talk to Googlebot “Open the door please” and you always receive the same answer: a “controled” conversation because it is a robot.

    Regards Pablo,

    Sorry about my english…

  11. Phil Gilbert


    Another article related to this appeared on the front page of the NY Times today (yes, front page). Click here for article

    It discusses how more and more university presidents are taking to blogging and highlights one incident where a student anonymously ratted out another student for vulgarity. Turns out the university president, in her blog, turned the tables on the informant and asked “why are you doing this anonymously”?

    So here we have a case where someone at the top of the hierarchy uses her blog and links to teach a lesson in character by questioning the anonymity of the ‘net.

    Subversion? You bet. But not the way cluetrain expected…

  12. wirearchy

    I think it’s mrore a case of “yes” and “yes”.

    Yes, hyperlinks and network dynamics can “subvert” hierarchies, and the degrees of subversion can range from sligh to very impactful. And sometimes, they won’t .. depends on the issue, the context, the type(s) of control and retribution, implicit or explicit availabe to the incumbent hierarchy, etc. I suspect that’s what Mitch is getting at, and that he would point to a range of ways to influence.

    And Yes, climbing and controlling hierarchiies has always been about (and in all likelihood) will always be about subverting others and their agendas in order to climb and control.

    One might argue that today the purpose and means behind the climbing and controlling had better be less visible and more effective (more subversive) or more aligned with / acceptable to a significant constituency or constituencies – the greater transparency is generally real, for better and for worse.

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