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Who owns your authority on the web?

So who owns your authority on the web? I’m sure this sounds like an odd kind of question to ask, but it’s both very important and highly controversial. The obvious answer would be Google, but that’s to misunderstand their intentions and their technology…

So who owns your authority on the web? I’m sure this sounds like an odd kind of question to ask, but it’s both very important and highly controversial. The obvious answer would be Google, but that’s to misunderstand their intentions and their technology…

Given the impact of social media, do we need a new way of measuring trust and authority on the web? I think so.

In the previous installment, I discussed the rise of the re-Tweet and the likely impact on Google’s PageRank. In this final installment, I’ll be looking at how we measure trust on the social web and the impact of social media on authority.

Making a case for TrustRank

The idea of a rank of trust (called TrustRank) isn’t new. So it’s clearly a way forward, considered very seriously by some very seriously-minded people. For authority to exist, trust must first exists — for without trust, there is no authority to be given.

Now, we all know that PageRank is, whether rightly or wrongly, broadly seen as a measure of authority. Also, whether rightly or wrongly, Google are seen as the owners of this perceived authority. In reality, they’re not. Google simply perform the calculations. Whatever authority there is in a blog or a website resides within that blog or website itself.

A link, or a URL is essentially an indication of trust, however tacit of succinct that link might be. And if the act of re-Tweeting a link is eating into the act of linking back, then surely those links count, too? Not quite. Twitter currently blocks the flow of authority along those links, so the value is greatly diminished, certainly from a PageRank point of view.

So is there a new kind of authority emerging? Possibly. On the face of it, you could argue that Twitter offers a simpler, more transparent and democratic kind of authority. However, where Google simply calculate authority, Twitter becomes the authority. And that to me is a concern.

We could sit and argue about the subtle distinctions all day long. Ultimately, we’d come to agree that the source of the problem is in the architecture of the web itself; a measure of trust ought to have been a consideration when the web was first imagined. Perhaps. But that’s a different story.

Do we trust Twitter more than Google?

In simple terms, if Google were to just vanish, so would their PageRank. In similar fashion, if Twitter vanished, so would this new measure of authority arising from the number of re-Tweets. But the big difference is that Google are only counting up all of the links from all of the web pages and articles all over the web. Whereas this new Twitter-based authority is confined to the data silos of Twitter first and only. The former is far more robust and resistant to data loss, while the latter would suffer catastrophically if Twitter blipped off the web.

My concern is that we shouldn’t rely on any one source at all, and any measure of authority should be a collective, holistic group of metrics and not an algorithm that made perfect sense yesterday but not today.

I suppose the simple answer is that we just count up all of the good votes and subtract the total number of bad votes. But we would have to decide where we choose to count all of our votes from, that is in itself a a question of trust; which social media websites and social networks are trustworthy to use as a metric?

We’re at a stage where social media is becoming bigger than Google’s search and their algorithms. The way in which we interact with the web has changed and is still changing both enormously and rapidly.

This social universe

earthGoogle and their venerable PageRank no longer sit at the heart of this now social universe. Instead, we are at the very centre, amidst a constellation of stars, whose light is brightest for those sources of information that is prized most and dimmest for those articles who are least valued. Meanwhile, out there in orbit, Google, Twitter, Digg, Facebook et al revolve around us — we influence them and they in turn influence us.

Trust is enormously important on the web, because there’s no simple way to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact, which the real world offers. Trust is like gravity, with enormous attractive properties, felt over vast distances. The greater the trust, the more we gravitate towards those sources. The more prolonged the source of trust, the greater the likelihood of that trust transforming into authority, further accelerating the attractive force.

My feeling is, social websites like Facebook, Twitter and Digg have to accept their sphere of influence and be willing to be the founding participants of some kind of TrustRank. We need some method of measuring how we gravitate towards these celestial social bodies, and conversely, how we’re sometimes repelled away by what we find.


So who owns your authority on the web? If we use Google’s yard stick, the web does. If we use Twitter’s yard stick, the social collective does, so long as Twitter exists. That to me could either form an irresistible force, like a black hole, or a powerful disruptive force like an exploding star. The former is much too dense to support the diversity of the web, creating a sterile homogeny, while the latter would result in a fragmented, chaotic array of small social satellites, too small and weak to support everyone.

It would be a sad irony if our value of trust was measured not by the depth and the breadth of our social network, but by the narrow and confined channels through which we choose to communicate…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

9 replies on “Who owns your authority on the web?”

It’s a very complex subject that is only getting more complex by the day.

Whilst I agree that social media networking platforms are generating a new form of authority, their metrics are a lot harder to related to what I would generally see as genuine authority.

Google metrics, whilst defined by themselves are based upon a number of factors that make “common sense”. Quality of content, good practice, inbound link quality and several others, some of which we’ll never know about and may never wish to.

Social networking platforms on the other hand are a lot less reliable as sources of authority in my humble opinion.

Take Twitter for example, you only have to look at the number of followers that some can achieve in a relatively short space of time now with next to no posts (and certainly no posts of value) to pour scorn on the follower statistics.

RT tweets could be used as a more reliable source of authority, but I again they have their own form of political unreliability with people RT’ing popular tweeters for the sake of favours.

The social collective, particularly since social media (or specifically Twitter) hit the big time, might not always be the most objective grader.

In some respects the likes of delicious are a far more reliable source of social authority as they don’t have the underlying interest of achieving notoriety through follower numbers.

Personally I think you should continue to ensure that you deliver good content, in good accessible formats, on all digital fronts and let people make their own decisions.

You’ll need to add your own energies into social media work, as this isn’t something that will happen by itself, such is their nature. But this, like any other content you write on the internet should have the desired affect of authority building.

What the likes of Twitter could do is add some authority grade that works along the lines of Google, but they’ll have their work cut out for them to avoid people spoofing authority.

But I guess that’s what you’re driving at!

“But I guess that’s what you’re driving at!”

Indeed so!

On their own, no one social media website is a reliable source. Each have their flaws, their faults, weaknesses et cetera. However, cumulatively, they offer a greater value. And if they were to submit to being a part of a bigger, broader and more inclusive strategy, one that helps mitigate their weaknesses, we could end up with a very rich set of metrics.

Just look at the demographic data Facebook have at their disposal. We already know that advertising on the web has tanked. The next step is figuring out how to be more specific, visible and transparent with our offerings via the social web.

These newly enlightened businesses will be in need of better data, and anything that formalizes these data silos is only going to make the time taken to contribute towards a greater good by the social media websites more rewarding for them over the long term…

Google determines trust by effect of the algorithm they lay down. They make the calculation that renders PageRank. My big beef is that an advertising monetization framework underlies that algorithm and its interests, i.e.: the PageRank serves their ad’ revenue. I would love to see someone forming TrusTrank around trust that is not build on financial capital, rather a social capital. Does that make sense? The social capital that people value on-line should be extended to their off-line worlds as well. We need more trust in our off-line worlds — just look at the Madoff’s of the world.

Wayne, please forgive me as I had meant to comment sooner. First of all, let me begin by saying that as usual, I thoroughly enjoyed the article and found it quite insightful.

There was one thing though in this article that I absolutely felt compelled to comment on upon reading it. You ask the question ‘Do we trust Twitter more than Google?’

Quite frankly, I trust the U.S. Congress more than Google, and that’s saying a lot.

As for TrustRank, I haven’t much to say about it at this point. Ultimately, like most web entrepreneurs, I am going to tend to favor search ranking algorithms that favor my sites over the competition, so ultimately I’d have to see how such a formula would affect my traffic relative to where it’s at today before coming out either in support of or against any new means of determining which sites are worthy of receiving traffic from search.

Thanks for messaging me via Facebook and informing me of this post (which I actually first read several weeks ago and am just now getting back to). I need to make a point of visiting your site more often. In this economy, I’ve been so busy my SEO aptitude has diminished somewhat, and your analysis and commentary have always helped me stay up-to-date and on the cutting edge.

Keep up the great work!

“My concern is that we shouldn’t rely on any one source at all, and any measure of authority should be a collective, holistic group of metrics and not an algorithm that made perfect sense yesterday but not today.”

You also mentioned something about trust in the various sites that have started making names for themselves including Facebook, Digg, Google and Twitter. I agree that one must not base his thoughts solely one source, and rather must practice the art of verifying first, after gathering some facts and information. Doing so would pave the way for the emergence of authority in blogging.

The power of the technology we have developed also overcomes us. But shouldn’t we also remember that all these sites started with us? How would you differentiate the impact of Google, Twitter, etc. on today’s generation as opposed to those who grew up adapting to these sites.

“How would you differentiate the impact of Google, Twitter, etc. on today’s generation as opposed to those who grew up adapting to these sites.”

That’s a much broader question.

Those like myself will have seen, as I have, an acceleration and a progression of communication, which we can only really compare to telephone and the earliest modems, whereas kids today will then compare what comes later to what they use now.

In time, our connectedness will be to such a degree that “the conversation” will never really end.

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