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
Google 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…