Today (or I guess yesterday, by now) wordpress added a new feature: possibly related posts. Basically an algorithm compares my blog post to other indexed blog posts and news stories, and if it thinks they might be related, inserts links at the bottom of my post. The brilliant Kate Harding over at Shapely Prose is not happy about the change. While I am not as categorically opposed to the feature as Kate is (maybe because I had fair warning before seeing it suddenly appear on my own blog? And maybe because the links I’m getting are mostly just plain irrelevant, rather than almost uniformly the exact ideas my blog is dedicated to opposing…), I definitely think making it opt-out was a bad choice. And in my opinion, simply sticking the words “automatically generated” next to the heading of the section is not enough of a distinction from the content that is actually mine. Maybe if it were a widget to put in the sidebar, clearly marked, I’d feel better about it.
But really, I think the idea is just not as exciting or revolutionary as the wordpress people want it to be. They mention youtube, and I’ll admit, youtube’s related videos feature is pretty great. But blog posts are not youtube videos. They exist in a different ecosystem, and they are consumed in a different way. The biggest difference is that, without the “related videos” feature, there just isn’t another handy way to get to other interesting videos directly from the one you’re viewing. With blogs, there is. It’s called hyperlinks. And if you’re on the internet without using those, you’re doing it wrong.
Very few of the blogs I read do not regularly link to other places already, and if they don’t, it’s because the nature of subject matter and its treatment simply do not invite links to lots of other places. For example, personal blogs. If I’m reading a blog a friend of mine is writing about her life, I don’t want to see a bunch of news stories, or other personal blog posts by strangers, I want to see more of my friend. Same with celebrity blogs like Wil Wheaton or Neil Gaiman. I’m reading their blogs because I like their writing. Automatically generated links would be pointless. On the other hand, for a blog like Overcoming Bias, generated links would probably be irrelevant because other people just aren’t doing what’s going on there. If someone writes something thoughtful in response to the ideas being put forth there, they can leave it in the comments or a post a link to their own blog, and a community discussion develops that way. But it’s not the sort of thing you can just look for news stories about.
The kind of blog I can think of that might benefit from this feature would be one where the majority of posts have a relatively narrow, impersonal and common topic. And the blogs I read like that…already link to other blogs. And those links I know I can trust to be relevant and thoughtful. Even if every post is not chock full of relevant outside links, there will often be a blogroll where I can go explore high-quality blogs dealing with similar issues. That ease of linking to other places is one of the fundamental structural differences between internet and print media, and just about every really good blogger (you know, the ones I’m interested in) I read understands that and takes advantage of it. And I trust them more than I trust some template-matching algorithm. Hell, the whole point of a blog like kottke or swissmiss is that they’re out there looking for interesting things on the web, and the reason I read them is because I trust their judgment and know that I’ll find something interesting.
So really, this feature seems more attractive as a source of traffic for the blogs being linked to than to either the blogger (who has no control over the links and so can’t check them for relevance or quality) or the reader (who, because of that lack of editorial control, can’t trust the quality). Or maybe for lazy bloggers who don’t spend much time finding or linking to other interesting things. In other words, Kate was right, and this is basically spam.
Even if I am totally wrong and this goes over like gangbusters and six months from now we’re all saying “how did I live without this,” well, they should have made it opt-in. At the very least, they should have provided more warning and explanation, and made changing it more transparent. Plenty of people using wordpress don’t pay the least attention to the official blog. And judging by the questions being left at that blog, plenty of people who do pay attention don’t really read it.
I think the take-home message here is that it’s time for me to expand my blogroll.