Thoughts on Trackbacks

Adam Shostack wrote:

“I have to say, I love getting real trackbacks. I like it when people take what I’ve said and expand on it. I hate getting semi-trackbacks, where a poster sort-of refers to what I’ve said, doesn’t link to me, and throws in a trackback. I hate, hate, hate, spam trackbacks.”

Every weblogger with trackbacks turned on is currently burdened with trackback spam, but this is the first I’ve read of “semi-trackbacks” being a construct of malcontent; in fact it’s the first I’ve read of semi-trackbacks at all, perhaps I’m ignorant on the issue.

It appears the use of trackbacks is to build on others’ existing conversations at close to the same time as adding content to one’s own weblog. This is trackback’s advantage over comments, where content is placed in only a single place. It’s important that “at close to the same time” is understood as not precisely simultaneous. Further, a trackback request can be placed at the time of publishing one’s own writings, or it can be added later to existing postings. This latter type appears to be one of Adam’s objections, where the content may not be strictly personalized.

Is the only appropriate use of trackbacks to request them at the time of one’s own original writing? Should we attach stigma to trackbacking of older articles in a newer conversation?

There are at least two ways of approaching trackback’s use: these two uses contrast with each other in the time a trackback request is made relative to when the weblogger publishes their own content. The distinction here is the time a bloggers article is written versus the time that a blogger requests a trackback placement. In one usage, a weblogger reads someone’s article, then decides to write their thoughts about it on their blog. Before publishing their thoughts, the author prepares the requested trackback link; this trackback is sent upon first publication of the blogger’s article.

1. I’ve read your thoughts, now let me build upon them with mine.

Another use is when the time of the requested trackback works in the opposite sequence. Someone writes a post, delineating their thoughts on some topic of importance, then publishes the post. Later, either through looking around the blogosphere for related content, or having accidentally stumbled upon it, the weblogger decides to send a trackback request, which adds their already existing and related thoughts to the newly discovered conversation. Is this something to be avoided? As long as the topic is related to the trackbacked article, it presents to readers another viewpoint and it grows the related interconnections in the blogosphere.

2. I’ve already written down my thoughts, now I see they are related to yours.

Number two is somewhat like neighbors waving hello to each other, kindred spirits seeking each other out, or like minded individuals meeting together. Why would this type of trackback be a source of malcontent?

Is one method of trackback usage superior to the other? In academics, I’m told, it is usual to build upon the work of another. This is well and fine if the other’s work is presented to the academic first. But what if it isn’t? What if the academic comes to a conclusion or inspiration independent of exposure to already existing work? Does it invalidate their work, or instead lend credence to it?

Should one trackback use be preferred over the other? If the objection to a trackback is solely that there is no reciprocal link, then simply trackback to it yourself. The reciprocal link is thereby created in the dance of conversation.

I think trackbacks are one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of weblogs. They allow readers to find related information, they allow emergent conversations to have a multiplicity of voices, and they allow an author to retain transportability of their portion of the conversation. No human blogger can be aware of all other related content in the sphere, therefore allowing trackbacks at all times is preferred. The essence of the Internet is its decentralization. As articles are discovered by each blogger, new interrelationships can be created through trackbacks. This doesn’t mean you have to retype a personalized version of already existing content.


In answer to Adam’s question, “Is that sufficient to make trackback spam worthwhile?” I would have to answer that there may be multiple layers of reasoning behind trackback spam. On a surface level, it may be non-paid advertising, on a deeper level it may be an inflation of page rank, and there may be still deeper layers, layers of which outsiders can only guess.

Looking at some effects of trackback spam, I note that a large number of bloggers turn off their trackbacks. This alone has a marginalizing effect on the conversation. In imagining what deeper layers might exist in the reasoning of spammers, can demonstrated effects be ignored?

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Trackbacks

  1. I was thinking less of temporality than direct reference.

    If I write “Ken Klaser wrote X…” then a TB is appropriate. If I write “[Update: Ken Klaser wrote X”], then I think a TB is appropriate. To me the core is mutuality of linking; if you don’t link to me, but want my blog to link to you, that annoys me. Is that clearer?


  2. Hi Adam, it’s been a long time since your comment. I’ve been learning something that seems relevant to this (now older) discussion.

    In recent months, it appears that a number of bloggers will not publish a trackback even though it appears that it was received. This isn’t happening with all bloggers, of course, but your point about mutuality of linking seems to be ignored more and more. It seems there are some non-newbie bloggers who enjoy having an incoming link, but who refuse to allow an outgoing link. This then breaks pointing to similar or related content.

    As my post above stated, there are some bloggers who don’t have trackbacks active, but if they do have trackback links visible, one would tend to believe they’re visible specifically for trackbacking by other bloggers. If the posting by a trackback requester follows the custom of “so and so said:” followed by a blockquote, and then offering further commentary on that blockquote, why then wouldn’t those trackback receivers publish them when they get one that isn’t from a spam source?

    Why this is increasingly occurring is curious. Perhaps it is fallout from the spam problem, poor spam tools, perhaps it is something else. One blogger that I queried claimed their server never received it, yet, if that was the case, then the sending blog’s software would not have indicated a good trackback in administration or the backend user’s control panel. I believe the receiving server sends a “1” if it received the trackback.

    Since it seems to be occurring with non-newbie bloggers, then perhaps it is a phenomenon of a maturing tool and its related use.

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