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February 16, 2004

The Pitchosphere

Posted by Mike on February 16, 2004 12:07 PM

Doc Searls commented on "Technorati Bombing," the point of which, according to the person who suggested the practice to Doc, "is to do the equivalent of Google-bombing on the Technorati product list. It's a bit of guerilla promotion, trying to get this book to rise up that list in hopes of people noticing it."

"Google Bombing" is the practice of linking to something enough that it rises in the search engine's results. It can be used as an attempt to give something more notoriety, or it can be used to associate a certain phrase with an unexpected result.

Says Doc:

"I think it's harmless at worst and helpful at best. Why not push good books that aren't bestsellers? There's also a difference between bombing Technorati and bombing Google, just due to the differing natures of what they search and how they search it."

Initially, I was irritated.

For starters, Doc, it's only a "good book" to a finite group unless, like Plato's philosopher, you've shrugged off some sort of perceptual collar on your literary taste and you're calling back to us poor blinkered fools in the cave because you've discovered the pure form of "good book."

I doubt that has happened, but that's nitpicking and it's mostly beside the point.

Doc comes at things from a marketer's perspective, though. He's comfortable and conversant with the clutter of marketplaces. Like most marketing people, he's got an extrovert's view of the world or he's mastered the art of adopting one to get on with his day. To these people, multiple and loud inputs are all part of a day's work. Given any commons, be it virtual or physical, marketers devote themselves to trafficking in noise, ensuring they're heard above other marketer's noise, and making sure you think their noise is virtuous. Some of them even tell themselves that they're playing a vital role by ensuring that you hear this very important message from their sponsors.

So here's less of an answer than a perspective for Doc to consider:

People asked me if a new baby was going to make me feel confined or crowded. After all, infants don't really make it easy to get out much. The answer has been a consistent "nope."

It's true that going very far is a bit more of a production than it used to be. Things have to be timed with feeding schedules and the overall state of preparedness on the part of the parents. Some days an attempt to push the stroller down to the Mexican place on Hawthorne to grab something to go devolves into Alison rocking Ben in his bouncy chair while I pour reheated alfredo sauce over some tortellini I grabbed on a quick trip out. But to someone who's comfortable in his own home and less comfortable with cluttered sidewalks, a half-mile stretch of street where every corner has a gaggle of Greenpeace petitioners, panhandlers, or people hawking bead jewelry from a blanket, being inside isn't bad. Less inputs to deal with, less noise, less clutter.

To someone who's a functioning introvert, the noise and clamor of a commons filled with people making a pitch isn't invigorating. It's uncomfortable and even seems a little hostile. "Out there," everyone's making a pitch: They might be trying to sell stuff for money, they might be trying to enlist support for their cause, they might just be holding out a hand for spare change with a story they've used three times in the past week, or they might be wearing flashy clothes and bad cologne because they're selling themselves to potential mates. But it's all intrusive, and it all involves a demand to be noticed at least momentarily. I'm not as bad off as people who have anxiety attacks when confronted with the overload, but "going out" involves a conscious effort to put aside feelings of being hassled by loud cell-phone talkers, stinky cologne wearers, sales people, and canvassers, all of whom have in common one thing: Selling something, even if it's just themselves.

A quick study in pop psychology might peg me as a latent agoraphobe, but I'm pretty sure it's not the public spaces that are bothering me. I like being out along Portland's waterfront, for instance, and I enjoy walks through nearby parks. It's Pitch Culture that irritates me. I get itchy when someone tries to make me their mark. And when you go out in public, someone's trying to make you their mark as soon as your feet hit the sidewalk.

Assorted *-bombing is another sales job, another pitch, another come-on. The author's well-intentioned friend is making a pitch (with the best of intentions, but it's still a pitch) and the people who think it's fun to pile on and harmlessly push a book up are pitching themselves as being people of influence, even if it's in a vanishingly small microcosm. The only response from people less willing to turn their backs on yet another part of the world handed over to the cult of marketing is to pitch back. Up goes the noise level, and yet another commons is turned into a place that can be about anything at all but happens to be about people selling stuff. The small chance you had of "just hearing about something" is out the window because someone's making a concerted effort to "generate buzz."

If you want some evidence of this dynamic in action, there's a recent NYT article about authors pseudonymously reviewing their own books and enlisting friends to review their books on Amazon. It's definitely tempting. My co-author on my one and only book admitted that one of our more scurrilous Amazon reviews probably came from someone he'd been bickering with. The negative review stands out (it's the one thing the last person I pointed to Amazon noticed in a small group of generally positive reviews), and it's tempting to come up with a pseudonym and try to balance him out. So far I've avoided the temptation.

Months and months ago, I wrote of Google-bombers and others "[..] they've subverted a search engine people liked because it was meritocratic about information, and made it about themselves and their narcissism."

Doc's behavior, and the behavior of people like him, hasn't really changed since then. Doc thinks the book he and others are Technorati-bombing is a good book, so naturally it's fine to game a system to make sure you know about it, too.

Doc says the practice is different from Googlebombing, and I'll go along with that. It's more like when spammers exploit your trust with seemingly friendly subject lines like "Hi!" and "About that conversation we had..." Only instead of making you leery of what you read in your inbox, his behavior should make you leery of whatever you come across on Technorati. It wasn't the result of conversations on a parkbench between friends. It got there because someone went out and rounded up a gang to make a lot of noise and make damn good and sure you noticed it.

Like I said, initially I was irritated. More reflection has led me to feel resigned. As Ed commented the last time I took this up:

"It's much easier to hope that people link honestly and responsibly than to actually check which pages are worthwhile and which aren't. But that ease comes with a price. Fallibility. Hackability. Gameability."

And we continue to pay.