The phrase “I’m not going to link to it” has 385,000 results on Google. The idea is usually that the author wants to explain how someone is wrong on the Internet, but doesn’t want to reward that someone with pageviews, ad impressions, and other attention-based currencies. “Don’t feed the trolls,” goes the conventional wisdom, telling authors not to write about them. But in an age when silent analytics sentinels observe and report everything anyone does online, readers can feed the trolls without saying a word.
Actually, the problem is even worse. You can feed the trolls without ever interacting with them or their websites. If you Google “[person’s name] bad take,” you tell Google that [person’s name] is important right now. If you click on a search result, you reward a news site for writing an instant reaction story about the take. Every click teaches the Internet to supply more car crashes.
Not linking to the bad thing is usually described as a problem of trolls, and of social media, and of online discourse. But I think that it is also a problem of privacy. Reader privacy is well-recognized in law and in legal scholarship, and the threats it faces online are well-described. Not for nothing did Julie Cohen call for a right to read anonymously. Surveillance deters readers from seeking out unpopular opinions, facilitates uncannily manipulative advertising, and empowers the state to crush dissent.
To these I would add that attention can be a signal wrapped in an incentive. Sometimes, these signals and incentives are exactly what I want: I happily invite C.J. Sansom to shut up and take my money every time he publishes a new Shardlake book. But other times, I find myself uneasily worrying about how to find out a thing without causing there to be more of it in the world. There’s a weird new meme from an overrated TV show going around, and I want to know what actually happened in the scene. There’s a book out whose premise sounds awful, and I want to know if it’s as bad as I’ve been told. Or you-know-who just bleated out something typically terrible on his Twitter clone, and I don’t understand what all the people who are deliberately Not Linking To It are talking about.
We are losing the ability to read without consequences. There is something valuable about having a realm of contemplation that precedes the realm of action, a place to pause and gather one’s thoughts before committing. Leaving footprints everywhere you roam doesn’t just allow people to follow you. It also tramples paths, channeling humanity’s collective thoughts in ways they should perhaps not go.