[Note: A version of this post originally aired in April 2005.]
The towers looked like legless stick figures, waving to the neighbors across the French landscape. Spaced six miles apart and stretching between the major cities of France, the optical telegraph system devised by Claude Chappe became the first high-speed communications network in Europe. By using this ingenious method, Chappe helped spark a revolution and revolutionized rapid communication. The method of transmission was a crude form of mechanical mimicry. The tower’s operator would set the mechanical arms into one of 94 positions, corresponding to a letter, a number, or a special symbol. The next closest neighboring tower would use a telescope to view the arrangement and set his own tower to a similar configuration. By using this system, messages could be sent at more than one hundred miles an hour, an astonishing speed for the 1790’s.
Technology has radically changed in the three centuries since Chappe invented his system of telegraphy. Fiber optics and wireless communications now make it possible to communicate almost instantaneously with people across the globe. But while the techniques have changed, the blogosphere has resurrected the Frenchman’s method of passing information by mirroring the messages of others.
Bloggers tend to be unfairly lumped into two distinct camps of “thinkers,” those who write original content, and “linkers,” those who simply link to other articles or blog posts. Few bloggers, though, are exclusively linkers or thinkers and most combine a mixed approach to blogging. Still, just as some bloggers tend to produce compelling, original analysis or thought-provoking opinion pieces, others have a gift for shepherding readers to the material that matters most.
Unfortunately, this gift is rarely acknowledged or appreciated as a distinct skill. Too often we view the ability to collect links as an unexceptional activity that could be performed by anyone. If this were true, though, then we should be unable to distinguish between linker-type bloggers. Yet most blogs are filled with links that simply add to the noise rather than reduce the confusion.
Though undervalued, linkers are even more essential to the health of the blogosphere than are thinkers. The Internet is already inundated with provocative ideas and punditry. What is most needed is what Hugh Hewitt calls “cyber-sherpas,” bloggers who can guide us through the mountains of information.
Talented linkers, however, do more than merely guide readers to new material. They provide the value-added services of sifting through dozens or even hundred of blog posts, news updates, and magazine articles and sharing the handful that are worthy of attention. Like the tower operator’s in Chappe’s France, linkers provide the link between information and the reader.
So what can would-be linkers do to set themselves apart from the crowd and improve their value? I offer the following modest advice:
Read Outside the Circle — Conservative bloggers read RedState, liberal bloggers read DailyKos, evangelical bloggers read Justin Taylor, libertarian bloggers read Reason, and everyone reads the Instapundit. So why point out the material they already know about?
Your blog’s target audience is either reading the same magazines and newspaper?s that you do or they will follow the links to the thousands of other blogs who found the story first. Find what other people aren?t reading. Dig through Wilson Quarterly, Utne Reader, Quadrant, Tikkun or any of the hundreds of other magazines that aren?t overexposed. Rather than being the thousandth blogger to link to the latest piece in the Washington Post be the first to find something of interest in the New Zealand Herald.
Don’t Follow the Crowd — The blogosphere often feels like an echo chamber with a select group of mainstream journalists and A-list bloggers handing out the approved topics for discussion. Just because everyone else is linking to the latest developments in some obscure Canadian province* or to the latest outrage by a reporter who questions the omnipotence and virility of bloggers doesn’t mean that you have to do the same. In fact, that is a sure sign that you should be linking to something else. The world is a big place. Link accordingly.
Use “Must Read” Sparingly — Since you linked to a post it’s assumed that you think others should read it too. Save the “Must Read” for links that you feel are truly worthy of extra attention. The Must Read button can wear out when pushed too frequently.
Sell the Sizzle, Not the Steak — Give the reader a teaser and a reason to visit the link. Don’t quote the entire post and cheat the blogger out of a visitor.
Correct Our Spelling — There are few things more embarrassing than finding a typo in your own blog post by reading an excerpt on another person’s blog. Fix it for me (and please, no “sics”) and you’ll make a friend for life.
Put Your Spin On It — Just because the link is to someone else’s original thought that doesn’t mean we don’t want to know what you think about it. Elaborate detail isn’t necessary, but share your thoughts. If the reader trusts you enough to follow where you lead, they care about your opinion.
Say “No” — Successful bloggers tend to have at least a modest degree of self-promotion. Linkers, therefore, will invariably be sent “For Your Consideration” emails by bloggers promoting their latest prose masterpieces. You won’t be able to use everything. You won’t even be able to use all the great links you’ll be sent. The fact that you don’t link to someone’s post is not a referendum on their worth. They shouldn’t take it personally and you shouldn’t feel the need to explain why you did not link to their post.
Return on Investment — Readers spend their most valuable currency — their time — following the links you suggest. Give them at least one reason every day to be thankful that they took the time to visit your blog. They invest their time and trust into your blog. In return, give them value and originality.