Life on the Web

For the most part, activities on the Web are projections of activities that had been going on before it: banking, travel arrangements, publishing, document sharing, news, etc. But in some important ways, the resulting new whole is much more than the sum of the old parts. There is life on the Web that doesn’t exist elsewhere. That new life is fueled by economic incentives that couldn’t possibly exist in platforms bound by physical limitations, and that pertain to the virtual world of information. And so the question arises: are we really ready to cope when the Metaverse calls our home phones?

Here is a real story of this brave new world, one which, with some spices of imagination, could be the basis for a cyperpunk novel `a-la Snow Crash.

Back in early June I received an email from someone with an eastern European female name asking if I would give her permission to translate into Belorussian my old list of Portuguese idioms literally translated into English. She said: “Every translation we ever do does not costs [sic] a penny for the webpage, which is translated. All we ask is to link back in whatever way you feel confident about it.” I told her she had my permission, and to send me the link so that I could see the result.

A week later I received an email from that person showing me the result and reinforcing the request for me to link back in whatever way it felt right. Since I was busy preparing for my summer travels, I didn’t reply. A few days later, already in Portugal, I received another email from that person insisting on the link back. This was starting to smell fishy, so I just sent back a quick email saying that I was out of the country, and that I would look into it once I got back. A few days later, I got a Facebook invitation to friend this person, which got me a bit concerned that I was dealing with a deranged person; I ignored the invitation. I got back to the US, but I didn’t look into it, because the pressure to link back to her site made my mental spam filter spring into action. To my surprise and alarm, last week this person called my home phone twice and left messages asking for the link back. This is when the story went into the creeeeepy zone. How did this person get my home phone number and why is she calling?

Creeped out by this development of Metaverse’s links invading my home phone voice mail, I finally took a look at her page and the site it hangs from. I also Googled her name and found a similar translation story in several articles out there. There is no question, it’s an SEO scheme of some sort which, at least, eases the fear that this is a crazy person. It seems to work like this: this person goes out and finds interesting English content, contacts the authors for permission to translate them, and requests the link back from them. She seems to be doing several articles per day, but not many link back. Some do. That translated content is not featured anywhere on that site, it’s hidden inside; but the site accumulates the back links from all the different sources, therefore, in principle, making it climb up the PageRanks of search engines.

When I teach Information Retrieval, I give one lecture about Search Engine Optimization. Link exchanges is one of SEO’s modus operandi. These exchange requests are usually peacefully delivered in the form of spam that no one pays attention to. What I’m seeing here with this woman is a new level in that game: someone is hiring translators, paying them — possibly by the number of links back they achieve. So these translators get serious about the trade and pursue the back links systematically and persistently as if their livelihood depended on them — which it probably does.

‘Being found’ on the Web is a serious business. As online financial transactions increase, this is only going to get more important. Landing on the top 5 hits on search engines for specific keywords is a feat that many web sites aim for. This is quite an amazing state of affairs, considering that the Web didn’t exist until 1992 or so. Now, it supports trillion-dollar transactions, a big chunk of which have absolutely nothing to do with the old activities that existed before, but that are solely about the Web itself: the placement of information in front of people’s eyeballs. The SEO business is large enough to employ ‘mechanical turks’ doing all sorts of activities to optimize that placement.

The creepiest thing, though, is that this site that this woman is producing content for seems to have their headquarters right here in Orange County, just a couple of miles from where I live… The burbclaves of Snow Crash are thought to refer to the gated communities of Orange County. hmm…

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