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The Latest Installment of "The Web as Meritocracy"

One of the few lessons I've learned since I was a young boy is that the commerical marketplace is largely a meritocracy, but not a technical one. It's a marketing meritocracy....

[Anil Dash]

Note to self to add this to my list of dangerous memes: "The Web as Meritocracy." Call it the "nigritude ultramarine" meme.

Furthermore, Dash maintained, his victory proves one thing: That the Web is a meritocracy.

"A page that's read by people instead of robots is going to do better," he said.

[Wired News, via BoingBoing]

There are some really good, basic, honest techniques for getting placement, but they take work. What Anil Dash is talking about is one of those techniques, and in his narrow slice of the web it's the best single technique. It's not in the least surprising to me that this worked, especially given the "insanely generous" weighting that Google gives to blog pages; this is the tactic that I outline for people whenever they ask me about how to get Google placement.

And that this kind of technique works does tend to foster something that looks like a meritocracy. But it is not, in fact, a meritocracy at all: It's merely a measure of popularity. And that something is popular does not mean it's true.

I've found it's important to explain the distinction I'm drawing, because there seems to be a really quite strange tendency on the part of many technophiles to believe that appearance is essentially identical with reality. ("If it resembles a duck, it might as well be one.") I think one big reason for this is that in the limited frame of relevance comprised of what's relevant to a software or data interface, appearance is in fact reality. It's fair to say that a deep and conscious grokking of this fact is one of the most essential characteristics of a good net-hacker.

To be fair (and with due reference to the first quote), I'd be surprised if Anil Dash doesn't understand that. Or Doctorow, for that matter. Though sometimes I wonder if people lose appreciation for the finer distinctions after being beaten incessantly over the head with the "Virtual Is Real" squeak-hammer day after day after weak after year...but I digress, as usual.

To Dash's point, you could construe the web as a "marketing meritocracy", but that's really just a way of exposing the ramifications of Metcalfe's Law. The "merit" at hand isn't Anil Dash's personal merit, nor even his technical merit: It's the weight of his reputation, which is a function of how the brand known as "Anil Dash" has been marketed.

Anil Dash didn't receive his "winning" ranking by merit in a personal sense, or even in a real technical sense. Rather, he won it by gaming the system, so if the results of this competition demonstrate anything, in fact, it's that the web is not a meritocracy -- unless by "meritocracy", you are restricting the judgement of merit to social engineering skills.

One stock response to all of this would be: "So what? Systems get gamed. It's all subjective." Which brings us back around to Lysenkoism and intellectual relativism. It seems to me that to argue that reality is the result achieved by the best gamesman is to give up on the idea of knowledge, in a sense.

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