I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the fate of one of the better-known blogging technologies: TrackBack.
First introduced by Six Apart in 2002, TrackBack has had the life of a hothouse flower: in just three short years it sprouted, bloomed, and (for all intents and purposes) died.
“Died?” you ask. Yep, as far as I’m concerned TrackBack is dead — killed by spammers who have made it more trouble than it’s worth to keep it around. So much TrackBack traffic comes from spammers these days that it can overwhelm your server; I actually got a nastygram from my ISP a couple of months ago about how much CPU usage TrackBack was responsible for on my box, which was part of the reason why most of my blogs no longer support TrackBack. It just wasn’t worth the trouble of keeping it around.
But can we learn something from the fate of TrackBack to make future social software innovations more successful? I think so. To understand how, let’s examine the life of TrackBack in a little play I call TrackBack: A Tragedy in Three Acts.
A Tragedy In Three Acts
by Jason Lefkowitz
[The setting: the still-not-a-corporation-yet “offices” of Six Apart, circa 2002. BEN and MENA TROTT are sitting at computers next to each other, typing away.]
BEN: Honey pie?
MENA: Yes, sugar bear?
BEN: Do you ever get the feeling that it’s too much trouble to leave a comment with a link if you want to tell someone that you wrote about their post?
MENA: Not really, sweetums.
BEN: Hm. Well, I do. It sure would be nice if there was some way my blog could just tell the other blog that I wrote about it automatically…
MENA: Would something like that be hard to do?
BEN: Wait a sec… [typing quickly] Done!
MENA: How exciting! Blogs automatically notifying each other of updates. What would you call such a thing?
BEN: I was thinking “Auto Blog Notifier Pro”.
BEN: How about “Auto Blog Notifier XP”?
MENA: Those names both suck, snuggle bunny. How about “TrackBack”.
BEN: Ooh, that is good, pookie.
[As the lights go down, they kiss. Diabetics in the audience begin to go into sugar-shock.]
[The setting: The Blogosphere, one week later. We see two anonymous bloggers, clad in pajamas, begin playing with TrackBack.]
BLOGGER 1: Wow, this is cool! Automated post notification.
BLOGGER 2: Hm. How does your blog know I am who I say I am?
BLOGGER 1: Eh wha?
BLOGGER 2: How does your blog know that when it gets a ping from mine, that it actually came from me, and not someone else?
BLOGGER 1: Well, it doesn’t actually.
BLOGGER 2: Hm. And how does your blog know which pings to display and which to throw out?
BLOGGER 1: Throw out?
BLOGGER 2: Oh dear. It’s at least complicated to send a ping, right? So you couldn’t send huge amounts of them at once?
BLOGGER 1: What? Complicated? Nah, it’s just an HTTP POST.
BLOGGER 2: I sense trouble ahead.
BLOGGER 1: You’re just paranoid, pookie bear.
BLOGGER 2: What did you just call me?
[The setting: Six Apart, two years later. BEN and MENA are typing away on their computers.]
MENA: Oh look, tootsie-wootsie! I just got 548 TrackBack pings! Who knew that my once-a-year update on the corporate blog would be so popular?
BEN: Cool! Where are they from?
MENA: Let’s see… one from Anil’s blog… one from Jay Allen’s blog… and 546 from cialis-casino.com.
MENA: That’s what it says. “cialis-casino.com”.
BEN: That’s not right.
MENA: And look, now I’m getting pings from cialis-casino.com on ALL my posts!
MENA: There’s an easy way to block these, right, buttercup? And to remove the ones that have now been sprayed all over my site?
MENA: You ASS. [MENA produces a fire axe from beneath her desk and buries it in BEN’s skull. THE END.]
So what lessons can we take from Ben and Mena’s unfortunate experience, to improve future social software offerings?
Three lessons: assume the worst, plan for security, and communicate with the community that uses your tool. Hopefully the ultimate fruit of TrackBack is that it encourages more developers to learn these lessons, before they find themselves chasing exploits like Ben and Mena.Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at May 02, 2005
If you think anything I write here represents the opinions of anybody but myself, you need more help than I can give you. The opinions are all mine, folks. Nobody else's. ESPECIALLY not my employer's.
If that's too hard to understand... well, I'm sorry. There's only so much I can do. I'm not a therapist, and I'm not a miracle worker. (Unless you consider staying employed in this economy a miracle.) I wish I could help you work through your delusional belief that I'm speaking for anyone else but myself. Honestly, I do. But in the end, that's a monkey you'll have to get off your back on your own. Sorry.