It has been one of the worst kept secrets of web statistics – deep linked image traffic. While this has been going on for years, since the beginning of the WWW actually, it has increased enormously in the past few years. On some cultural sector sites such traffic can be very substantial – a quick test is to look at exactly how much of your traffic is ‘referred’ from MySpace. It is also one of the main reasons why Photobucket has traditionally reported traffic so much higher than Flickr is – its deep linking and cut and paste engagement with MySpace. With the move away from log file analysis to page tagging in web analytics, some, but not all of this deep linking traffic is fortunately being expunged from analytics reporting.
Two Powerhouse examples include a Chinese news/comment portal that deep linked a Mao suit image (from an educational resource on our site), sending us 51,000 visits in under 24 hours in August 2005, and an A-grade Singaporean blogger who deep linked an image of Golum (from our archived Lord of the Rings exhibition pages) to use to describe an ugly celebrity which generated over 180,000 visits over 8 days In January 2007. (In both of these examples the visits were removed from the figures reported to management and funders.)
What is going on here sociologically?
At the recent ICA2007 event in San Francisco danah boyd and Dan Perkel presented an interesting look at the subcultural behaviours that are, in part, producing this effect. Although they look specifically at MySpace there are threads that can be drawn across many social sites from forums to blogs. Drawing on the work of many cultural theorists, they argue that on MySpace what is going on is a form of ‘code remix’. That is, young people’s MySpace pages are essentially ‘remixes’ of other content – but unlike a more traditional remix in audio and video cultures, these code remixes occur through the simple cut and paste of HTML snippets. By ‘producing’ both their MySpace pages as well as their online cultural identity in this way, they are reshaping concepts of ‘writing’ and digital literacy. They are also, importantly, not in control of the content they are remixing – a deep linked image can easily be changed, replaced or removed by the originating site.
There are plenty of examples – boyd and Perkel give a few – where the content owner changes the linked image to disrupt the deep linker. In the case of our Singaporean blogger we renamed the linked image to prevent it from appearing on her site (and in our statistics).
Revealingly, Perkel’s research is showing that many MySpace users have little, if any, knowledge or interest in website production – that is CSS and HTML. Instead, what has formed is a technically simple but sociologically complex ‘cut and paste’ culture. This is what drives the ‘easy embedding’ features found on almost any content provider site like YouTube etc – it is in the content providers’ interest to allow as much re-use of their content (or the content they host) because it allows for the insertion of advertising and branding including persistent watermarking. Of course, the museum sector is not geared up for this – instead our content is being cut and pasted often without anyone outside the web team having a deep understanding of what is actually going on. There are usually two reactions – one is negative (“those kids are ‘stealing’ our content”) and the other overly positive (“those kids are using our content therefore they must be engaging with it”). Certainly Perkel and others research deeply probelmatises any notion that these activities are in large part about technical upskilling – they aren’t – instead those involved are learning and mastering new communication skills, and emerging ways of networked life.
One approach that some in the sector have advocated is the widget approach – create museum content widgets for embedding – to make repurposing of content (and code snippets) easier. There have been recent calls for museum Facebook apps for example. But I’m not sure that this is going to be successful because a great deal of embeds are of the LOLcats variety – perhaps trivial, superficial, but highly viral and jammed full of flexible and changing semiotic meaning. Whereas our content tends to be the opposite – deep, complex and relatively fixed.