The Importance of the Hat Tip

by Charles Miller on March 15, 2012

Marco “Instapaper” Arment, on attributing the source of links (hat tip: Daring Fireball):

But if another link-blogger posts a link they found from your link-blog, I don’t think they need to credit you. Discovering something doesn’t transfer any ownership to you. Therefore, I don’t think anyone needs to give you credit for showing them the way to something great, since it’s not yours. Some might as a courtesy, but it shouldn’t be considered an obligation.

Jamie “fighting endless bureaucracy to keep my night-club running is still less frustrating than working in IT” Zawinski, characterising the Internet’s seeming obsession with crediting where you found a link:

One DJ says to another, "Hey, want to go see a movie?" The other DJ says, "I dunno, who's the projectionist?"

I think any reasonable human being would agree:

  • The primary source of a story is far more important than the way you happened to find it.
  • Stealing eyeballs from the people who do the real work by “aggregating” content in a way that makes reading the original unnecessary while adding nothing of value on top is a dishonest way to make a living
  • If the Huffington Post was published on paper, it still wouldn't even be worth wiping your arse on.

None of this means bloggers, tweeters or Facebook-posters shouldn't credit their immediate sources as well.

The mistake is thinking the “hat tip” link is a service to the person being linked to. And indeed this is the tack that Maria Popova, creator of the Curator’s Code that Arment was objecting to, took in a New York Times interview:

“Discovery of information is a form of intellectual labor,” she said. “When we don’t honor discovery, we are robbing somebody’s time and labor. The Curator’s Code is an attempt to solve some of that.”

The hat tip isn't a service to the “cool hunter” who brought you the link. It’s a service to the reader who wants to expand their sources of information.

For the record, I think the Curator’s Code itself is a bad idea simply because using two obscure Unicode glyphs to substitute for two already commonly confused concepts that are already able to be abbreviated in two or three letters isn’t likely to fly in anyone’s world.

Once upon a time, I read one blog. By following links out of that blog I discovered not only more people posting interesting new content, but more people connected to interesting networks I didn’t read myself, but who would funnel interesting content out from them in the form of links.

There is way too much information out there. One way that we deal with this and still keep mostly on top of what is going on is by choosing some subset of sources that mostly cover the things we're interested in. We all keep ourselves a certain number of degrees of separation from the original sources, because that’s the only way to even start to cover them all.

The hat tip gives us hints about how we could expand that web of interest in the right direction. If I find I'm regularly interested in the links that come to me via some third party I don't yet follow, I'm going to be interested in seeing what else they're linking to that I might be missing.

Maybe to other people like Matt Langer, this is “the digital equivalent of finding the previous borrower’s name scribbled on the card in the back of a library book”. But as a consumer of link blogs, I find hat-tip links useful.

Previously: The Showstopper

Next: IAQ