DoNotLink.com is an excellent tool for all skeptics to have in their toolkit. I’ve written about it before. I noticed recently that it has added some new features over the last few months. I thought it would be worth calling them to your attention.
The problem this tool solves is sort of an online skeptic variation of the Streisand Effect. When you critique a bad idea that has been posted on the web, you often start by linking to it. The link allows your readers to understand what you are debunking. In addition to allowing your readers to see the source, the link itself will become input to various algorithms such as Google PageRank, Facebook’s news feed algorithm and Twitter trends. But these algorithms share a crucial limitation – they all treat any reference to content as positive. (It is illustrative that there is a “Like” button on Facebook, but no “Dislike” button.) To these algorithms, there’s nowhere to go but up.
And so skeptical links literally send mixed signals out on the web. While you are telling all the humans, “This content is bad!” your hyperlink is telling all the robots “This content is good!”
DoNotLink.com solves that problem for social media, by providing a way to link to something while disabling the algorithms’ ability to measure it. The link still works, the site still can get visitors and can still count a hit and show visitors some ads and so on. The site is in no way damaged by this way of linking! But the algorithms can no longer add that hyperlink to the site’s popularity score.
That makes it very valuable to skeptics. So lets look at the new features, which make it even better.
What Is It?
Superficially the service works like a URL shortener. These replace unwieldy, long URLs with short ones that are easier to cut-and-paste and don’t monopolize space in your posts. But unlike a regular short URL, the ones from Do Not Link are designed to thwart algorithmic following of the link while still allowing humans to use them.
The creator of Do Not Link is Menno van Ens, a freelance web developer in Vancouver. When I noticed the changes in the site, I contacted him to get some comments. He told me that he actually built the tool for skeptics back in 2010 (here’s the launch announcement). At first it did not take off, despite his efforts to promote it on Reddit and various skeptic forums. He says it was my blog post in 2013 that “really got the ball rolling” on the use of the tool. Now it is actively used by a variety of communities beyond skeptics, including “feminists, men’s rights activists, gamers and bloggers.”
At the home page of DoNotLink.com there is a prominent text box. If you paste in a URL you are then given a much shorter version you can use in its place. It also provides the URL in several markup formats including HTML (the standard for the web) and BBCode (used on many discussion forum sites).
Technically speaking the HTML code is overkill – all you need in that case is to use the NOFOLLOW tag, which I’ve explained in previous posts. But it doesn’t hurt anything to use it – or even to do both.
The main Do Not Link page has now added Markdown format, which is used in Reddit comments and at Skeptic StackExchange. Very handy if you want to refer to a misinformation website in a comment thread on those sites. Here’s what the main page looks like now when you feed it a URL:
Not pictured here, but also visible on the Do Not Link homepage, are links to the top web sites where the service is actively being used, and the most active discussions.
Discussions? Yes, you can now create an account on the site, and open a discussion thread on each link, where you can critique it further and leave some indication of why you believe this content should not be linked directly. The discussion threads are accessed via a bar that appears on the top of your browser when you link, very similar to the RBUTR toolbar I’ve also written about.
From that same toolbar (it’s actually an HTML frame) you can access this handy dropdown:
As you can see, this allows you to give an overall rating to the page. In this screen shot I am hovering my mouse cursor over “Great” so it appears in green. Skeptics will most likely use Nonsense or Dangerous for our links – which appear in red when clicked. (I love the icon used for nonsense!) And you can see there is a button to jump to the comment thread.
Another interesting change in the tool is that it briefly shows you the target of the link, along with the rating code, as you are being forwarded.
Van Ens tells me now that it is popular, he has had issues keeping up with the traffic. He found he had to move it to Google App Engine to give it enough horsepower.
This is why the tool shows ads in some contexts – to help pay for its use. He says he plans to continue to enhance it, removing some of the more intrusive ads and providing a way to remove the frame. He’s also planning to create some browser and blog plugins to make it easier to use.
I suggested that one possible change to make it more attractive for use on Facebook, would be to pick up the thumbnail icon from the target site. Right now when you use it on Facebook, you get a giant Do Not Link logo as a thumbnail, which is not optimal – see an example here at right. (Studies have shown that relevant graphics on social media posts increase engagement with the content). He agrees this would be a useful change.
If you need to link to misinformation, pseudoscience or other questionable content on social media, I strongly recommend you use a tool like Do Not Link or the RBUTR toolbar. They don’t take anything away from the site owner, but they do prevent your critique from backfiring into a promotional boost.
I also discussed these changes on an episode of the weekly Virtual Skeptics webcast last month, here it is. This should skip right to my segment at 21:34 in the show, it’s only about 7 minutes. Enjoy.