Over the past few weeks, I’ve received a flurry of emails from apparently reputable sources, asking me to add them to my blogroll and/or link to their materials. Of course, they all referenced the blog that I haven’t updated in nearly 3 years, so that was my first clue. The second clue was the fact that they could have all been cut from the same “Dear Mr. %LastName%” cloth, although to be fair, they did all get it right that I was a boy. I didn’t think a whole lot of them, and after the second, it was obvious that there was a new form letter circulating, so I’ve been sending them straight to trash.

Yesterday, though, I saw a couple of articles that made me think more deeply about them. The first is a truly excellent piece by Dan Meyer, about how devious and abusive “education companies” are becoming. He marshals an impressive series of screen caps, and lays out the step-by-step process by which these companies, who offer “online education,” are basically trying to recruit us into marketing for them. They do this by creating “resource” pages, such as lists of top blogs, or top twitterers, or top tools, the kinds of pages that folks are fond of linking to, posting on Facebook or Twitter, etc., and then using the PageRank mojo generated that way to drive their search results.

The thing is, it’s flattering to be considered for lists like this. And it’s great to have resources to point to in order to help out our friends and colleagues whose adoption cycles are different from our own (“here’s a place to start if you want to start thinking about Twitter for educators,” e.g.). What they’re doing, though, and what we do every time we link or RT such lists is preying on our own insecurities and feeding the economic pressures that play a huge role in creating those insecurities:

The other predators make big money when they’re Google’s top result. How do they become Google’s top result? They get a bunch of people to link to their website!
How do they get a bunch of people to link to their website? They make a list! They make dozens. Top 10 social studies blogs. Top 20 writing teacher blogs. Top 100 administrator blogs. They flatter a bunch of people who are underpaid and underappreciated who then relink, reblog, and retweet the list, simply flattered to be included!

Lest you think this is some sort of anomaly, take a gander at another essay I came across yesterday, about Gawker’s approach to “virality,” which might be more accurately described as pageview journalism. Basically, Gawker has a person whose job it is to do nothing but create those lovely (non) stories that will generate pageviews, in order to free up their other staffers to focus on the “real” stuff. The list of this person’s “top stories” is truly a marvel to behold, and won’t be confused with journalism any time soon. But the point here is that there’s a new set of rules by which online success is measured, and old school discussions of credibility don’t figure very prominently.

This is the angle that I don’t think got enough play a while back in the discussion over the Chronicle’s PR fiasco. A lot of people accused the CHE of link-trolling, but of course, they did so while providing them with links. And the folks in charge who hash-taunted people about their “media literacy” didn’t seem to realize the implications of what they were doing, both in the moment and overall. The Chronicle is in the unenviable position of having to negotiate already between two competing ethoi–that of the trade magazine and of the academy, the trade they cover. But social media introduces a third ethos to the mix, one that’s a lot more cynical, and they got caught out as not having thought it through with any real care. I don’t know that I would say that this was “the most important” part of that story by any means, but it provided a backdrop to it that I didn’t see a lot of people address.

It’s been interesting to me to see these different threads swirl and eventually merge into a pattern, one that should be familiar to anyone who’s been involved with social media for a while. I think we’re on the front edge of seeing SEO (search engine optimization) turn into SMO (social media optimization), and it’s going to take a while for our critical literacy to catch up. Here’s hoping it’s sooner rather than later. The thing that’s truly pernicious about the education industry SMO is that they’re effectively fooling us into making ourselves obsolete, by using us to market low-cost, low-value alternatives to ourselves, and preying on the people who share our ideals. That is evil.