3 min read

A suggestion for my obituary

I've spent a considerable amount of time in the past decade or so trying to convince journalists (and their employers) of the value of the agnostic link. -- a link that points to a competitor or rival. My argument is that journalists have an obligation as journalists to point to information of value no matter where they find it. Thus if a competing brand publishes something that your readers should see, you should link to it.
I understand how difficult this can be for journalists. We are often, by our nature, fiercely competitive. I understand too how hard this can be for publishers -- particularly in B2B. They are often tasked with making money in very small niches where success depends on how much advertising money you can attract away from rivals.
But for me (and for others like me) the use of the agnostic link is a no-brainer. Journalism's purpose is to inform, amuse and educate. So when someone publishes something that is informative, amusing or educational, I should make sure my readers see it.

Recently I've been involved in a project that requires talking with a large number of journalists and publishers about agnostic links. What's been particularly interesting about this project is that there has not been much disagreement about the value of such links. It seems that much, if not most, of the industry has accepted the value of content aggregation, content curation and social media. And those three subsets of the publishing world are built upon agnostic links.
In fact, for every journalist in this project who wanted to argue about the value of agnostic links, there have been three or four who were far more interested in talking about how people once hated such links. These journalists wanted to know who were the first journalists to use agnostic links. They wanted to know when the major journalism brands started using them. And they wanted to know who came up with the phrase "agnostic link.'
As it turns out, the answers to those questions are, as near as I can tell,:

  • Early bloggers created the idea of the agnostic link (although clipping services and the B2B newsletters that mimicked them engaged in a similar practice for decades.)
  • As I mentioned in this earlier blog post, the big names in journalism embraced agnostic links in mid 2006.
  • It might have been me. At any rate, I'm going to take credit for it.

Paul Conley, the journalist who coined the term "agnostic link," died today at the age of 135

So here's the funny thing. I used to be 100 percent convinced that I had heard and read the term "agnostic link' dozens of times before I started using it. But over time, I've run into more and more people who tell me that the first time they saw the phrase was on my blog. Or that the first time they heard it was at a speech I gave.
Then, just this morning someone asked me for some background on the phrase, so I plugged it into Google and found, as I have numerous times over recent years, that the top return is a piece I wrote in November 2006 called "Getting religion about agnostic links."
And I said to myself -- I give up.

I don't intend to be Bob Greene, the Chicago Tribune writer credited with inventing the term "yuppie." If my memory is correct, Greene spent years insisting he had done no such thing.
Nor, apparently, will I be Joe Pulizzi, who invented the term (and the industy) "content marketing." Content marketing has changed the very nature of the publishing game. "Agnostic links" also changed publishing. But it was the practice of agnostic links that were revolutionary. The term "agnostic link" didn't catch on and instead seemed to fade in popularity as the actual practice grew.
Still, I'll take any footnote I can get in journalism history.
So here's my request. If someday in the distant future, despite my best efforts, I should die, I want Folio magazine to write a brief piece saying that I coined the term "agnostic link." And I want that piece to link to obituaries on eMediaVitals, min, Junta42 and Publishing Executive.
Then I will rest in peace.