Has Social Media Legitimized Hotlinking in Web 2.0?

Hotlinking used to be a bad thing. Essentially bandwidth theft, hotlinking is the practice of displaying and image (or video, audio file etc… ) on your site but actually having the file served by someone else’s server. In other words you use their bandwidth to display the file on your site. (This is not the same as content theft, taking someone else work and presenting it as your own. That’s another discussion for another post).

We all know that bandwidth isn’t free.

Last night, as Daily Shite clicked over it’s 1 millionth page view for February, I was looking at our bandwidth usage and wondering where did all of the 423 Gigs we’ve transferred over the past 15 days go?

Obviously on a humor site like ours that aggregates the best content from around the web, hotlinking can be  an issue.

We don’t hotlink. We makes sure that all images and files are hosted on our own server and even go as far as having measures in place to ensure that anything that might accidentally get hotlinked is automatically cached on our server and the link rewritten.

Yet so many people hotlink today and I feel that with the rise of sites like Digg, Facebook, Reddit and even my beloved Google Reader are to blame.  They’ve taken hotlinking and instead of supporting the idea that is unacceptable have played a major hand in making hotlinking acceptable.

There are way and means to prevent hotlinking. It’s easy actually, but the problem comes not with the prevention, but the fact that oft times it is necessary not to prevent it  in order to actually be able to promote your content on the web.

If hotlinking is prevented then the images won’t show in Google Reader. Facebook, Reddit and Digg won’t be able to show thumbnails for the posts. This is a negative thing for most publishers regardless of whether or not they are aggregators (like we do on Daily Shite) or content creators like I do on this blog.

No thumbnails means less incentive for users to click through and people can be such very visual creatures.

I suppose measures could be taken to ensure I had a separate directory of thumbnails outside of the “protected directories” of my site that could be used by other sites but that is quite frankly a huge pain in the backside to organize and something that 99% of people will neither do, think about or have the ability to do if they did.

To be honest I don’t begrudge Facebook or Reddit using my images when someone promotes one of our posts, in fact I encourage it. It’s promotion for us.

But what I do have an issue with is that sites like Digg, Stumbleupon and Reddit allow linking to an image directly outside of the structure of the site hosting it and that is a problem for me.

When 20,000 or 50,000 people stumble an image on your site and all they see is the image itself, none of your content or the advertising that pays for the bandwidth that is used to serve that image 50,000 or even 100,000 times then there is an issue.

For some sites 50,000 or 100,000 views of a reasonably sized image could eat their entire bandwidth cap and result in them having to shell out money because the major media sharing sites are too lazy to implement a simple bit of code that could ensure that the page an image is on must be linked to rather than stealing some poor sods bandwidth.

Sharing on sites like Digg, Facebook and Stumbleupon is a partnership. They may promote our content for us when it is submitted, but we also provide them with content for their community to view and to discuss. Without our content these sites are nothing and we get considerably less traffic without them.

It’s a partnership, or at least it’s supposed to be. When it comes to images and hotlinking, the partnership is sorely one sided.