By Tyler Fisher in Music on the internet – July 24, 2022

I'm quoted on the Wikipedia page for Michael Jackson's Thriller

This is a story about how the internet works.

A photo of Michael Jackson's Thriller album on CD
Photo by cdrummbks on Flickr

Michael Jackson's Thriller has sold 70 million copies worldwide. It is the best-selling album of all time. I learned this via its Wikipedia page. When I visit the Wikipedia page for Michael Jackson's Thriller, I expect to find such statistics. What I do not expect to find is... uh... me, a white kid from Quakertown, Pennsylvania, born eight years after the album came out, who had absolutely nothing to do with the recording of Michael Jackson's Thriller.

And yet, deep in the page's section on the album's "legacy and influence" is a subsection on critical reappraisal of Thriller. In this subsection, three authors are quoted: Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic, one of the internet's preeminent music critics who regularly contributes to the industry's biggest publications; Jon Pareles, now chief music critic at the New York Times; and me, in a poorly written review I put on the internet when I was 15. Let me explain.

One of these people is not like the others.

In 2006, I was 15 years old and rapidly becoming a music snob. I started playing bass a couple years earlier, and suddenly, I had strong opinions about Radiohead albums. With few music snob friends available in my small hometown to yell about Kid A with, I turned to the internet to find community.

I found community via an upstart music website called Sputnikmusic. The thrust of Sputnik was that anyone could post a review of any album, complete with a five-star rating system. Other users could leave comments on said reviews and leave their own ratings of the album. The result was a mix of something like RateYourMusic and Pitchfork. All the reviews and ratings were user-generated like at RYM, but the design of the site put the writing forward, like at Pitchfork.

Sputnik's fundemental design hasn't changed in years

As it turns out, there were a lot of bored teens who wanted to share their opinions about music in longform on the internet in 2006. Sputnik quickly cultivated a small but dedicated user base, not the least of which was me.

I started writing reviews for Sputnik in the summer of 2006. You see, my first girlfriend and I had just broken up via MySpace, and I was depressed, so rather than going outside and hanging out with friends, I sat in front of the computer and wrote a short review of every album I ever heard. Sometimes, I wrote three in one day. Other times, I listened to an album once and wrote a review immediately. Eventually, I dropped off the pace, but I kept writing for Sputnik regularly for five years, including an ill-conceived 4/5(???????????) review of Michael Jackson's Thriller in September of 2006. No, I won't link to it. You can find it.

To be clear, these reviews weren't good; I was just churning out words to keep the depression at bay. The 2022 version of me is doing reaction videos on YouTube. Also, I was 15. I couldn't write. But compared to the other 15-year-olds hanging out on Sputnik, I could kinda write! My reviews became popular around the site.

Eventually, Sputnik grew enough of an audience that the admins who ran the site decided to organize a little bit. They put together the site's first "staff writers", and I was selected to be on the staff. This meant a couple things: my reviews went on a special section at the top of the site, and all my reviews — past, present and future — were labeled as "staff" reviews. I don't remember when I got named to staff, but it was well after that 2006 MJ review, around 2007 or 2008. I still wasn't a good writer when I was 17, but I was a lot better than when I was 15.

We on the staff took ourselves very seriously, and frankly, we punched above our weight. We regularly received press copies of the biggest albums and got press passes to whatever shows we wanted. To this date, Sputnik is a part of Metacritic's scoring system for new music. And, well, we're quoted on Wikipedia pages with some regularity.

I used to think we were taken seriously because we were good at our jobs, but that's not really what it was. Sputnik's archive hangs with the rest of actual, professional music criticism across the internet for one reason: SEO. Sputnik doesn't dominate search results for "[album name] review" anymore, but for most of the late 2000s and early 2010s, you could guarantee Sputnik would show up in the first few results for any album we had in our database. I don't know why our SEO was so good; I wasn't writing code yet, and I've never contributed technically to Sputnik. But I would bet that it was less a matter of us being good and more a matter of publications like Rolling Stone, NME, and other big legacy publications being terrible at SEO.

So as Wikipedia pages for major albums were getting built out, it was easy to pad a "critical reception" section with a few quick reviews found on the first page of Google. And hey, if staff's next to the name on the review, you know it's legit. The Wikipedia editor has no idea that said "staff review" was written by a 15-year-old just trying to find his voice online.

As far as I can tell, my review was added to the Wikipedia page for Michael Jackson's Thriller in 2016. Honestly, that's a little later than I expected. I had hoped that, by 2016, we could recognize Sputnik for what it is and not put my 15-year-old self next to Jon Pareles. But this is not the first time the weird context collapse of searching for an old album's reviews on the internet has put my teenage writing in some weird spaces.

I'm quoted in a book about Elliott Smith, where a review I wrote in 2007 is treated as if contemporaneous to the release of his 1998 album XO. Thankfully, I gave XO a correct 5/5, but unfortunately, the quote is very bad.

I was once asked in an interview for an academic opportunity why I gave Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon a 3/5 (answer: because it sucks but I was too scared to give it a worse score).

I'm on the Wikipedia pages for not only Thriller, but Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory, Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne, and countless less famous albums. Of the many minor music blogs on the internet from the mid-2000s, Sputnik won the SEO game, and that victory gives it a lasting legacy via Wikipedia.

Because of Google's monopoly on search results, good SEO is power and currency. A mediocre essay I wrote when I was 15 lives on in infamy on the Wikipedia page for the best-selling album of all-time, all because the site I published on had good SEO.

In my case, this is innocuous and funny, but truthfully, these dynamics are making the internet worse. Today, Google search results are regularly lousy with low-quality content from SEO content farms. Others have written about this better than I can: our primary place to find information online has been co-opted by people only in the game for a quick buck. That's capitalism, baby! In a better world, we could have search unmotivated by profit, only interested in communicating knowledge. Something like a public library, but for resources on the internet.

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