Like most people my age, I get most of my news online. I begin the day by checking The New York Times, The Washington Post, and several local papers and blogs. There’s only so much news I can read before I have to work, and so the process of “checking” various news sources means scanning the headlines. I don’t generally click on hyperlinks; that’s a recipe for low productivity.
The Internet makes knowledge more accessible, and the hyperlink is the building block of ths democratization of information. The hyperlink can connect an article to its sources or to other relevant articles pretty easily, helping to change the way we experience the news from an act determined by the newsroom (reading the New York Post from cover to cover every morning) to an act that I can basically control on my own (sitting at my computer and learning everything I can about Madonna’s divorce). Remember Choose Your Own Adventure? Hyperlinks are like that, only on my computer and not exclusively for third-graders.
Let’s say I write a 1,000-word story about a subject and then link to eight other 1,000-word articles. These articles, in turn, link to other articles and Web sites, expanding my original article to a staging point for informational content of infinite length and ambiguous validity. Since the Internet allows users not only to read but also produce information, consumers can create content almost as quickly as they can read it. This is information overload—too much information and too little verification.
In mid-October, I decided to spend a day following the news through hyperlinks only. I followed every link I could find. I stuffed myself full of news to understand the potential and problems of the hyperlink. How much does the hyperlink matter? Is it an incidental addition to news, or does it actually change the way people consume information?
I began my experiment on October 15, 2008, the day after the final presidential debate. Upon waking, my initial Google searches produced millions of hits on the topic so I decided to make this easier and start by visiting the murky organization known as the Commission on Presidential Debates.
This site invited me to check out Visit My Debates, the MySpace page that served as the “official online companion” to the 2008 presidential debates. Visit My Debates claimed to let me look at the election “my way.” Sort of. It actually summarized various issues in a line or two and made me choose between the positions offered between the major candidates in order to advance to the next policy issue. The Web site also decided what the issues were. The war in Iraq was an issue, but the war in Afghanistan was not. And while homeland security was an issue, protecting civil liberties was not.
There was also a forum at the bottom of the Web site with such topics as “He is Racist and a Muslim” and “How Can “REAL” Christians vote for Obama.” In “Racist & Muslim,” the reader was treated to posts like:
So what? He has a Doctrate [sic] from Harvard Law. Does that say anything? He worked his ass off, and quite frankely [sic] he’s smarter than you and me. He even said he’s willing to pay a little more in taxes for the middle class so that they have a chance to get to where he is today. What degree does McCain have? I don’t even know. He went to graduate school but never received a degree, that [sic] says A LOT of him already.
It seems the distance between a legitimate news source and totally amateurish user-generated content is often pretty short. While the fact that the source is questionable does not necessarily mean it’s wrong (remember John Edwards and the National Enquirer?), with the discussion of McCain’s truncated graduate school career I had clearly reached a dead end on this search.
But when I got to work that morning there were thirty-seven emails in my inbox; twenty-two of them were about Joe Wurzelbacher, the misinformed assistant plumber from Ohio who gurgled up into the American news cycle and became the star of the third presidential debates. I decided to follow “Joe the Plumber” for a day.
The first thing I read, which I got from a link in the first e-mail I checked, was MSNBC’s “Palin’s shout-out to Joe (and Jane) the plumber.” The governor of Alaska apparently made some reference to “Jane the Plumber,” attempting either to discuss the glass ceiling (women can be plumbers and, um, vice presidents) or pick up some of the female plumber vote.