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One day, one story, one million hyperlinks

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.

The only links in that article returned to the original MSNBC Joe the Plumber article, so I went to the tabs on the side, including one to Daily Kos called “Is ‘Joe the plumber’ related to Charles Keating?” I investigated that question for awhile, but it was sort of distracting and I ended up reading about Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Jr. (who actually is Charles Keating’s grandson). There wasn’t much to be learned here about Joe the Plumber.

About an hour in, I realized that all of these links make it sort of hard to actually finish an article. By noon, after following innumerable links to analyses and subsidiary points, I had still not completed a single “Joe the Plumber” article. I was on top of every new development, but whether or not I understood what was going on was harder to answer. I didn’t feel any smarter. I just felt sort of… tired. It was stressful following everything in an article, in part because I couldn’t devote much time to reading anything. This was the journalistic equivalent of running the 200-meter race, all day long. This was maddening.

Something odd about the Wurzelbacher story was that the hyperlinks didn’t go in new directions. No one linked to articles about the way the plumbing profession works, or the struggles small businessmen face. Indeed, with surprising regularity, the hyperlinks were circuitous, returning again to the big articles in the Washington Post, CNN, etc.

That’s just because these articles were the most easily accessible. Everyone knows how to navigate the New York Times Web site; why mess around trying to find out what the Cincinnati Enquirer has to say? The problem was that the articles by major news sources still weren’t that great. Joe the Plumber and the corporate media hyperlink strategy demonstrated that if journalists don’t really know anything, they can’t link their way around the problem. If a writer doesn’t understand an issue he’s writing about, linking to other articles about that issue won’t fix the article.

After lunch, I visited The New York Times, where the headline in the middle of that day (at the same time that oil had fallen below seventy dollars a barrel for the first time in sixteen months) was “Joe the plumber is under scrutiny.” (The news priority here was kind of embarrassing. But whatever, when in Rome.) I decided to follow every link in the article.

The article linked to another Times piece about the specific exchange between Wurzelbacher and Obama (basically the transcript of the YouTube video). Another link sent me to the Toledo Blade and the original story of Joe the Plumber, called “Obama supports U.S. aid for banks; he says relief plan needs regulations.” Another hyperlink led to a story from October 12 about Obama’s Ohio campaign; another led to a Fox News article, which wondered if “maybe the plumbers union will reconsider their [sic] endorsement of Obama.” This article linked to the Web site of United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada, one of the few sites I saw that day with no reference to Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher of Holland, Ohio.

I had evolved my strategy so to just follow the link chain in a single article, rather than use links to actually become informed. Admittedly, these hyperlinks were sort of interesting (the name of the plumbers’ union is almost twenty words long. Who knew?). But they still weren’t terribly informative. My original goal was to learn all I could about Joe the Plumber but, despite copious linking, there really wasn’t anything to learn here—or anywhere.

The Times had a page with information about everything with regard to the McCain campaign. There was a similar link to Barack Obama’s campaign, but I followed McCain for a minute. There was basic biographical information, links to all NYT articles about him, a link to his Almanac of American Politics entry (requiring login: dead-end). The TimesMcCain page also had a link to John McCain’s Facebook page, in which McCain reported that his favorite TV shows are 24 (duh) and Seinfeld (really?). Obama lists his favorite show as SportsCenter, which seems like sort of a cop-out. Back to McCain news, I saw a link to 2006 Time magazine article about the McCain family, “The McCains and War: Like father, like son.” This linked to another Time article about “grading the final presidential debate.”

Sigh. I now understood how Huffington Post works. I’d always wondered why the site features three-inch headlines and lots of links to celebrity gossip. Now I know; reading nothing but news—alot of news—is boring.

By the end of the day, I realized that different news organizations follow different hyperlink strategies. There’s the HuffPo “mullet strategy” of news presentation (business up front, party in the back). HuffPo looks clean but then links to other places with user-generated content and unverifiable assertions. It lets the reader do the heavy lifting and determine accuracy, sorting the valid from the invalid. This strategy keeps readers entertained—but it also distracts readers, and can lead them to unreliable information.

Corporate media hyperlinks—found at places like the Times, Fox News, Time, CNN, and MSNBC—mostly direct the reader to other pages within the site. This keeps readers with the same news source, but has the disadvantage of potentially boring the reader. MSNBC was a major violator here, with hyperlinks to its dreary “fact-check” page.

While I haven’t heard much discussion about news organizations’ “hyperlink policies,” it’s clear that hyperlinking is a strategic decision. The circuitous link strategy makes sense if your publication is really worried about people getting distracted or if your publication really has the best content (it does happen). But with links you do want to distract people a little, because it somehow makes the publication seem current and interesting. You want to let the reader explore a little.

As Jenny Lyn Bader explained in a Times article back in 2000:

In the old-media world, the question was how to get the audience to stay with you. In the new-media world, it is how to get the audience to leave and come back again. After all, it is not readability that makes for greatness on the Web: it is clickability.

Call it the Miracle on 34th Street strategy: the goal of sending visitors away from your site is, ultimately, to keep them coming back.

The problem with this strategy is that all of this linking around—the new work of reading the news—mainly just introduces the reader to a bunch of things he has to ignore in order to digest the content of a story. The thing that kept plaguing me in the course of this project was: What am I missing now? I’d discovered the Toledo Blade; I’d discovered Daily Kos and taken an updated tour through MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN. There were millions of potentially untapped sources. The process of attempting to connect this, to note every hyperlink, where it came from and where it led, proved impossible. The stories kept changing, the hyperlinks kept dying, and I could never figure out the best way to address and synthesize the media. Trying to figure out what I did that day was like building with dry sand; the history of my day kept slipping though my fingers.

I felt the way I think a gerbil would feel, running around that wheel. You’re never done. Because if your only goal is to follow the news, you quickly discover that the news never ends. It just refreshes itself.

This article is part of our online supplement to the November/December print issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. To read that issue’s cover story, entitled “Overload!: Journalism’s battle for relevance in an age of too much information”, click here. Part two of Daniel Luzer’s journey through linkspace is coming soon.

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.