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Follow That Link

A typical webzine invites the visitor not so much to study its text but to hop around within it, clicking on icons and highlighted phrases to see where they lead. In this exercise, the act of reading is submerged beneath the drive to explore. Pages are riddled with convenient electronic tunnels. The experience is less like reading a magazine than strolling through a bookstore or library, where you will expect to look at a lot of titles but may come out having actually read little.

A computer screen is not the best way to do extended reading. Thus it’s not surprising that webzines favor short pieces. Print magazine feature articles (like this one) typically run 4,000 words or more. In Slate, Salon, and other webzines, a typical article is 1,0001,500 words. These pieces may whet the intellectual appetite or stir up ideological fervor among those already in agreement with a writer. But because staffs are small and budgets low, and because the Web puts a premium on rapid production of new material, the stories generally lack the thorough reportage that makes for the most fulfilling reading experience-and that changes people’s minds.

The strength of webzines as a new medium, then, depends on how well they take advantage of the interactive features that are uniquely possible online. Many webzines are still groping for how best to use the new technologies. Most of these publications amount to words on a screen-a vertical, glowing rendition of the magazines people have been reading for decades. Despite their multimedia cachet, webzines typically contain a smaller concentration of photographs, illustrations, and charts than one would find in a printed publication.

What webzines do provide are links to related information. The quality of these links varies widely. Slate takes particular care in its compilation of links. A recent article about how ballot initiatives in Arizona and California regarding the medical use of marijuana could affect the war on drugs, for example, links to the text of the referendums and to documents from organizations arguing pro and con. It is one-stop shopping for political information.

A well-compiled set of links can make a webzine worth visiting. By January, the Oakland school board’s controversial decision to formally recognize black English as a distinct language-Ebonics-had been pretty well hashed over in the media. But accompanying Slate’s article on the topic were links to a detailed synopsis of the decision put out by the Oakland Unified School District. Here the reader could find out without the filtering of reporters and commentators exactly what course of action the school board was recommending-a particularly helpful service in this case, given widespread confusion about the school board’s intent. For historical context, the reader could hop to a 1972 article by University of Pennsylvania linguist William Labov that provides scholarly underpinning to the Oakland decision.

Links can also give readers a handy “reality check” that pressures writers and editors to get their facts straight. Dan Kennedy, a media critic for the printed Boston Phoenix and for Salon, explains: “I like to think I’m a careful reporter when I’m writing for print, but in Salon I really have to get it right.”

But many webzine links seem thrown in with little thought and even work against a story’s theme. A Salon essay convincingly decries the reduction of Martin Luther King, Jr., to a “safe” icon of both the right and the left. The writer worries that for many people, King has become just a reason for a holiday and an “I Have a Dream” sound bite. Oddly, however, the article provides only two links-one to a photo of King making that speech, the other to the full text of the stirring address. The article thus perpetuates the narrow perspective that it critiques.

The presence of links changes the character of reading. A highlighted word tempts the reader to click-where will it lead? The webzine page becomes a platform from which to dive into the roiling waters of the Internet. Each link is like a little exit door, and if the pastures are richer on the other side, online grazers will be lost. For this reason Slate and some other webzines gather up their links and put them at the end of articles rather than permitting them to interrupt the flow of reading.

Editors of any publication strive for quality control. Links represent a kind of surrender on this front. Not only is the linked-to site beyond an editor’s control, but so are the sites that it links to, and that each of those sites links to, and so on throughout the Net. With each hyperstep away from the webzine’s site, the possibility multiplies that a reader will encounter unchecked or unsavory pages (or pages that have disappeared). One Slate story about body piercing, for example, provided a link to a site that prominently featured links of its own-to pornographic pages. Such missteps are probably unavoidable in a medium as big and uncontrolled as the Internet.

Bad links are worse than no links at all, if only for the deflating feeling of expectations dashed. A provocative essay in the webzine Suck, for example, pointed out that with operations like Wired magazine and America Online hitting bad patches and laying people off, the defiant “geek culture” that had been contemptuously thumbing its nose at management was finding itself having to be more circumspect; having even a bad job was at least a job. It is not hard to find “dozens of people swapping enthusiasm for misery,” said Suck-and highlighted this last sentence to indicate it was a hyperlink. But the link led to a newsgroup called alt.angst-an online bellyaching extravaganza filled with diatribes about atheists, Bill Gates, and many other pet peeves. A search through hundreds of recent postings found none discussing job anxiety.

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