Something to Sing About

TR’s home page on the World Wide Web does what others don’t

A magazine article, given the inexorable limits on space, is necessarily just an appetizer. Readers who wish to pursue the article’s subject more thoroughly have to look elsewhere. In the old days, all that editors could do to help in such quests was to offer a list of recommended readings-better than nothing, but still a bit of a chore for the searchers, and with gratification well deferred. They’d have to hunt down the leads themselves, possibly consulting numerous libraries or bookstores, and the more obscure sources might be virtually unobtainable.

With the World Wide Web, such followup to other sources of information should be as easy as the click of a mouse. Problem is, although many magazines have elaborate Web sites, they are of limited value for the intellectually curious reader who wants to go further and deeper on the theme of the article. Most of these links, as Bob Dole might have said last fall, “just don’t do it.”

Some magazines put many of their articles online but with few links, so readers are basically perusing a full-length article, just as in print, but at the discomfort of their computers. Occasionally, articles do include numerous links, but they are usually peppered throughout the text, making a hard-to-read format even harder.

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In addition, such links pose several inherent problems. Each is represented by only a highlighted word or a short phrase so it doesn’t interrupt the text. But that means what it serves up will essentially be a surprise to the reader. And many of these in-text links are not so much explorations of the subject at hand but footnotes or asides, with source and context of the material often unidentified. In fact, these links are often off the subject altogether. If the text reads, for example, that Loretta Castorini of Caltech or General Motors or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said such-and-such about automotive air pollution, the link is to the organization’s home page, which will glowingly tell you about the institute’s course offerings, or the company’s products, or the agency’s diverse programs, but not, without a fair amount of effort and luck on your part, about the work and views referred to in the article.

Such pseudoconnections do exactly what the Web shouldn’t do: take searchers away from rather than toward the information they seek. But that doesn’t happen at Technology Review’s Web site. Thanks largely to the tireless efforts of director of marketing and circulation Martha Connors and senior editor Faith Hruby, the links to TR articles provide readers with detailed information on the actual subject of an article, not loosely related fragments or unrelated diversions.

Occasionally, we too will place a link in the article’s text-when the absolutely right word is there, and when readers may be ready for a sidetrip-but we prefer to present our links all at once on an attached Web page. There we can describe each link-what it offers, who wrote it, where it has been published-so that searchers have some idea where they might be going. And readers can scan the whole set in order to make the best selections, confident that a link from Ms. Castorini will take them right to her particular material on automotive air pollution and not to her organization’s home page-from which a circuitous, perhaps fruitless, cybersearch might ensue.

We develop Web links from our latest issue after it has been sent to the printer, so I cannot cite examples from the magazine you now hold in your hands. Consider, however, a few of the links from the previous (November/December) issue. Readers inspired by Robert Zubrin’s “Mars on a Shoestring” can connect directly to the author’s organization, Mars Direct, to tap into a wide variety of documents and images detailing his proposed mission, and from there to other organizations founded by Mars aficionados. Readers can pursue “Robots on All Twos” with links to the project’s chief researcher, his Leg Laboratory at MIT, and connections to similar work elsewhere-for example, a treatise on robotic leg design from the Microprocessor-Controlled Autonomous Modular Walking-Vehicle Project at the University of Waterloo. And links from “Houses of Straw” can provide you with everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask about this ubiquitous but still exotic construction material. “If I wanted to build a strawbale house, all that I’d need is on the Web,” says Hruby. “And we have linked to a rich array of what’s available.”

Similarly, by delving into TR’s archive of past issues, readers can go straight to expertise “down under” on sophisticated videoconferencing systems that connect remote aborigine communities in rural Australia (April 1996); learn more about, and even join, innovative “waste exchanges” that turn otherwise polluting materials into commodities (August/September); and follow up on an interview with World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee by linking to a formidable collection of his writings (July).

Our commitment to supplying meaty, in-the-spirit-of-the-Web, and otherwise-hard-to-find links not only serves readers wishing to go further and deeper but also reflects the magazine’s tradition of presenting high-quality information and diverse ideas. Of course, the motivation for all this “added value,” as Connors puts it, is not entirely altruistic. “If people know that Technology Review will be a resource, we’ll become a ‘bookmark’ for them, and they’ll return again and again.”

As proof that our approach is working, the Point Survey, a service that reviews Web sites, has named Technology Review to its much-coveted “top 5 percent of all sites on the Internet”-the result of our high numerical ratings on the survey’s three criteria of content, presentation, and quality of user experience. “If scores could talk,” says Point’s literature, TR’s would “sound like the singing of Caruso.”

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