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III. Internet Alley: Online Media Start-Ups Flicker; Old Media Off-Shoots Hold Steady

The Republican convention was an opportunity to show off the capacities of the Internet.

Given the pre-convention news coverage, the event presented an opportunity for media start-ups to make names for themselves in front of an expanded audience for political information. Internet Alley consisted of 35-40 booths in one-third of the four tent "pavilions" for the non-television press adjacent to the First Union Center. (The TV networks had their own tents and trailers, and some established media organizations placed their Net personnel with the rest of their team, so the one-twelfth of the space estimate understates the presence.) One estimate of the media Net presence put the population at 100 Web sites and 1,000 people.4 The Alley was like the exhibit section at any convention except that the stalls featured a different type of transaction. People stopped by not to buy souvenirs, but to furnish information in exchange for personal publicity.

The Republican Party itself had a booth on Internet Alley, and Republican officials streamed by for interviews. The Party had plenty of competition as a hub for news and activism. Several dot-com political portals vied to establish themselves as "the one-stop" broker for information and action. The home page of www.grassroots.com illustrates how these functions can interact. The left side was entitled "In the News," and the right side encouraged visitors to "Take Action."

The new media companies needed a bounce from this convention even more than the Republican Party or the nominees. Because there was no major breaking news story, the online communicators did not have a peg on which to hang their hats. Still, their coverage of the convention merits critical review. We looked at twenty media sites and focussed our analysis on three areas: information, dialogue and interactivity.5

  1. INFORMATION: The Internet can accommodate almost infinite quantities of information from diverse sources. It enables both providers and users to draw boundaries to make that information intelligible. Material can be archived. What gets posted to the Internet can stay there at minuscule cost and can be downloaded at the user's convenience.
  2. DIALOGUE: The Internet can host a variety of information exchanges, from informal chat to moderated discussions, from many to one and one to many, in text and audio, and eventually, in video. Political relationships can be made and broken during such exchanges.
  3. INTERACTION: The Internet can incorporate entertainment into the educational value of political information. Online games such as trivia competitions, puzzle-solving and role-playing can be staged in layers of difficulty.

Information

Table 1: Links to Political Web Sites from Media Web Sites
(GOP Convention Week 2000)
Web Site RNC DNC Alternative*
ABCNews.com      
AOL.com      
CBS.com      
CNN.com      
CSPAN.com      
FoxNews.com      
GOP.com Y    
Grassroots.com      
LATimes.com Y    
MSNBC.com      
NYTimes.com Y    
PBS.com      
Philly.com Y   Y
Pseudo.com      
Speakout.com Y    
USAToday.com Y Y  
Voter.com      
WashingtonPost.com Y    
Yahoo.com Y   Y
Total 8 1 2
*Alternative political convention web sites are defined as either ShadowConventions.com or R2Kphilly.org.

An important potential of the Internet as a democratic medium is to provide multiple perspectives on political controversy. Much of politics is about the struggle to interpret the world for others. In a democracy, the people should be able to choose among a variety of interpretive frames. We examined Web sites to see whether they provided multiple perspectives on the convention by linking to the Republican party, the Democratic party, and either the Shadow convention or the Unity (protest) movement.

We were disappointed to find that the Internet news media rarely provided direct access to political parties or to other activist sites. USAToday.com was the only one of 19 media sites we examined to link to the Web sites of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Only 8 linked to the Republican party. Only 2 (Philly.com and Yahoo.com) linked to alternative politics sites. These omissions do not make best use of the Internet. Even though links cost nothing and can be framed so that the host site retains the visitor's eye, the online media generally chose not to provide direct access to political viewpoints. (See Table 1)

It could be argued that the use of hotlinks on news media Web sites raises a question of journalistic ethics. If a news site has partisan links, and, more importantly, sponsored content, it must clearly identify the relationships between the organizations. Both Speakout.com and Voter.com made it reasonably easy to distinguish between editorial and paid content. But their relationships to the parties remained obscure.6

Table 2: Media Web Site Archives of GOP Convention
Web Site Edited Unedited
ABCNews.com text/video text/video
AOL.com no no
CBS.com video video
CNN.com text/video text/video
CSPAN.com video video
FoxNews.com no text
GOP.com text text/video
Grassroots.com no no
LATimes.com text/video text/video
MSNBC.com no no
NYTimes.com text/video text/video
PBS.com text/video text/video
Philly.com text/video text/video
Pseudo.com no no
Speakout.com no text
USAToday.com text/video text/video
Voter.com text text/video*
WashingtonPost.com text/video text/video
Yahoo.com no video
*Video links to CNN website

The online media displayed some promising viewing and archiving capacities. (See Table 2) C-Span (in partnership with Yahoo) offered online viewers the chance to choose among several camera angles, including one on the C-Span production unit so that they could see the process of television selection at work. Unfortunately, the actual video was dark, tiny, and hard to decipher. C-Span also incorporated a potentially powerful public resource the C-Span/Virage search engine. Virage permits users to find moments of a speech in archived video. During the convention, Virage worked only imperfectly. For example, it was not possible to find what Colin Powell said about affirmative action the day after his speech. It did succeed in cataloguing six references to the Internet by convention speakers; however, only George W. Bush's acceptance speech was cued to the section where the keyword was uttered.

Voter.com offered a variety of well-known Beltway talent, from columns by Elizabeth Drew and Martin Nolan, to nightly tracking polls by the bipartisan "Battleground" team of Washington, D.C. survey research firms, released the next morning in graphic and news form. It had one of the best collections of content from other sites. Voter.com also established a CyberChat area at PoliticalFest (a political trade show held in conjunction with the Republican convention). It also put up kiosks throughout the city at likely points of conventioneer traffic. But for all its efforts, Voter.com did not pull in much traffic during the convention week.

Dialogue

Two online media companies AOL and Pseudo.com purchased skyboxes in the convention arena and received maximum exposure. This looked like a smart public relations move. It was especially well worth the estimated $20,000-50,000 price for Pseudo.com to be seen in the same television shot with the Internet giant, AmericaOnline.

AOL non-members could view the nightly "pre-game show" Web-cast, the streaming video of the convention, and poll results. Members could enter the chat rooms and participate in surveys. These polls were meant to spark conversation and elicit reactions from guests. Members could choose among four topic questions to be posed to a guest, or could rate the speech they just saw and heard.

Pseudo.com allowed visitors to choose a camera angle, (with 360-degree swivability), an audio track (which did not have to correspond to the video), or participate in chat, moderated or provoked by an online moderator known as an "E-J".7 The result was bewildering.

The New York Times innovation was more straightforward. The Times used the convention to publicize "Abuzz," an "interactive knowledge network" launched in January, 2000. When a visitor posts a question, Abuzz routes it to people already on the network according to their user profiles. One question posed within the "National News Circle" (3,423 members) ran: "How can someone [Colin Powell] who has benefited his whole life from anti-discrimination legislation, none of which has flowed from the Republican party, stand up with a straight face and support that bunch of bubble-heads?" One reasonable answer was: he shares the same social philosophy and work ethic. This kind of exchange shows promise.

Interactivity

Seven of the media sites we examined included a game. CNN's "Interactives" section sported a "Virtual Convention" which promised players the chance to "learn what it's like to be a delegate, reporter, VIP, or protester." While this was a clever idea, the execution left something to be desired the opportunity consisted solely of reading CNN feature stories. MSNBC's "Virtual Campaign Manager" taught the simple, but essential, lesson that a presidential election is, in fact, 51 contests. Visitors awarded Bush or Gore the electoral votes for each state in order to win the election.

A better job of encouraging visitors to role-play, although not in a game format, was found at the Los Angeles Times Web site. Its "Diary of a Delegate" section was an excellent example of online journalism's capacity to incorporate primary source material into its offerings. Barbara Russell provided refreshing daily video clips of the convention from her perspective as a New Hampshire delegate. Visitors to the LA Times site could send e-mail to Ms. Russell throughout the convention.

At www.phillyimc.org, the Independent Media Center gave space to anyone who wanted to contribute an article, photo, or clip. Visitors could also join the "Editorial Collective," which rated the contributions and thereby affected the placement of the contribution. A video by "KK, philadelphia radical surrealist front," under a minute in length, showed a Philadelphia policeman confiscating a soccer ball from the middle of a downtown intersection. It was captioned as "stealing" from an "anarchist." The title might have been accurate, but that was impossible to determine, even if one joined the editorial collective.

Several sites conducted online surveys during the convention. Speakout.com offered an Instant Response Meter, or what might also be called a digital dial poll. Site visitors were invited to take part in a real-time evaluation of major convention speeches, and rate the appeal of what they were hearing and seeing on a scale of 0-100. Results were posted the next morning. These graphs and tables looked scientific, but these polls are about as representative as calls to 900 numbers.

The sponsors were still experimenting with the format of the Instant Response Poll during the convention. On Monday, the results were doubly compressed: all the response moments in all of the speeches were lumped together, and all of the speeches in the evening were lumped together. Aggregating the responses cast doubt on the reliability of the findings, such as "Messages aimed at female voters appear to have hit their target." On Tuesday, the poll results were unpacked into nice graphics, which however were not very well labeled. On Wednesday, the system crashed. But it was back up on Thursday, with the added feature that transcripts of the entire speech could be viewed with their corresponding response indicators. The instant response poll experiments suggest that in the future, Web visitors will be able to replay a video clip, and read the text, while scanning the poll results. That would be a great addition to public knowledge, provided there was a representative sample.

The Electorate: Cyber-Citizens? >>


4. Martin Miller, "Web Sites See Convention Bonanza," Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2000.
5. Given the constraints of time and space, we only sampled the most prominent free sites. We did not examine the Web sites of the Wall Street Journal, National Journal, or others which normally charge access fees. We also did not evaluate commentary, feature-writing, and other media forms which do not lend themselves to quantitative and formal analysis.
6. Rebecca Fairley Raney, "Two New Web Sites Cover Political Races," The New York Times, July 17, 2000.
7. Pseudo.com requires users to surrender an e-mail address in order to participate.


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