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First Monday

FM reviews


Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui. The hyperlinked society Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui (editors).
The hyperlinked society: Questioning connections in the digital age.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
paper, 328 p., ISBN 978 0 472 05043 7, $US24.95.
University of Michigan Press:



This edited collection is a wide–ranging look at hyperlinking and its various consequences, with the discussion organized through three main subdivisions: Hyperlinks and the Organization of Attention; Hyperlinks and the Business of Media; and, Hyperlinks, the Individual and the Social. As the editors explain, their objective is “… to understand the social meaning of the hyperlink” (p. 5), a lofty task indeed. In their very useful and thorough introduction, they summarize that the first selections of essays concern the ways hyperlinks serve power; the second, executives’ perspectives on how hyperlinks serve business; while the third set of essays focuses on the connections and effects which hyperlinks encourage between and among individuals.

The first essay, James G. Webster’s “Structuring a Marketplace of Attention,” links market conditions of media convergence to issues such as fragmentation of traditional media brought on by the Internet’s capability to spread audiences across many sources. Yet he does not see audience fragmentation as causing a failure of the “center to hold” as long as people actively try to connect the variety of their information. He leaves it to the reader to decide whether audiences have the wisdom to deal with the aggregation of choices and sources hyperlinking offers. Alexander Halavais’ lucid explication of “The Hyperlink as Organizing Principle” enlarges that concept to include hyperlinked networks and their impact, analyzing their changes and concluding they are “… only an intermediary step towards networks that are able to understand and interpret themselves to an increasing degree” (p. 53).

Philip M. Napoli’s “Hyperlinking and the Forces of ‘Massification’” (i.e., the once prevalent view of the Internet as the end of conventional mass media; [p. 57]) argues that hyperlinking causes the Internet to function as traditional media, “… compelling a distribution of audience attention that bears a striking resemblance to the distribution of audience attention in the traditional mass media” (p. 65). Lokman Tsui’s content analysis of hyperlinks in four major online newspaper editions and five political blogs shows conclusively that both link heavily, the latter to a variety of other blogs and popular Web sites. Newspapers were found less likely to link to outside Web sites, possibly because of fear of losing advertising revenue by encouraging visits to other sites.

A study by Hargittai looks at expertise in using links, questioning whether variations in users’ abilities might contribute to social inequality, while Finkelstein rounds out the first section of the book with an examination of Google, its page ranking methodology, and associations with businesses which data mine (and in so doing produce inferences of popularity). The confusion between popularity and authority brought about by these interactions brings about Finkelstein’s caution against banning “… the minority that isn’t profitable” (p. 119).

Business perspectives on hyperlinking form the second section of the text. Nisenholtz’ essay on how links have changed ideas of news at the New York Times acknowledges the contributions of Yahoo’s founders, noting that “… its value was as much in the aggregation and sharing of links as in the distribution of content” (p. 129). In fact, Nisenholtz reports fewer than 60 percent of the Times’ inbound links come from direct user input of the Times’ URL, but rather through Google and other links. The challenge of this, he states, is that “As people increasingly turn to Web. 2.0 mechanisms to find information and to communicate, news organizations must discover tactics to deepen engagement with those users” (p. 135).

Hespos argues that advertisers still much prefer environments where people see and absorb their messages, without interacting with the company. But communicating with customers, he notes, is what the Internet is all about and thus advertising must revise its traditional approaches. He thinks it will be another 12 years before the general advertising world catches up with Web advertising characteristics and leaves behind the old “push the message” mode in favor of customer interaction (p. 144).

Schulman reports on the uneasy connections between advertisers knowing consumer preferences through their Web transactions and consumers’ needs to protect their privacy. Marketing in the current era seeks marketing communities that can be associated with consumer identities. It’s a cautionary development, she avers: “Our desire for connection sets up our media experiences in today’s world as proxies for ‘community,’ providing the depth of experience and interpersonal connections we crave as a result of our fractionalization,” but that very consequence can also be a great boon to marketing (p. 157).

Advertising strategy in today’s hyperlinked era forms the focus of Eric Picard’s fourth essay in this section of the text. He echoes the control hyperlinking gives to people, especially as consumers increasingly realize the capabilities of content delivered over handheld devices such as cell phones. The effect on advertising is already apparent: “On the Internet, content is consumed on the whim of the audience, and all advertising is delivered dynamically. That means the decision about which ad to show to the specific audience member viewing a Web page is made at the very moment that the page is viewed. This model is how all advertising will be bought, sold, and delivered in the future” (p. 161).

“Hyperties,” which function as bridges between computer–mediated links and the physical interaction world of humans, form the focus of Marc Smith’s essay. Social networking sites and mobile communication devices provide modalities for fostering this bridge building, and they are altering the ways we view human interaction. Old media control over audiences is fast disappearing as Web 2.0 and other technology empower people’s communication strategies and abilities. But, in addressing the cautions of others in this volume, he writes “In such a situation, privacy issues are sharpened. The walls have ears and eyes, and others’ eyes and ears are now high–fidelity and archival” (p. 175).

The last section of this book is devoted to the connecting environment among hyperlinks, individuals and society. Weinberger’s essay on the morality of links suggests they represent “… a giant affordance that we may do good or bad with … a potential that we’re actively creating and expanding” (p. 189). But the great positive of links is their evidence that the reality of “the world we share is in fact the entire world, not just one cozy corner of it. The Web’s links make it unavoidable that we care about what matters to others … Links are good,” he concludes (p. 190).

“Linked Geographies” represent Stefaan Verhulst’s contribution to this collection. Ordinary maps showing spatial features can be developed into representations of hyperlinks in mapping the Internet. Traditional maps represented static depictions of spatial arrangements, while hyperlinking represents the ability to map dynamic user activity. Geographic Information Systems software (GIS) has turned map–making from a specialist’s endeavor to something many can do; the resultant maps can reflect the ever changing face of human activity. Privacy, again, is a concern since “Today’s maps offer the potential for virtually unlimited intrusiveness” (p. 201). Google Earth examples offer the author cases in support of his view.

Crampton’s essay extends Verhulst’s concentration on the “democratization of cartography” to particular uses such as Web 2.0 and Web–based mapping, to census data, and to political and community applications and consequences. He asks in this essay, “Can Peasants Map?” (i.e., those not trained in the demands of Web mapping and its software interfaces), concluding that capability may depend on whether underserved and well–served communities are willing to promote effective networking (p. 223).

Lada Adamic’s contribution on the social hyperlink, focusing on social networking and the political blogosphere, argues that “The hyperlink frequently reveals very real underlying communities — and not just those consisting of liberal and conservative bloggers” (p. 237). But in so doing they “… not only help information spread throughout the blogosphere but help it to change and grow, as many individuals are able to use the hyperlink to thread together their evolving collective discussions” (p. 248).

A potential negative of hyperlinks are that they promote so–called “weak ties,” the topic of Markus Prior’s essay. Weak ties are defined simply as those which show evidence of “interpersonal connections that are not particularly intense, close, or emotional,” yet still have as a social utility holding those together who may lack much in common (p. 250). As well, even as weak ties, hyperlinks still have the capability to show people subjects, points of view, and matters they might not otherwise encounter. He doesn’t think hyperlinks will actually change the political environment very much for those focused on entertainment, but that they will afford great potential for “news junkies” willing to assertively learn about what they are linking to, if they are willing to resist “partisan and commercial distortions” (p. 264).

Hindman’s final essay in this text asks “What is the Online Public Sphere Good For?” It hasn’t resulted in “a public sphere where all citizens have a more equal say” (p. 285). But that’s because “the online public sphere … excludes so many citizens. It is bewildering — and darkly humorous — to see white, male bloggers with Ivy League degrees writing about how the Internet is empowering ‘ordinary citizens.’ What they really mean by this is that the Internet is empowering people like themselves” (p. 286).

In all, this is an impressive collection of essays on one dimension of the Internet, hyperlinks, with their countless hidden dimensions and consequences. This book shows strong and effective editorial guidance in its organization and content choices. It is worthwhile reading indeed. — Douglas Kocher, Chair, Department of Communication, Valparaiso University. End of article

Copyright © 2009, First Monday.

Book review of Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui’s The hyperlinked society: Questioning connections in the digital age
by Douglas Kocher.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 7 - 6 July 2009

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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