NYT online hotlilnks—WTF??

May 15, 2007 at 5:27 am 10 comments

Lately I have been noticing that the NYT online edition makes some very, um, interesting choices when deciding which words in an article need to be hyperlinked to additional information. I guess my question to whatever unpaid intern they’ve assigned to the job is: “What are you smoking, and haven’t you read the latest research on what that does to you???”

When used sparingly and caringly, hyperlinks, the modern day equivalent of what my pappy called “footnotes”, can be our friends. (for more information on footnotes, see footnotes)

Take for instance today’s Science Times article, A Giant Takes on Physics Biggest Questions. My first thought was, “Oh boy, an article about giants! I KNEW they really existed, I just KNEW IT!!”

Guess what? The article’s not even about giants (I know, I was pissed too. I bet the same stupid intern who does the linking also writes the misleading headlines.)

OK, after I get over my disappointment that the article is actually about a bunch of fizzisists 300 feet below the ground trying to re-create the beginning of the universe by smashing tiny little particles into each other, I sit back and say, “hey, cool, I’ve been meaning to brush up on my particle physics. But I’m a little rusty on some of the basic concepts and lingo of advanced theoretical phenomenology. It sure would be helpful if the NYT would footnote — oops, I mean hyperlink — some of the hardcore scientific stuff to definitions, background information, biography, or further material that might enhance my ability to understand any of this.”

The NYT chose to go another route.

In their six page article on theoretical particle physics, this is what they thought was really important to hyperlink:

Page 1: On a page containing such terms as “European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN)”, “Large Hadron Collider”, “electron volts of energy”, “dark matter” and “dimensions of spacetime”, the only word they thought was important to hyperlink out to more information was…wait for it… Earth. Earth? EARTH???? I guess they chose to hyperlink it for those few souls who read the New York Times online that don’t know that Earth, ” is the third planet from the Sun and the only one in the solar system known to harbor life.”

Page 2: Unlinked go search terms as, “trillion-electron volt Tevatron”, “antimatter opposites”, “antiprotons”, “Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory”. And the hotlink goes to… Nobel Prize. And not even to a definition of Nobel Prize, just a link to random articles in the New York Times that mention “Nobel Prize.” Super! (a good a time as any to note that ALL hyperlinks, save perhaps paid ads, on the New York Times website only link back to—you got it— the New York Times website. Super!)

Page 3: Unlinked terms: “Cocktail party physics” (I’m guessing, not so much with the fun), “God particle”, “Higgs Boson”, electroweak force”, “Planck energy”. And the hotlink goes to… Nada. No hotlinks. Skippy the unpaid intern must have been checking his MySpace page for messages.

Page 4: Unlinked terms: “Quantum weirdness”, “supersymmetry”, “photons”, “glunino”. And the hotlink goes to… I guess Skippy’s busy twittering.

Page 5: Unlinked: “primordial fluid”, “quark-gluon plasma”, “Compact Muon Solenoid”. And the link goes to, “radiation.” Which I could actually let slide if it didn’t lead back to a bunch of random NYT articles, mostly about cancer, that mention the word radiation somewhere.

Page 6: Unlinked: “Fermilab Tevatron”, “CDF”, “UA1 and UA2″, “LHCb”. And the link goes to… Uh, nothing.

But wait! I now notice at the bottom of every page a little link that says, “Sphere: Related Blogs & Articles“. Yes! I knew the New York Times was just screwing with me! Now I’m going to click on “Sphere”* and get all sorts of related theoretical particle physics goodness. Here I go… I’m gonna do it… < CLICK! >

The good news: Sphere actually links to material outside of the NYT universe. The bad news: This is what it links to:

I’m speechless. I am without speech.

*Sphere: “Connecting Blogs and News”

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10 Comments

  • 1. Amy J. Kearns, MLIS  |  May 15, 2007 at 8:07 am

    First of all, that was hilarious, thanks for the morning laugh!

    Second, so what is going on? Could there be some automated method someone or something is using to put in the hyperlinks?

    Does the NYT think we the readers are too stupid to even understand those other terms even with a hyperlink?!

    Are they testing us? Is it a joke? A prank?

    Personally, I really love hyperlinks and enjoy them, although they often lead me off into the great void of the Internet never again to find my way back to the original link!

    I think it is imperative that you, yes you, Peter Bromberg, keep a personal eye on this!

    Fantastic post! :-) Classic!

  • 2. mark zip  |  May 15, 2007 at 8:34 am

    Nice.

    Of course it is automatic. There are no interns doing it, surely??

    I would suspect that what is going on is that the Times CMS (content management system) is looking for terms it knows and just sticking the links in. It “knows” these links from tags assigned to other stories. While some tags are assigned by real people, many can be done automatically.

    If they have a properly tweaked system, I bet it learns as it goes. Thus, in a year from now we can expect a similar article to have hyperlinks to the mote interesting items which they left out this time.

    This assumes, of course, that they have not assigned some stupidly small value to the “how many words may i hyperlink in any paragraph” function. It also assumes that they have not assigned a high value to the “just how damn obscure can a term be before i hyperlink to it” function.

    More than a few thinkers have suggested that as the tag cloud expands and hyperlinking is automated, we could end up with almost every noun (and, plausibly, adjective, verb, etc. etc.) in every article with a link attached. Which would make for some ugly reading.

    Mark

    (P.S. – Yes, I thought about hyperliking almost all the terms in this post, but just don’t have time.)

  • 3. Janie L. Hermann  |  May 15, 2007 at 8:50 am

    I love it when Pete gets insomnia and posts in the wee hours of the morning. Makes for the best reading!! Thanks for making me laugh today.

  • 4. Lisa Coats  |  May 15, 2007 at 1:02 pm

    I second Janie’s comments. I’ve been very concerned lately reading any news online, even the Times. Just doesn’t seem like we’re getting the same quality as we used to, but I am loathe to chime into that “everything used to be better” crap. As far as Amy’s concern of following hyperlinks, I have taken to right clicking and opening everything into a ‘new window’ because I hate losing my original spot. Thanks for the know-what-you-mean chuckle, Pete.

  • 5. Sam  |  May 16, 2007 at 11:22 am

    I’ve had the same impression reading the news online – though some sites seem smarter than others about how they build their links. Here’s part of an article from the AP this morning:

    “Army Chief of Staff Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt the threat to Harry and his regiment were too great.”

    The hyperlink was for the words “Army Chief Of Staff” but not for Richard Dannatt. The links led to articles about other army chiefs of staff in other countries.

    Lame.

    Why can’t they be more like the library and give us real information for free, darn it!

  • 6. Amy J. Kearns, MLIS  |  May 16, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    Is that seriously the actual syntax of that sentence?

  • 7. Anonymous  |  May 18, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    Is this just a case of people not placing emphasis on the same types of information? Or of complete lack of knowledge? Maybe the hyperlinks are randomly generated? Whatever the case, I appreciate the poster’s ability to make light. Very rarely do I LOL when reading blog posts. :) Thank you!

  • 8. Peter Bromberg  |  May 18, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    I appreciate everyone’s comments and feedback. So I’m not the only one who’s noticed this strange phenemenon!!

    I’m glad it’s given a few people a laugh too. Janie’s right–my filters are inoperable before 7:00 am :-)

    -pete

  • 9. Fichter  |  May 18, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    Peter – I’m ROFL!

    I love the link to Sphere the so closely related articles that bring up sports: cheerleading, softball, …

    I guess “Giants” was the first noun in the article title so that must be the NY Giants.

    Darlene

  • 10. Tyler Rousseau  |  May 19, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    Is the junk-linking due to the unwritten and unnoticed changes of their double-click-on-the-word-you-don’t-know feature?


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