In the past few months, this column has addressed the trend of “portals,” those jump-station sites where you’re supposed to begin your journey onto the Web. Although Wired.com hasn’t officially become a portal, it is where I often begin my Web sessions. I go to read Wired’s superior tech features, but there’s another reason: At the bottom of their top page they feature pointers to interesting stories at other tech news sites. Since I like Wired’s content there’s no reason why I shouldn’t know its perspective on other sites
This perk is low-key yet radical. Imagine the print edition of The Japan Times sticking in page-one blurbs urging readers to check out this week’s lifestyle feature in the Asahi Evening News or the media page at the Daily Mainichi. Hard to visualize, isn’t it?
They say information wants to be free, but many Web sites want to make it exclusive, and they bundle it up in synergistic mergers. The bottom line is portals want to keep eyeballs within their domain, and if they can’t, they at least want to make sure that they send eyeballs to a partner, not a competitor.
Wired’s exterior links dovetail well with editor Kevin Kelly’s theories about the new economy. They’re good for the Web in general. It’s also a good business policy. It’s been said that “old media” will succeed on the Web because they’re respected filters of information. However, few news providers have taken the leap of faith that allows them to refer users to quality writing on other sites.
Portals and news directories are taking a step in the right direction by encouraging users to filter the information themselves by “personalizing” their portal interfaces and choosing the type of information they want. My Yahoo! offers a number of options in terms of the kind of news you’d like to see on your personal portal. Interested in world news headlines, stock quotes and cricket scores? No problem. But if it’s a wide spread of sources you desire, My Yahoo! might seem more like Their Yahoo! due to the limited number of tieups with content providers.
Net-watchers have voiced concerns that corporate-run portals will homogenize the Web, but it would appear that the battle for eyeballs won’t end that easily.
Simple ingenuity prevails at My Look, which proves that a portal need not be a multimillion-dollar venture. My Look asks users to select from a wide range of news/feature sources in six categories. The next step is to choose images to decorate your portal. How about a WebCam pic of downtown New York, or of scantily clad Tiffany? And finally, there’s the overall look — four distinctive design templates from which to choose.
My Look is nifty, but it has one fault common to other portals: It appears to run mostly on scripts that scoop out only the top story headline. Therefore you’ll still have to go to a site’s front door before you can read the story. In the news department, you’re bound to run across similar stories and headlines.
Even while portals offer personalized services they’re still trying to be everything for everybody. A refreshing exception to this marketing trend is Arts & Letters Daily. This New Zealand-based site generates no original copy; its design is very bare bones.
What makes A&LD’s one page of text so special? A sublimely simple idea: 80 or so fresh links to good, deep reads. No news bites or entertainment snacks here. And unlike My Look and other portals, this site has human editors who actually filter the Web’s ever-expanding ocean of text.
Divided into features, book reviews and essays, A&LD draws from a fairly regular stable of online newspapers, columnists and journals. Unlike the headline indexes at most portals, A&LD draws readers in with pithy blurbs. A dozen headlines can die within the blink of an eye, but a provocative tease has a much better chance of surviving. The best part is that you just click on the word “more” after the blurb-tease, and bam, you’re reading the article, no dramatic welcome screen necessary.
Recent offerings include an interview with Noam Chomsky in an Indian magazine, an article in the London Review of Books addressing the question why gay writers can’t write happy endings, a cheeky look at editor Tina Brown’s plans for a new publication (she wants to be like the Web!) and a memoir by Jerzy Kosinski’s “intellectual Lolita.”
AL&D is not for everyone. Which is fine. It’s a sophisticated selection, leaning toward those folks who enjoy The New Yorker or Granta magazine. Not driven by market research and page impressions, it encompasses more varied viewpoints than many content sites. The editors tend to favor established names and academia, but I’ve also been introduced to some Web-only gems such as George Meyers Jr. LitKit.
Despite A&LD’s lack of glitz, its intelligent voice has been heard over the clamoring masses. And that’s reassuring. In addition to praise from other camps, the Guardian tapped A&LD as its top site of ’98. Not bad for a little site that was launched in October of last year and is maintained by only three people.
A&LD has spun its successful formula into SciTech Daily Review. Here I find myself reading features that I normally wouldn’t, visiting sites I never would have considered. Eshewing the latest announcements of research breakthroughs, the features linked here tend to ponder the big picture, as well as question the ethics of contemporary science.
One interesting feature of A&LD sums up its underlying philosophy. Many sites code their pages so that when you click on an exterior link, a new browser window automatically pops up. A&LD doesn’t bother with this safeguard. The editors obviously know that if people are pointed toward the best food for thought, they’ll always come back for more “more.”