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news that's fit to print?
msn and the age of information
by sarah ficke (@DameMystery)
4.7.03
tech


Welcome to the Internet; the newest news medium. The information we used to get from the paper in the morning and the TV at night we can now get every time we check e-mail. Ads, headlines, helpful hints: we are bombarded by all of these things as soon as we touch the web.

For instance, people like me who use Hotmail or Yahoo mail, spend a lot of time looking at the front pages of MSN and Yahoo. Taking advantage of their captive audience, these pages run news, ads, and reference links relating to any and all subjects. Like a newspaper, or cheap supermarket check-out lane rag, they splash catchy headlines to suck you into clicking on their links instead of going straight to your e-mail. These new front pages have more power than the ordinary newspaper to inform us, sheerly through overexposure. But what information are they feeding us? What is behind those catchy headlines?

It's all a game, baby. Let's break it down.

A look at MSN.com: afternoon of 4/4/03

Like a traditional newspaper, one thing is true: placement is everything. Just like you don't want to be relegated to the inside of the newspaper or bottom margin of a magazine cover, you don't want your story to be stuck at the bottom of a web page. For those of us who keep our browser windows at half-size, that bottom half of the page might as well not exist. For that reason, I'm just going to focus on the top section - their "front page".

When you look at a page what matters is what you see first, right? That's why HEADLINES were invented. What do I see first? The eye-catching pink, yellow, blue, and green combination of the J.C. Penny 101st anniversary sale ad in the top left corner. The words "it's all inside" start their jingle running through my head. Chalk one up to marketing.

I rip my eyes away from the Penny's ad and look for the next biggest headline. Found it! It's also in the top left corner: "10 Worst States for Taxes" along with a graphic of the US map colored with a $1 bill (pictures are also good attention-getters). Usually the war has this corner, but the tax deadline is coming up, and they must have decided a swift reminder was in order. Underneath the graphic, it promises to also tell me the 10 best states, and where to live to have cheaper taxes.

This brings up something I've noticed in my dealings with MSN, and that is that they love lists. I suspect they promote lists to avoid their writers from having to bend their minds around the concept of continuity for more than one paragraph. I find it a little infuriating, though. For every real, full-length article on this page are 2 bullet-pointed "top tens" or "top fives"; easy to read but also somehow insulting. As though my attention span cannot process two paragraphs at once.

In the bottom right corner, to balance out the U.S. map graphic and taxes list, there is a blurry picture of Saddam Hussein. The headline dramatically asks "Is Saddam Alive?" which is the same question they've been asking since the start of the war with the intense bombing of his palace. This signals to me that nothing new has happened in the war since yesterday, so I don't bother to read the article.

Today On MSN
Here we have three items on Iraq, and one titled "5 ways to beat stress". Tip #1 in my book is to not read the three articles above it about the war. In reality, the article isn't about reducing stress, it's about reducing stress so you can eat less! Teamed up with the e-diet ad that is always flashing above my e-mail inbox, it's enough to drive me to distraction and Hershey's Kisses.

Your Life
"Why grooms toss garters" is the headline. The actual title of this opus is "14 Things you can learn at a Wedding" and it's full of fun little trivia facts about marriage traditions. According to the article, women traditionally stand to the left of the man in Christian ceremonies so that in the old days when some dastardly thug/romantic hero came to steal your bride, you could whip your sword out easily and fend him off. Of course, it is my understanding that the right-handed man wears his sword on his left hip, so the bride is pretty fucked either way.

"What car can you afford?" This leads you into MSN's finance section. The most interesting thing about this page is the "Payment Calculator" box that slides up and down the page as you scroll. Clever, that. Other than that, it is a lot of links with no real article attached.

In this section there is also an ad for MSN 8. But they don't call it an ad because this is their page and to them it is information. This is only one of many blatant examples of the blurred line between disinterested information and advertisement that is all over this page.

The last corner (top right) says...

Friday Fun
Excellent! I could use some fun.

Item 1: I can play Rumblecube for free. What's Rumblecube? Hmmm... a funky version of Tetris. And they also have Mahjong Tiles! Better known (in my family) as Shanghai. You know, I haven't played that game in years...

20 minutes later

That is why I'm not allowed to play games at work.

Item 2 on the "fun" list: "5 ways to amuse a baby". Right. The perky, fuzzy, peachy-orange color of this page is doing its best to force me into a happy place as it informs me that babies like to play peek-a-boo. For the 3 parents out there that didn't know that already.

Item 3: A plug for MSN's movie site. Although they feature Colin Farrell in the link, I get caught on "What a Girl Wants", a teen movie about a "street-smart" (read: hip but not raised anywhere near the streets) girl with "a firm sense of her own personal style" (read: dresses like any cover girl of Seventeen magazine, in this case in an ugly crop-top tank with a crappy appliqué of the American Flag) who goes to London to fit herself into her stuffy, titled, British father's life (played, regrettably, by Colin Firth who should know better.)

The most interesting part of the blurb is not the plot of the movie, but the factoid that "What a Girl Wants was originally produced under the title American Girl, and for a time was to be released as London Calling." Showing that they gave up two marginally more a) relevant and b) cool titles to go with the Christina Aguilera pap that fits their demographic and gives them a title song that can be played on the dance floor, even if it is a little passé at this point.

Item 4: "Think these foods are healthy? Think again." Wait, that's fun? While I know many women on diets, none of them, none would classify it as fun. The piece itself is mainly about calorie counting. And despite what they tell me, my fat-filled McVities chocolate biscuits are twice as much fun as this "Friday Fun" fact.

And there it is; all the news that's fit to print. And it makes me wonder. How many people actually need or want to be told that olive oil has calories? That the war is at the same point it was yesterday or 10 minutes ago? That babies like to play peek-a-boo and "this little piggy"?

Is it news or just junk mail and glossy ads? How can you tell where the line is drawn?

Welcome to the Internet.


ABOUT SARAH FICKE

Sarah Ficke will make sport for you, and laugh at you in her turn. She has channeled her obsession for books into a career as an English professor.

more about sarah ficke

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COMMENTS

michelle von euw
4.7.03 @ 3:55p

Oh, the dreaded MSN homepage! It often has misleading links (I once followed "See the most popular engagement rings for 2003" because I'm nosy, and all I got were pages and pages on how to buy a diamond, which I definitely didn't need) or outdated ones -- every so often, they include a link to a 2001 "best cities to live" article as if it's breaking news.

erik myers
4.7.03 @ 4:01p

Of course, the qualified in all this should be the MS. Microsoft's a bunch of bastards.

heather millen
4.7.03 @ 4:19p

Blame Bill Gates.

I agree, that page blows. And they constantly run the same crap over and over. If I don't know how to "tell if he's the one" yet, I never will. Besides, did they highjack that crap from YM or whats?!

[edited]

erik myers
4.7.03 @ 4:24p

YM magazine? Oh holy hell.. the very thought of MSN stealing from YM -- it's amazing! It's fabulous! Can you imagine the inner dialogue? "We need a story that will appeal to our wide user base... but.. what to -- I know! My daughter reads YM!"

That's brilliant!

sarah ficke
4.7.03 @ 4:46p

Not far from the truth, either. But to keep things balanced, they also steal from People and Good Housekeeping.

eloise young
4.8.03 @ 8:20p

My work email is Netscape Messenger (yes, pretty weird - and the version is so old it still gives you your first email from Marc Andresen welcoming you...). One of the first things I wanted to do was change the homepage it shows in the preview pane. Which has a whole bunch of not-relevant, not-chosen-by-me, graphical stuff, newsbits and ads in it. You can't change it at all. Not even to some company-approved internal information page or logo. How useless is that?

robert melos
4.8.03 @ 9:44p

Funny. Brilliant! Sarah, I just surfed in from MSN, and couldn't stop laughing. This was so on target it's frightening.

"14 Things you can learn at a Wedding" is hysterical. I did once learn not to drink everyone else's champagne while they are on the dance floor, and never tell the bride you "had" her husband before she did. Especially if you're me.

tracey kelley
4.9.03 @ 11:22a

"Of course, it is my understanding that the right-handed man wears his sword on his left hip, so the bride is pretty fucked either way."

DA HA HA!

If it can be told, it can be sold. That's how the world works these days.


sarah ficke
4.10.03 @ 11:20a

That's true.

The internet is a marvelous tool in some ways, but it also undermines itself. For example, it can relay news much faster than a paper or tv (unless you have a constant live feed). But, because they put items up as soon as they get them, a lot more false/unverified crap gets through. You see the same thing on the tv with the embedded reporters. Sure, we get a play-by-play, but we also get a lot of "I don't know what just happened, but it might have been this" which isn't very informative.

erik myers
4.23.03 @ 2:22p

Lemme tell you what I'm bitter about right now: MSN is buying everything.

I don't want to use MSN, and now that means no more Mapblast and no more ESPN.com.

What the hell is the 'net coming to?

russ carr
4.23.03 @ 2:32p

Microsoft hasn't bought SportingNews.com yet, Erik.

Of course, Microsoft's co-founder did.

erik myers
4.23.03 @ 2:37p

Bah. Why can't they stick to their own industries?



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