The newsagent´s syndrome

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
2 May, 2017
Editorial: 93
Fecha de publicación original: 11 noviembre, 1997

While some drink up, others pay up

Let’s swim against the current a little. One of the accepted ways of calculating the success of pages and systems on the WWW is by measuring the number of users that visit it. We’re continually hearing that 30.OOO, 80.000, 150.000 people visited such and such a web page every day. Fledgling digital advertising theory assures us that this data is important because it acts as a means of guiding the investment in this sector on the Internet. The equation is simple: the more visitors there are, the more possibility there is of their seeing a “banner” or of gleaning information about user profiles. Basically this assumption is apparently logical. We are talking about the WWW, a system which allows us to expose ourselves to the public through an electronic medium which enjoys all the inherent features of a publication. By just putting it somewhere in cyberspace internauts are bound to come across it (or it will find them) while they surf (work, have fun or whatever) on their computers. If the system comes with the shock absorbers of “push” techniques or other similar things, the possibilities of them meeting are increased. Well, in my opinion, this way of calculating the impact of a web page still belongs completely to criteria imported from the real world. In other words, relying on calculations based on the newsagent’s “good eye”. In news agencies it is, in effect, the number of copies sold that is important. This information is a crucial factor for advertising agencies, although it is accompanied by a profound ignorance of the real impact of the ad. They know that 100,000 people buy a particular newspaper, but not how many might see this or that ad. The rule of thumb is the law of probabilities: the more people buy the publication, the higher the possibility that they make contact with certain ads. The other piece of “useful” information is the impact that each publication has on the individual reader, in other words, the number of people who read what somebody else has bought. To translate this into the world of TV or radio, it is the supposition that while one watches/listens there are, at the same time, other people who are “submerged” in the program by sharing the same space. If these criteria operate on the Internet, then it even makes sense that Circulation Control Organisations and other similarly necessary audience ratings systems are there to settle disputes between competitors. Even the typical disputes amongst the most powerful media about whether they have been measured with the same criteria as their neighbours or if the peculiarities of their web pages have been taken into account, seem perfectly normal under these circumstances. Just like it happens in the real world. However, these efforts seem all in vain to me. Neither does the Internet operate like a newsagent’s, nor do we, the internauts, have the same objectives on the Net when we search for, consult, process or publish information. The advertising world, amongst other things, will have to take the particular features of the Net into account when they decide on how they are going to invest. If they don’t, they will lose money in vast quantities. Or, at least, those that are guided by the “newsagent’s syndrome”.

In the first place, when someone says they have received so many visits, the time factor is never mentioned. Especially, the ratio of time spent on the page in question as compared to the total time spent navigating. If so and so’s page received a million visitors a day, common sense and our own experience tells us that all those users didn’t connect to the Internet that day just to make that visit. To put it another way, if the time a million users spent on that page represents an average of, let’s say, X minutes per person per day and the average navigation of each person is X multiplied by 1, 2, 3 hours a day, the problem begins to shift to another territory: Where were they and what were they doing the rest of the time? How do we measure their activity when their moments of fame in the great web site have come to an end?

Then there is a second thing. Up until now we have placed a lot of importance on going and seeing things in the web. But this is not what the Internet is all about. Internet is going, seeing, obtaining something and enriching the system. This is because, as we have said on another occasion, while on the telephone network the voice goes in on one side and comes out the other within a system that has no infrastructure for “retention”, in cyberspace the content is the information that is stored in the millions of computers on the Net (not the users’) and are permanently at the disposition of users en masse. The more the information, the more the internauts, the more the information, the greater the use of the system, and the greater its diversity and wealth (the famous question of info-chaos is another thing altogether, but its solution forms part of the question of increased density, not the other way round).

Let’s look at an example (at the risk, always, of oversimplifying). I go to a particular page –a very much visited one– to see what Barcelona’s football team did this week. I get to the sports section, find out the result and I leave. I don’t take anything with me. The system remains unaltered. I use sport as an example, so as not to mention the extraordinary accumulation of redundant information there is on the Net which we have access to, in the vast majority of cases, via extra-cybernautic means. Then, there are the digital initiatives which literally copy the real world formulas to attract people, such as opportunities to enter competitions (become the coach of your own virtual football team, or answer these three questions and we will give you a van piece by piece so that you can build it yourself in your own living room). Logically enough, millions of internauts visit these pages while the offer lasts, but the volume of content in the Net remains relatively stable despite these sudden rises in audience.

Things are very different if the information that we find has some intrinsic value which moves us to appropriate, process, recompose and return it to the system. Because that kind of information has uses that create a chain reaction amongst users who will carry on enriching the Net. In this case we come up against two interesting elements: the advertising value of this information and its scope. If we were able to tag information in some way – something I am quite certain we will be able to do sooner or later — it would be possible to follow its trail through the Net when other users re-use it (technically speaking: feedback). In this way, we can see that the importance of an audience does not lie in the number of visitors to a page, but in the number of times that information has moved on, modified or not, through different pages, e-mails, etc. If this tag was coupled with advertising, we can get some idea of how the scenery changes. Advertising investment will have to be orientated towards the communication that moves around the hot parts of the volcano and not towards that which remains in the stationary amphitheatre. The importance of a particular message will not bear any direct relation to the number of people who visit the page, but instead to the number of times that message has increased the volume of the system — either as a whole or broken up “into little bits”.

On the other hand, if ratings are established on this basis, it will become clear that the importance of webs will not depend on their corporate backing (Walt Disney, Microsoft, Time Warner, The New York Times, El Pais, etc.), but on the range the use of its content has. In this list I, intentionally, don’t include the Wall Street Journal, which has managed to get 150,000 paying subscribers for its exclusive stock market information service. I don’t include it because it is an exact example of what I am talking about. Its information has such use-value that it shakes up the flow of capital whose basic operative territory is virtual space. Thus, the webs that will never be mentioned on important lists of ” the most-visited pages in the whole world”, may, in fact, become “the most enriching on the Internet in the whole world”. because of the quality of the information they offer, the social sector they serve, their structural adhesion to the relationship of the principles of supply and demand of information for specific groups (virtual communities with diverse objectives and the possibility of being able to follow the circulation of their content thoroughly). Viewing the Net from this perspective means, amongst other things, leaving a few myths inherited from the newsagent’s syndrome by the wayside and paying more intention to other phenomena which are much more decisive when we use the Internet.

In conclusion, it seems to me that we have to alter our cultural perspective when we evaluate our behaviour on the Net and take stock of the value of the information we search for and find there. This means, amongst other things, a) creating the tools for working out the value of time spent on the Net and how this time is distributed on different activities, b) the value of the information found from the point of view of its posterior enrichment in the system as a result of the internauts’ own activity, c) the objective detection of this enrichment by means of some kind of tagging device, and d) the scope which this has for increasing the total volume of the system as a measure of its real impact on the audience.

Translation: Bridget King.