Tag Archives: Private Eye

Bald-headed Britney and the Lost Art of Linking

I think we’ve missed a big trick with links. You know, those underlined words on a web page that take us somewhere else. They’ve been around a while now, so you’d think we’d have explored them a bit, built a little etiquette around them, what to do, what not to do when you link to something else. After all, by turning a word, an image or a button into a link you’re building a door into another world, sort of.

Links are great, it’s just we don’t know how to use them. When we come across a link like this, we’re automatically thrown into confusion: Where does the link go? Do we click on the link and stop reading what we’re reading? Do we not click on the link and keep reading and make a mental note to come back and click on the link later and yet never do? Do we click on the link and open it in a new window? A new tab? A new computer? And then what happens?

Sure, something similar happens in newspapers. You come to the end of the page, and there’s a link to what we professional journalists call The Jump. As in DRUGS, continued on page 4. CARS, continued on page 5. TEDIUM, continued on page 7. UK satirical magazine Private Eye realised these links’ comic possibilities by adding Continued on page 94 at the bottom of its sillier pieces until the term entered the lexicon itself. Wikipedia explains the phenomenon with its usual literalness (“No issue of Private Eye has ever run to anywhere near 94 pages.”)

But this doesn’t induce the same confusion as online. What are we supposed to do when confronted with a link that doesn’t explain where it’s going? When I insert a link under the words “Wikipedia explains” above, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out I’m linking to the Wikipedia entry on Private Eye. But most of the time that doesn’t happen. Most of the time we have no idea what words are linking to what. Don’t bother clicking on any of those links; I was just trying to make a point. Which is this: Words or phrases with links on that aren’t clear where they’re going would be like marking doors with obscure labels like ’open’ or ‘Ffortescue was here’ or ‘door’. (And don’t get me started on those links that look as if they’re going one place and actually go to another internal page, like the company links in this page at Webware.)

Which is why I like MTV’s website and their coverage of Britney Spears going Rehab AWOL again. OK, so the links don’t go outside the site but to other MTV stories, but I both admire the fact that MTV explains what they’re linking to in the link, and the, er, clarity it throws on Britney’s recent lifestyle deviation.

This time, her family and manager intervened, and announced yesterday that Spears had voluntarily entered rehab (see “Britney Spears Checks Into Rehab”).

Now that’s a link that explains itself. Actually it explains itself so well you don’t really have to click on it. Plus it really bolsters the bald (sorry) assertion that precedes it. You’ve got to hand it to MTV . No silly, teasing but vague headlines for them. These guys probably moonlight at Wikipedia.  Like this one:

After returning from her first trip to rehab, Spears made a shocking public appearance Friday night, debuting her newly shaved head at a tattoo shop in Sherman Oaks, California (see “Britney Spears Shaves Head, Gets Tattoo”).

or my personal favorite (The combination of story and the title of the link would not look out of place in Private Eye itself):

“She is obviously in a lot of pain and needs help immediately,” agreed Doreen Seal, the mother of Jason Alexander, a longtime family friend to whom Spears was briefly married (see “Britney On Her Marriage: Vegas Made Me Do It”).

Maybe it’s just Britney’s story naturally lends itself to links that make sense. But I would wager that it’s more MTV’s excellent linking that leaves us in no doubt of what we’re clicking on. I’m going to take a leaf out of their book and practice safe Link Labeling from now on (see “Loose Wire on Linking: Britney Made Me Do It”)

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Measured vs Spewed: The New Reviewers

(A podcast of this can be downloaded here.)

The walls of elite reviewers come tumbling down, and it’s not pretty. But is it what we want?

I belatedly stumbled upon this piece in The Observer by Rachel Cooke on a new spat between editors, reviewers and blogger reviewers, and not much of it is new. There’s the usual stuff about how bloggers are anonymous (or at least pseudonymous) and the usual tale of how one writer got her spouse to write an anonymous positive review on Amazon (why hasn’t mine done one yet!) to balance against all the negative stuff.

As Tony Hung points out, the piece gets rather elitist by the end, although I have to like her description of Nick Hornby, a great writer and careful reviewer: “[H]is words are measured, rather than spewed, out; because he is a good critic, and an experienced one; and because he can write.” Measured vs spewed is a good way of putting it. It’s also a good way of thinking about the two very different beasts we’re talking about here.

There are two different kinds of reviews, serving two different purposes. The point here is that there are two different kinds of purposes here. If Nick Hornby likes a book, I may well buy it because I like Nick Hornby’s work. Of course, I’ll also enjoy his review as a piece of writing in its own right; chances are he’s put a huge amount of effort into it. It’s all about who writes the review. (And we need to always keep in the back of our mind the tendency, noted down the years in Private Eye, that reviewers in big name newspapers often seem to end up reviewing books by people they know, often rather well. It’s a small world, the literary one.)

If I’m reading about a book on Amazon I’m less picky about who and more about how many, and what. If 233 out of 300 people like a book on Amazon I am going to be more impressed than if 233 out of 300 people hated it. I’ll scan the reviews to see whether there are any common themes among the readers’ bouquets or brickbats. Take Bill Bryon’s latest, for example: Most reviewers loved it, and quite a few fell out of their chair reading it. Take Graeme Hunter, who writes: “Bill has managed yet another work of ‘laugh-out-loud’ ramblings, but this is his first to make me cry at the end.” That tells me that regular readers of Bryson are probably going to like it. But not everyone. One reviewer, J. Lancaster, wrote that while he was a big fan, he found the book “slow and ponderous and lacks the wit, insight and observation of, well, all his other books.” That tells me something too: Don’t expect to be dazzled all the way through.

Now note that these reviewers have attached their real names. They’re not anonymous, pseudonymous or fabrications of someone’s imagination or close family. Their writings may not be that literary, but that’s not what I’m looking for in an Amazon review. With Amazon, I’m looking to mine the wisdom of the crowd — the aggregate opinion of a group of people all with the same interest as myself in mind: not wasting our money on a dud book.

Compare what they write to the two snippets of blurb from big name publications on the same Amazon page:

New York Times
‘Outlandishly and improbably entertaining…inevitably [I] would
be reduced to body-racking, tear-inducing, de-couching laughter.’

Literary Review
‘Always witty and sometimes hilarious…wonderfully funny and
touching.’

Useful, but not much more useful than the Amazon reviews.

The bottom line is that reading a review on Amazon is like polling a cross section of other people who’ve read the same book. It’s like being able to walk around a bookshop tapping strangers on the shoulder and asking what they think of the book you have in your hand. Their responses are likely to be as spewed as an Amazon or blog review. But it doesn’t lessen their value. If all you want to know is whether the book is worth reading, you may be better served than some ‘measured’, self-conscious professional review.

This is the difference that the Internet brings us. It’s not either/or, it’s about consumers having more information about what they’re buying, and having a chance to give feedback on what they have bought. That all this is a little unnerving to those writers used to being far removed from the book-buying mob, and the pally/bitchy relationship they have with reviewers should come as no surprise. My advice: get used to it.

PS I spewed this piece out in 27 minutes. (You can tell – Ed)

How to Hold a Book

I did a piece a few weeks back for WSJ.com (subscription only, I’m afraid) and The Wall Street Journal Asia about bookholders. These are devices made to help folk read more easily. As one of my old bosses said: “neanderthal”. But I still love to hold a book and would definitely opt for paper over digital for most reading:

You’re more likely to find them advertised on the back pages of quirky British publications such as Private Eye and The Countryman than in glossy international fashion or gadget mags, but they grapple with one of the thorniest design issues since the invention of the printing press: how to read a book in the bath. Or on the beach. Or in bed. Or at dinner. Call it The Search for the Perfect Book Holder.

The problem is a simple one: Books have long mocked the naysayers who predicted their demise in the face of radio, television, audio books, the Internet, eBooks (books you read on a hand-held device), eReaders (devices you use to read eBooks) or whatever. But books do have one design flaw: You have to hold them open. While this may not sound like too much of a trial, it can be if you’re trying to eat/type/take notes/get an even tan/wash your back/sip cocoa at the same time, or if, for some reason — through repetitive strain injury or arthritis, say — you have a problem gripping things. Perhaps if we didn’t actually have to hold a book up while we read it, at least some of us might have read Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” to the end, and J.K. Rowling would have sold even more copies of her 672-page doorstop “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” if we hadn’t been afraid of dropping it in the bath.

Here are some links to the ones I reviewed. They’re all great, the products of minds both mad and brilliant at the same time. Who would spend so much time and money trying to make a book stand up?

  • PageStay: great for cooks
  • thumbthing: great for small paperbacks
  • The Gimble and Reader Cushion: great name, great in the bath
  • BookGem: Great for standing books up on flat surfaces
  • easy-read Great for standing things up on non-flat surfaces

There are some more I reviewed, or at least heard about, which I may post later.