NS Internet column
Written 22 September 1999 for the New Statesman
The Newsmap looks familiar: there is an irregularly shaped island, mostly green, with little white hills dotted all over it. But it represents nowhere on earth, though I suppose that if it ever got large and comprehensive enough it would represent everywhere. Instead, it is a way of portraying the news of the day, so that clusters of similar stories form peaks. If you roll a mouse over them, a menu pops up, showing the key words in each story, and then you can choose the full text.
It's a fascinating idea, even if all it seems to do is measure the frequency of words in stories and group those that seem to share significant words. This is the same method as used by the earliest and most primitive search engines, but it probably works better with news stories than with web pages. There is far less variety among news stories; there is no hidden text specially placed there to mislead a search engine; and they are also all to some extent designed to bring their most important terms to the front. If the subject of a news story does not appear in the first sentence it is badly written.
The site is certainly thought-provoking, but it has for the moment two serious drawbacks. The first is essential, and will soon be irrelevant. It needs a fast connection, and a powerful computer at the users end. It relies on Java and, I think, on Microsoft's proprietary ActiveX programs. Both of these I usually turn off, because Java is slow and ActiveX unsafe. So you need to be using one of the latest and largest versions of Internet Explorer to get the full benefit of the site. But it is the first I have ever found that makes all the fancy widgets worth turning on. The way in which information appears in little boxes at the end of a mouse as you hover over the hillocks of significance is genuinely impressive. Each hillock is made of individual dots, and each dot is one story, which will appear in summary if you let the mouse cursor hover over it for a few minutes.
The second drawback, though, goes deeper. A site like this is only as good as its input. The news that this one maps is very tightly focussed on American interests and seems to carry only the news services of Fox television and a limited Reuter feed. So, for example, when you type in "Sweden" as a search term, nothing happens. It does not exist in this world. This could obviously be overcome with a broader-based feed — I'd love to see the BBC world service try an experiment like this. But it does highlight the arbitrary basis of news. In the last analysis, a site like this cannot tell you what is really important or significant, only what a consensus of sub-editors have decided will interest their particular readerships.
Even if it tells us nothing we did not already in some sense know, a good map can make it all very much more obvious. There are two search engines I can think of that make a serious attempt to prioritise information automatically: Google, which does so by measuring how often a web page has been linked to by others, and Northern Light, which breaks its search results up into folders that seem to have subjects in common. They are certainly the two I use most often what I want to find something more than the address of a site I know already exists.
Neither does so with anything like the flash and frills of the Newsmap. Northern Light uses little icons of folders, and Google has a kind of bar chart to show how highly valued a web site is by other site owners; and at the moment these convey nearly as much information as the fancy maps do in a quarter of the time. But if bandwidth and computing power were unlimited resources, as they should become in the next couple of years, a map would be clearly better than a display of folders. If the newsmap confined itself to presenting only the information and the sources which the operators thought good for you, it would be no more than a gimmick. But when you can choose your questions and the news sources it will interrogate map, I think it might become one of the most useful and powerful tools on the Internet.
Have a look, anyway: the newsmap is at www.newsmap.com