Journalists who write for the Internet frequently ask: Does politician X get the Net?
They find their answers by looking at candidate Web sites, testing their familiarity with e-mail, and taking their temperature on Net issues, such as e-commerce taxation or censorship.
At Net Election, though, we have an additional question: Does the Net get politics?
As Net Election has documented, there are a large and growing number of Web sites dedicated to American politics, some of which are lively and informative. But let’s say you come to the Internet without knowing precisely where you want to go–the position, we assume, of the average person. How hard is it to find solid political sites?
If you want general news about the 2000 presidential race, the answer is: The Internet excels. Go to the Yahoo home page, for example, and one of the main 14 categories is “Government.” Click on the word “Elections” under that, and you’re two clicks away from a page that contains a slew of info, including breaking news, links to all the major candidates’ sites, C-SPAN’s site, and coverage from Newsweek and the Washington Post.
Curiously, not all the portals we examined make it this easy. At the Disney-owned Go.com, for example, no words such as government, politics, or elections appear on the front page. And even if you click on the ABCNews.com link, it still doesn’t compare to Yahoo’s one-stop-shopping page. That’s also true for Excite and Lycos.
But as you delve more deeply into the issues, the major portals quickly get muddy. Say you want information on Bill Bradley’s proposed overhaul of the health-care system. Will it harm minorities disproportionately because it eliminates Medicaid, as Al Gore has charged? If you enter the words “Bill Bradley and health care” into Yahoo, the engine will actually serve up some relevant sites, including Bradley’s official campaign site and a homemade Bradley on the issues site. On Lycos, you get nothing so informative.
And heaven forbid you make an error. If, like us, you initially forget to enter Bradley’s first name, the first site that comes up on Yahoo is for a company that provides “training, consultation and treatment services for compulsive gambling and related addictions” in Bradley Beach, N.J.
It’s the sort of non sequitur experience that’s all too familiar to Web users. We’re supposed to think: “Well, these are just dumb machines, after all. They can’t really judge linguistic niceties like context.” That’s sort of true, but not entirely. Most search engines don’t actually search the Net every time a user enters words. Rather, they sift through a collection of Web pages that have been examined and approved for use by the individual company’s database. Getting a site approved by a big search engine can take up to six weeks. Not surprisingly, the premium real estate on the page that shows you the search results often goes to those who are willing to pay for it.
Another way of saying this is that much of the Web is not really wired to think the way most political people think–which may be a good thing. There are useful aggregations of political sites available at places like About.com, where you can get guidance on every issue from animal rights to women’s liberation. And there have been some attempts to build “political portals,” such as PoliticsOnline.com. But while such sites do a good job of making recent articles and broad-based resources available, they’ve yet to combine the Net’s strongest attributes–searchability and multiple information sources–with political sophistication. Moreover, typical viewers aren’t apt to stumble upon these sites. Rather, they would need to know the specific Web addresses already.
So while we await the arrival of a truly intelligent political Web agent, we are stuck with Ask Jeeves, which Net insiders consider something of a joke. Ask Jeeves isn’t perfect; in fact, it often exhibits a grasp of reality that falls somewhere between a database and the Magic 8-Ball.
And yet, to our surprise, for certain kinds of political searches Ask Jeeves fared rather well. For example, we asked Jeeves, “Where can I find information about Bill Bradley and Medicaid?” The site immediately returned Bradley’s official site, a site for news about the 2000 presidential race, information about Medicaid, and books about Bradley. Not bad at all.
Of course, there are limits. We asked Jeeves: “Why did Al Gore pay Naomi Wolf so much money for advice which, presumably, he could’ve gotten for free?” Two of the suggested counterquestions were “How much does it cost to use America Online as an Internet Service Provider?” and “What should I know about restaurant wine pricing?”
To be fair to Jeeves, though, we’re not sure anyone has a good answer to that question.