May 02, 2006

Hopeless black holes at the New York Times

I sympathize with Kenneth Chang. According to his 5/2/2006 NYT story "Black Holes Collide, and Gravity Quivers":

Einstein's theory of general relativity changed the idea of gravity from a simple force dragging apples from a tree to a puzzle of geometry. Imagine a rubber sheet pulled taut horizontally and then tossing a bowling ball and a tennis ball onto it. The heavier bowling ball sinks deeper, and the tennis ball will move toward the bowling ball not because of a direct attraction between the two, but because the tennis ball rolls into the depression around the bowling ball.

If you follow the hyperlink that the Times helpfully provide for the word depression, you'll learn that

Depression, a mental illness, is marked by feelings of extreme sadness, hopelessness, and inadequacy. Individuals often experience disturbed sleep and weight change. Most people who commit suicide suffer from depression.

Such are the fruits of automatic word-based hyperlinking. If I wrote for a publication that tried to be hip by automatically sprinkling irrelevant hyperlinks here and there in my text, I'd be... well, looking on the bright side, I guess I'd be amused.

My sense of humor might be tested, though, if they started selling those word-based hyperlinks, the way the [Beirut] Daily Star does. When Rami G. Khouri wrote his (serious and interesting) 4/29/2006 opinion piece "The meaning of a simple passport renewal", I doubt that he anticipated the effect on readers of the prominent mouse-over pop-ups on words like "personal" and "affairs":

The single most widespread cause of personal annoyance and political resentment by ordinary citizens throughout the Arab world is this: the sense that your Average Ahmad citizen is not treated fairly or decently by his own government and society, but rather suffers the ignominy of corruption, abuse of power, favoritism, disdain, humiliation, and institutionalized discrimination in the pursuit of the most routine and uncomplicated affairs, like renewing a passport.

"Personal", of course, flashes an on-line personals service, while "affairs" invites the reader to "Meet Local Women Seeking Affairs" via an agency that "specializes in meeting the distinct needs of attached and married adults with unmet needs who wish to meet attached people".

In effect, Mr. Khouri's article has been defaced by spam graffiti, courtesy of his own employer's advertising department.

It's hard for me to believe that an American newspaper would do such a thing. Then again, in light of the recent shareholders' attack on the 47% decline in New York Times Company's share price, I can't help but note that the Gray Lady is failing to tap a significant source of revenue. The company (like the reader) gets nothing from the irrelevant hyperlink on depression in Chang's article -- I'm sure there are some mail-order pharmaceutical companies who'd pay good money for that link.

More seriously, you could do this sort of thing in a tasteful and effective way. You could start with some simple term-tagging and sense-disambiguation technology, to match the ads to the actual content of the articles, rather than using stupid keyword matching. You could add some statistical social-network technology to connect ads to an individual's likely needs and interests, as amazon and others have done. And you could imitate Google's sedate, unobtrusive and peripheral placement of the ads, rather than defacing the article text with obnoxious mouseovers, popups and other cyber-graffiti.

A cynical view of advertising history suggests that the stupidest and most obnoxious outcomes are also the most likely ones. But maybe this time will be different.

Added by GKP: before 11 a.m., the Times had caught that link on "depression" and had removed it. So they're on top of things. Perhaps they read Language Log over at the Gray Lady.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 2, 2006 08:38 AM