The Election: How The Web Blew It

Slow-loading sites, stale info, built-in glitches--the Net's big night was a big bust

Election night and the long morning after should have been the World Wide Web's finest hour. But much of the opportunity created by the the Web's unique ability to make vast amounts of information available on demand was squandered by lack of imagination, the usual technical glitches, and sloppy quality control. Web sites gave political junkies the opportunity to check on the odd House race in Idaho, but didn't add all that much.

I spent election night perched in front of a TV with a computer on my lap. As I flipped from channel to channel, I checked out the Web sites of ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, and, for results of local elections and ballot propositions, the Washington Post. (I quickly abandoned the inferior CBS News site.)

Early on, MSNBC--which served as the Web presence of NBC News--seemed the most promising. Its pages were attractive and well-organized. And if you wanted to track a local election in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., or Grand Rapids, Mich., MSNBC offered links to the Web sites of TV stations in each state. But as the result flooded in and the tension rose, MSNBC's site bogged down. By 10 p.m., pages were taking so long to load that the site was effectively unusable, and for the rest of the night I could get information from MSNBC only sporadically.

SUPERFICIAL COMMENTARY. As the night wore on, ABC became my favorite. The best feature was a U.S. map on their Presidential results page. Hold the cursor over any state, and a little box popped up reporting the latest vote count. Although the feature broke down briefly a few times, it worked well on the whole. The CNN site was a lot like the network: solid but unspectacular. It offered a good map with color-coded Presidential results, but clicking on a state didn't take you to a detailed page. And a feature that offered custom local results only went down the ballot to House races, which wasn't worth the trouble.

In commentary, the Web sites consistently lagged behind the networks, and the content was superficial and often confusing. At one point, for example, a CNN headline read "Ensign picks up fourth open seat for Democrats," but the story began, correctly: "Republican John Ensign...defeated Democrat Ed Bernstein in Nevada." An MSNBC headline read "Networks retract Florida projection," but for about half an hour, clicking on it produced a story that read "Al Gore won three critical battle ground states Tuesday, taking Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania..."

The Florida retraction was a good example of the Web's failure to add much value. The retraction of the Florida call late in the evening was one of the most confusing events of a baffling night. On the air, the networks left the odd--and erroneous--impression that they had been bullied into the change by the Bush campaign, and none of their Web sites clarified the matter. Only the Washington Post came up with a story explaining that there were serious problems with exit polls.

Some of the Web's election night problems are inherent in the technology. Browser pages are not automatically updated when the information on the Web site changes. To see the latest information, you had to follow ABC's advice and "continuously reload this page." To make matters worse, using the back button or a bookmark to return to a page viewed before will almost always bring up an old copy from memory, not a fresh version from the site.

One of the advantages of Web publishing is that mistakes can be corrected immediately, but MSNBC still managed a version of "Dewey Defeats Truman." I went to bed about 1 a.m. and when I checked back at 6 a.m., MSNBC's site declared: "Bush Apparent Winner." The MSNBC Web crew did a story after all the networks blew their Florida calls for the second time, then called it a night. The story was posted at 3:45 a.m., just about the time that everyone else retracted the Florida call. The declaration of Bush's could still be right, but the MSNBC story was an embarrassing end to a night when the Web fell well short of its promise.

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