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Created 2/18/1998
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The Unbearable Heaviness of Slate

J. Bradford DeLong
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net

Over the past six months I have noticed that I am spending a lot more time surfing Salon <http://www.salon1999.com> than surfing Slate <http://www.slate.com>.

This fills me with alarm, and even some horror. In my twenties Slate's editor Michael Kinsley--then editor of The New Republic--was my hero. Now I am a grown-up economist in my late thirties, but Michael Kinsley is still my hero. And of the economists whom Slate has snagged as contributors two--Paul Krugman and Herbert Stein--are among the very best in the business. Kinsley and his deputy, Jack Shafer, have gathered a very talented team of contributors. I envy those who write for Slate. (I have in fact written for Slate twice. I am eager to do so again: send e-mail to delong@econ.berkeley.edu.)

By contrast Salon is populated by yammerheads. Camille Paglia. David Horowitz. Enough said. Some of its columnists are overly voyeuristic. Some are quite good--I have increasing respect for Jonathan Broder, Scott Rosenberg, Andrew Leonard, and several others.

But I always saw myself as a Slate rather than a Salon kind of guy. I want to read intelligent discourses by thoughtful people interested in serious issues of public policy and aesthetic experience. I do not want--or at least I did not think I wanted--the more gossipy, more celebrity-oriented, less analytical, less substantive style of Salon.

So why am I spending so much time there? Am I turning into someone I don't want to be?

No. The answer is simpler. I am passing up the link to Slate and clicking on the link to Salon because of one thing: speed.

11:01:00 AM PST WED 18 FEB 1998. I have just clicked on Slate. I am sitting in my office with my computer on the Berkeley Economics Department ethernet. The Economics Department subnet links to the main Berkeley network which sits on Sprint's component of the internet backbone. As far as cyberlocations go, my office is a very high-rent one, with as high a potential download bandwidth as anyplace I know.

11:01:09 AM PST WED 18 FEB 1998. Slate's "cover page" has come up--its text has loaded (not its graphics). But Slate's "cover page" has just one link: to its "contents page."

11:02:12 AM PST WED 18 FEB 1998. Slate's "contents page" has finally loaded enough--the graphics are still not all there--for me to see some new articles. A column by Cullen Murphy. Fareed Zakaria of Foreign Affairs writing about wines. A column by Michael Lewis on, curiously enough, Silicon Valley's sense of time. I click on Lewis.

11:02:38 AM PST TUE 17 FEB 1998. The first two paragraphs of Michael Lewis's column are up. I finish them, wait for the rest of the column to load. In two minutes I have managed to read two paragraphs.

In nine minutes I manage to read three articles--Michael Lewis, Cullen Murphy, and "Today's Papers"--spending 52% of my time reading prose, and 48% of my time waiting for pages to download or refresh.

What a contrast with when I click on Salon!

In nine minutes I manage to read five articles, spending 78% of my time reading prose. Admittedly, they aren't the articles I would most like to read--I would much rather read Jacob Weisberg on the practice of leaking or Paul Krugman on Vice President Gore or Fred Bergsten on East Asia. But Salon's articles come up quickly and reliably: popcorn shrimp for the mind. While with Slate--either I should learn to love the animated "Kaczynski, Lewinski, Jones, Clones" that plays while the contents page loads and re-loads, or I should bring a book (or view Slate once a week, as a downloaded Microsoft Word file).

Thus I find the gravitational pull of the medium--the immanent logic of hypertext, if you will--pulling me away from my normal, comfortable intellectual home of Slate and toward Salon.

I don't know why Slate loads so slowly--why its contents page takes 72 seconds to load over a connection down which Yahoo! loads in seven seconds. It may be the same institutional habits that have led Slate's parent to acquire the nickname MicroSloth--if you have the best and fastest machines and are downloading from an internal network, delays that are extremely painful to outsiders are invisible to you.

It is more likely to simply be a complete failure to grasp the nature of its medium. Sun engineer Jakob Neilsen <http://www.useit.com/papers/responsetime.html> writes: "1.0 second [for the computer to respond to a command] is about the limit for the user's flow of thought to stay interrupted... 10 seconds is about the limit for keeping the user's attention focused.... For longer delays, users will want to perform other tasks while waiting for the computer to finish..." and that "...the minimum goal for response times [is]... to get pages to users in no more than ten seconds." His conclusion? That "webpages have to be designed with speed in mind." Salon has learned this lesson. Slate has not.

This failure to grasp the nature of its medium may be fatal now that Slate is about to cease being a not-for-profit experimental subsidiary of a for-profit corporation, and about to try to make a buck by charging for access to its website. I read Michael Kinsley's defense of this change in policy, and I think "he just doesn't get it" when he get to the point where Kinsley writes that: "... if your attitude is 'I really enjoy Slate, think it's entertaining and useful, visit the site while it's free, but refuse to contemplate paying for it', we're not just puzzled but actually a bit hurt..." I want to shake him, and say to him:

Michael, everyone who reads Slate is spending roughly a minute (more if they have a slow internet connection) twiddling their thumbs for every minute reading. If they bill their time out at (say) twice the minimum wage, they're "paying" $2.50 in thumb-twiddling time for every fifteen minutes spent reading Slate. This is already a very heavy price, yet you want people to pay $19.95 a year in cash as well?

Michael Kinsley would never think of publishing a print journal in old-style Gutenberg-like Gothic letters (created to mimic the calligraphic hands of monks), or of committing the sins against readability that still periodically infest the print pages of Wired. So why does his organization indulge in more-than-a-minute download times (over one of the fastest of internet connections)?

I fear that Slate is doomed. When I add together the facts that its neighbors in web publication quality space are free, that it downloads v e r y   s l o w l y, and that it is about to charge $19.95 a year, I cannot be optimistic about its survival.

But I signed up to pay my $19.95 yesterday...


My log of accesses to Slate and Salon...


Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/

 

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