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Last Updated: Monday, 7 April, 2003, 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK
How the web makes 'desk-chair generals' of us all
By John Walton
BBC News Online

The war has led to a huge appetite for information. But who is best served - those who get their information from newspapers, TV, or the web? Jakob Nielsen - a persistent critic of websites - says in this war, internet news users might just have the edge.

There can never have been a war when so much information was available to so many. Newspaper pages galore, special supplements, magazines, rolling TV and radio channels, and extended bulletins all jostle for people's attention.

And, of course, there is the worldwide web, whose birth wasn't announced until some months after the end of the first Gulf War. (Tim Berners-Lee posted his message heralding the first browser on the alt.hypertext newsgroup in August 1991.)

TV store
24-hour news and bulletins saw audiences soar

We've come a long way since then. But, according to Jakob Nielsen - the guru of making websites easy to use, and an uncompromising critic of sites which try to be too clever - the web has outplayed its older rivals.

This was not what he was expecting to find. But he says people who get their news from the web could be benefiting from a significantly different perspective from those who are restricted to newspapers or TV.

"I usually find myself saying that the web is a secondary way of communicating information," he says. "But people are getting a good deal from the web in terms of war coverage."

The devil is in the detail, says Nielsen. The constraints of the web, imposed by download times and impatient surfers, means it has a tendency to summarise and give short and simple overviews.

The web gives greater perspective, says Nielsen

Television, on the other hand, immerses viewers in the details, and makes the most of its ability to bring the combat zone straight from Iraq into people's living rooms.

"If you watch the war on television you are getting the sergeant's view of the fight," he says.

Too much information

The introduction of embedded correspondents, who are based with US and UK troops for the duration of the war and have brought some of the most vivid reporting to this war, has given a new perspective and has led viewers to get "the platoon's view of things", Nielsen says.

"At least you aren't the private," he says. "You aren't the one shooting. You are just sitting a little way behind the platoon. But you only see their view."

TV news made itself felt even at the Oscars

Nielsen does however believe that the emphasis on getting live television pictures from Iraq can go too far. "I watched one channel and the guys in the studio were saying 'Okay, here we can see two soldiers walking down the street. What does that mean?'

"'Here's a tank parked outside a house, what does that mean?' It's that level of detail. Compared with this I think that the web offers more of a general's eye view."

Specifically, the web excels at providing summaries, overviews, and key facts.

"Usually the web has this downside that people don't want to read so much stuff online," he says. "So it gives you a bit of an abbreviated view - which in this case I think is really good as this gives you a much better perspective of what is going on. And of course the web is still 'real time'... With the web you get the best of both worlds."

With the web you get the best of both worlds
Jakob Nielsen

Experience from within BBC News Online tends to support Nielsen's theory. Since the start of hostilities, the "Iraq latest: At-a-glance" page, which gives one-sentence summaries of events as they are happening, has constantly been among the most-viewed pages on the site.

If television gives a sergeant's eye view, and the web a general's eye view, Nielsen says the newspapers fall somewhere between the two. "Let's say they give their readers a colonel's view."

Drowning in detail

Too much information can baffle people, he says. One broadsheet paper - certainly not untypical - offered 15 pages of war coverage. On the one hand this was a good editorial decision, he says, as there is a huge amount of interest. But on the other hand it could be overwhelming.

"Trying to explain things to people is really what's missing from this war coverage as a whole. People are drowning in this detail."

The coverage of the last war in the Gulf saw CNN come of age. Perhaps this time it's the turn of the web.

Send your comments using the form below.

Another good thing about the web is that you can also research each story yourself. The other day I was able to look at satellite images of Baghdad over the past few days from one website. After a Pentagon briefing I can go and look through the Pentagon site, look at the homepages of the battle groups mentioned. I can also see what Al-Jazeera's saying, read a daily blog from someone in Baghdad and then look at maps and images of Basra or Umm Qsar. I'm not "desk-chair general", I'm a "desk-chair general, reporter and editor"!
Dave, UK

I agree, but feel there is another element that enters in, the potential to see a wide range of information from differing view points rather than with a particular editorial spin - much the same as reading many papers
Paul, UK

I'm surprised there was no mention of blogging - it's been interesting the see the rise of individual (though still subjective / biased / spun / whatever) reporting during this war.
Chris Ford, UK

The most interesting part about the internet has been missed. The fact that people can discuss the issues with each other and can draw attention to other articles, perhaps including the BBC website and sites belonging to newspapers is what makes the internet so good.
Jon, UK

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