The user-hostile AFR

By Felix Salmon
November 30, 2010
Think of this as the web-publishing equivalent of Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs.

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Think of this as the web-publishing equivalent of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs.

First, there’s the web page: an interview, at AFR.com, with Rupert Murdoch.

The interview looks like this, when you look at it in a browser:

murdochtext.tiff

The text is quite simple:

The average gray-bald grandfather in his 70s tends to play with his grandchildren. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 72, it now seems indisputable, likes to play with teenage girls. Rupert Murdoch, 79, likes to play with newspapers . . . still.

I didn’t copy that text out manually, I just printed the web page to a PDF, and copy-and-pasted the PDF. Why didn’t I copy-and-paste the website itself? Because if I do that, I get this:

The average grey-bald grandfather in his ©afr.com 70s tends beautifully to ©afr.com think play with technology&rdqu with ©afr.com See his grandchildren. Italian for Prime on Minister Silvio it mind growth Berlusconi, it. a 72, ©afr.com the it subjects now seems results. said mind likes indisputable, ©afr.com may not likes to On play with teenage girls. Rupert ©afr.com Murdoch, teenage ITV 79, likes ©afr.com Italia to ©afr.com ©afr.com accelerated. Th play ©afr.com with ©afr.com the newspapers ©afr.com system. price America . . . ©afr.com still.

And if you look at the raw HTML source for the text in question, it looks like this:

The average gray-bald grandfather in his <span class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </span>70s tends <u class=”a187a9″>beautifully </u><span class=”o4f”>to</span> <u class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </u><em class=”f78f8″>think </em><i class=”a187a9″> </i><span class=”o4f”>play</span> <em class=”f78f8″> with </em><b class=”f78f8″>technology&rdqu </b>with <i class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </i><em class=”a187a9″>See </em>his <span class=”o4f”>grandchildren.</span> Italian <i class=”f78f8″>for </i>Prime <b class=”a187a9″>on </b>Minister Silvio <span class=”a187a9″>it mind </span><b class=”a187a9″>growth </b>Berlusconi, <em class=”f78f8″>it. a </em><span class=”a187a9″> </span>72, <span class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </span><i class=”a187a9″>the </i>it <u class=”a187a9″>subjects </u>now seems <span class=”a187a9″>results. said </span><b class=”a187a9″>mind </b><b class=”a187a9″>likes </b>indisputable, <span class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </span><em class=”f78f8″>may not </em>likes to <i class=”a187a9″>On </i>play <span class=”f78f8″> </span>with teenage <span class=”o4f”>girls.</span> <span class=”o4f”>Rupert</span> <em class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </em>Murdoch, <i class=”a187a9″>teenage ITV </i><span class=”a187a9″> </span>79, likes <u class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </u><u class=”f78f8″> </u><u class=”f78f8″>Italia </u><span class=”o4f”>to</span> <i class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </i><span class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </span><u class=”f78f8″>accelerated. Th </u><span class=”o4f”>play</span> <i class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </i>with <span class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </span><i class=”f78f8″>the </i>newspapers <em class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </em><b class=”f78f8″>system. price </b><b class=”a187a9″> </b><em class=”a187a9″>America </em><span class=”o4f”>. . .</span> <em class=”edbe7″>&copy;afr.com </em>still. </p><i class=”a187a9″>to </i>

As John Gapper notes, if you thought the FT was user-hostile, you have no idea what other publishers are up to.

This isn’t Tynt abuse, it’s simple user hostility, with no added value for the publisher at all. When I copy-and-paste something from the Fin, the publisher has now idea what I’m copying, and therefore can’t use that information to help improve the quality of the publication. There aren’t even any sharing tools on the web page, beyond the obligatory “email a friend” link. It’s pure user hostility.

No one will subscribe to AFR.com as a result of this idiocy, and some non-negligible number of people will unsubscribe because of it. No one wants to be made to feel like a criminal just for copying a snippet of something they’re reading.

I’m astonished that Australians put up with this — and even more astonished that Australian publishers (or Fairfax, at least) go to so much effort to shoot themselves in the foot. But if you ever wanted a prime example of a news publication rebelling like some screaming two-year-old at both its readers and the internet, this is surely it. The Fin is a noble paper; I do hope it changes its ways soon.

Update: Kevin Drum emails to say that the text is unreadable in the Opera browser; it’s also unreadable to the blind.

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