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What’s in a link? An analysis of hyperlinks’ strategic functions in an online issue network

Miltner, P.
ECREA, 5th European Communication Conference
Lissabon: 2014, November

Structural patterns of the Internet and thus of hyperlinks and hyperlink networks have become a common research object in online communication studies. Put formally, a hyperlink is first of all a technical means by which two different web pages are being connected. Yet, within hyperlink network analysis, it has often been asked for their actual meaning (Park, 2003). In the case of online networks between websites of NGOs, it could be shown that hyperlinks are reflecting ties between actors which also exist in the offline world and thus are based on common identities (Pilny & Shumate, 2012). Other research suggests hyperlinks are set for instrumental reasons — organizations tend to link to power- and resourceful organizations (Gonzalez-Bailon, 2009). Another, special case is journalistic hyperlinking: online news outlets set links in order to provide additional information and different views, but most of them are internal links within the website and only a minority of hyperlinks is directed towards external sources (De Maeyer, 2012).
This paper aims at going beyond these mere structural assessments of online networks in that it focuses on the contextual meaning of hyperlinks, asking: in which textual context are hyperlinks embedded (valence) and what different functions do they fulfil? This allows us to see whether criticism or support is attributed towards the actors which are targeted by hyperlinks and furthermore we gain insights into the purpose of hyperlink setting. Drawing upon proposed categories by Niesyto (2010: 283) within the framework of NGOs’ online campaigns, one may distinguish between ‘media linking’, ‘critical linking’ and ‘movement linking’. Another study (Fragoso, 2011) mentions information, commentary or endorsement as possible link functions but finally doesn’t analyze them any further.
To answer the research questions, a hyperlink network, collected in June 2012, serves as a case for the study. The network creation started from websites of eight German civil society actors in the issue of food safety; to ensure the issue-relevance of the network, a key-word search was performed and all non-thematic sites were discarded. The final, issue-specific network consists of 342 different domains and 1.637 hyperlinks between them which shall be content analyzed. There are relevant structural differences between hyperlinks that are likely to influence linking context and functions. One such difference originates from the fact that 18% of the hyperlinks are set between domains that belong to the same organization and are thus quasi internal links. For these, it is assumed that there won’t be much critical linking and they may also fulfil other functions as links between domains with differing ownership. Furthermore, as all domains were attributed to different organization types (e.g., media organizations, NGOs, political actors), this study will also ascertain whether there is a difference in the link functions and contexts between different organization types.

Zitation (APA)

Miltner, P. (2014, November). What’s in a link? An analysis of hyperlinks’ strategic functions in an online issue network. ECREA, 5th European Communication Conference, Lissabon