Starr report's draw civic, not salacious

The Internet has borne up under the strain of increased traffic in the days since the Starr report hit the wires -- and it seems that civic concerns, not prurient interest, were driving many surfers' browsing patterns. Salacious details in the report might seem to have been the draw. But one site which carried a fully searchable version of the report says usage patterns show people were interested in the whole document, not just the smutty parts.

The Internet has borne up under the strain of increased traffic over the last few days as users accessed prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report on US President Bill Clinton -- and it seems that civic concerns, not prurient interest, were driving many surfers' browsing patterns.

Salacious details in the report released Friday afternoon, concerning allegedly impeachable crimes committed by the US president as he sought to cover up an extramarital relationship, might seem to have been the draw. But a spokeswoman for one site which carried a fully searchable version of the report says usage patterns show people were interested in the whole document, not just the smutty parts.

Some users did search on words with sexual meaning, but "I wouldn't say that that's the outstanding thing that you would see from looking at the search logs," says Hilary MacPhail, director of enterprise marketing at Northern Light Technology, a research search engine company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rather than leapfrogging from one sexual word to the next, usage patterns show that most people began at the start of the report and chronologically read many of its sections before petering out and losing interest, according to MacPhail.

"If it's at the beginning of the report, that's where the traffic's heaviest," MacPhail says.

And traffic was definitely up, all around the Web.

CNN reported double the usual traffic on Friday, the first day the report was available, recording 340,000 hits per minute on Friday afternoon. The phenomenon was visible to Alexa Internet, which makes a browser add-on and consequently collects information anonymously about its users' Web activities.

"We saw flash crowds occur for CNN," says Brewster Kahle, president of Alexa Internet, which is based in San Francisco.

Alexa did not see more people than usual flocking to the net. Rather, users were unusually concentrated on sites which carried the Starr report, according to Kahle. One of seven of Alexis' users, or around 15%, viewed the Starr report on Friday, and 38% of all government-site URL requests were for the report, he says.

Northern Light, which had the searchable version of the report, anticipated increased demand and put the report on a special server, and usage spiked up around 10 percent as users attempted to wade through it, MacPhail said.

People's interest in the 445-page document undercuts the conventional wisdom which holds that people want breezy news snippets on the Web, not serious reports, according to Peter Krasilovsky, vice president at Arlen Communications Inc. in Bethesda, Maryland.

"Clearly, where there's something as important as this, they're willing to go to great lengths," he says.

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