Portrait of the Portal as a Metaphor: Explicating Web Portals for Communication Research

Article excerpt

Web portals are increasing in their presence as well as importance, yet suffer from lack of conceptual clarity. In explicating the concept of "portal" from a number of disciplinary frameworks, this article uncovers five different but inter-related metaphorical conceptions-gateways, billboards, networks, niches, and brands-which, in turn, suggest five dominant features of portal sites-customization, content, control, community, and commerce-for empirical examination as variables in future research on uses and effects of portals.

One of the unique features of the World Wide Web as a mass medium lies in the fact that message sources are indistinct from message receivers.1 The Web is literally a web woven collectively by all citizens of the Internet, resulting in massive amounts of information being disseminated by both professional gatekeepers and laypersons. For casual users interested in efficiently obtaining news and information on the net, this proves burdensome because they now have the arduous additional task of sifting through information of unknown pedigree and determining its veridicality instead of simply attending to news of established credibility. This might be the reason why portals, which help to make sense of information avalanches by establishing gatekeeping guidelines and streamlining information flow, are among the most popular sites on the Web, and why some scholars and practitioners believe that the portal is the key organizing unit for gaining a better understanding of the new medium.2

Literature suggests that although the term "portal" is widely used, a majority of existing perspectives consider the term a "buzzword" that requires little definition or explanation. This might be one reason why the term has been under-explicated and suffers from theoretical abstraction. Indeed, little progress has been made beyond early postulations of "portals like Yahoo" or portals as sites that "consist almost exclusively of absolute links to a large number of other sites."3 Although such definitions serve as a rudimentary starting point, they contribute very little toward a conceptual framework that is necessary for conducting a program of research on the topic of portals.

Even as portals are increasing in their presence as well as importance, the absence of suitable ontological definitions precludes us from not only developing a "portal typology" to facilitate better conceptual understanding but also makes empirical investigation difficult. Indeed, consistent with Strauss's opinion,4 portals suffer from "confusing and often contradictory definitions," which perhaps explains why, even though the "portal" has supplemented the "Web site" in Internet terminology,5 media researchers have devoted little attention to the topic of portals.6

The primary goal of this article is to delineate the applicability of portals as a promising venue of research in communication technology. Specifically, it proposes a classification system for portals by performing an explication based on metaphors that are useful for describing the different kinds of portals on the Web. In accordance with the metaphorbased approach, it identifies distinguishing features of portals and outlines pertinent theoretical propositions. Finally, it examines operational considerations for studying portals and advances useful propositions aimed at building a research agenda around the concept of "portals." We first discuss the importance of metaphors in communication research before explicating the concept of portals.

Metaphors and Communication

Metaphors in communication have received extensive attention, from the time Aristotle proposed that they can be seen primarily as analogies, commonly referred to as the comparison theory of metaphor.7 Metaphors are universally employed to illustrate something novel by orienting to something more commonly understood.8 Indeed, as several scholars have argued, metaphors are not just pretty linguistic artifices but critical devices when faced with the task of reducing an abstract concept to something that is easily comprehensible. …