Exercise on Comparing Web Sites

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Purpose : To help students see web pages as "texts" that have purpose, audience, author, genre, context, and so on; to get students to analyze web sites in rhetorical terms; to help students become critical of sources, and call into question notions of "objectivity".

1)     Pick two movie-related websites - one the "official" site maintained by the movie company itself, and one "fan" site.  Provide the URLs to the students, and ask them to look at both pages.  (I try to use fairly current and "big" movies for this exercise; I've had good success with the Titanic website (http://www.titanicmovie.com/) and Jennifer's Star Wars vs. Titanic site (http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Theater/5049/)  Note that the Jennifer-site contains some crude language, but I think its in-your-face style helps get students talking about the site.)
2) After the students have had a chance to look through both sites, ask them to describe each site.  Make two lists on the board, writing descriptors for each site.
3) Then ask students to analyze the sites briefly.  Students will often claim that the fan site is biased, whereas the official site is more objective.  Invite them to explain this.  You might ask such questions as, "Which sites provides more actual information about each movie?" or "What is the purpose of each site?  Who do you think the audience for each might be?"  "Which site's information is more trustworthy?  Why?"  (You will need to dig a bit on this last question; almost certainly the first response will be that the official site is more trustworthy, but students will be vague about why.  Make sure they support their opinions with evidence.)
4) As an assignment for next time, you might ask each student to go out and find two or three websites themselves, which revolve around a common topic, but which differ from each other significantly.  Ask them to write a short (1-2 page) analysis outlining the key differences between the sites, and the possible reasons for those differences.
Total suggested time : Anywhere from 20-45 minutes, depending how deeply you wish to let the students analyze the two sites in class.