Seeking the Internet Clueless
April 27, 2008 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Have you seen blog threads where commenters seem not to have read the initial post, and are way off topic? I'm seeking more examples of this for my dissertation research. Looking for blogs which have garnered comments similar to those mentioned on the earlier MeFi threads Tuesdays with Maury, Jeremy Jordan Loves Demon Dogs, and How Hawkish. Basically, commenters show up and start commenting as if they haven't read the original post at all, and they don't seem to have any idea what the discussion is about. In many cases they seem to think they're talking to a celebrity, or they are just seeking information in the wrong place.

Has this happened on your blog or on blogs you've seen? If you need a better sense of what I'm looking for, check my profile for a link to a page where I'm collecting these.
posted by gusandrews to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Must... Resist... Meta-temptation...


I see this all the time, but citing references is pretty nebulous for such a topic. I'd guess it's related to the instant gratification impulse: the desire to see your response in "print" outweighs the disinclination to appear like you don't know what you're talking about.

e.g. this post.
posted by Aquaman at 10:54 AM on April 27, 2008

I would imagine that this happens to almost everyone with a blog, to a greater or lesser extent. Information-seeking in the wrong place, that is. On several occasions I've blogged about a food product of some kind, only to have some ass show up and say "HI WHERE CAN I FIND THAT IN MY TOWN?! I LIVE IN SNAKE NAVEL, AK THANKS," as if I have special knowledge about their locality, or about the distribution network of product X. Sadly, I'm often able to oblige them, because, you know, the Internet provides to those who aren't total tools and can intelligently compose a few searches. This isn't a case of not reading the original post, mind, but of just completely misconstruing what a blog is, what the relationship between blogger and product is (consumer, same as you, chum), and from whom they should be seeking assistance. Does that meet your criteria?
posted by mumkin at 11:16 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

This happens quite a bit if you blog about tech-related products or services -- people will google for an exact error code or product number, and then treat the resulting permalink and attached comment space as their own personal tech-support forum. In that sense it's the same phenomenon as what mumkin describes, above: people seem to think they're asking "the internet" for help and advice, with a pretty fuzzy understanding of what the respective roles of author and commenter are.

Perhaps you can think of it as the down side of the Long Tail: the conviction that people who mention a specific item have an obligation to help you fix it.
posted by squid patrol at 11:25 AM on April 27, 2008

You might try going through the Google results from searching on "RTFA."
posted by rhizome at 12:04 PM on April 27, 2008

I made this great big long post about how I used to see this all the time, and then metafilter broke or my wifi broke or something and it disappeared into the big server in the sky.

Luckily, I found this treasure trove of an old post, which has the added benefit of being hilarious: I do not understand about google at this time.

One of the (many) links in that thread is to the archive of the guestbook (yes, briney), which is here. Yes, they think they are talking to a celebrity, no, the site has nothing to do with britney, the URL even redirected to, apparently.

The thread is great reading even if you weren't doing research on this.
posted by blacklite at 12:29 PM on April 27, 2008

Exhibit A: While working at a large dot com as a sales rep a few years back, on more than one occasion a customer's opening question was "Is this the internet?" After I got over the shock, I put on my best booming Wizard of Oz voice and responded that, yes, in fact this was the internet. I was the internet to someone, if only for a short time.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are the internet. Hello.

(okay I'll stop now. awesome thread though.)
posted by blacklite at 12:31 PM on April 27, 2008

Would something like this meet your criteria? (Check out Ralph D.'s comment in that thread)

Echoing mumkin that this seems to happen to most anybody with a blog. I know I've seen several "WTF?" posts from bloggers regarding the most head-scratching comments they got. So another avenue to get data might be to contact bloggers for links to such exchanges on their blogs.
posted by needled at 12:40 PM on April 27, 2008

Response by poster: Ooh, nice suggestion, Rhizome :) I've developed a few means of finding these already, but that's a good one.

Thanks for the Long Tail tip, Squid Patrol -- that's ringing bells with me in terms of some of the literature on searching, which has a similar power law -- Zipf's (which for some reason is not explicitly referred to in Wikipedia yet). I will have to meditate on this.

Mumkin, I totally agree about it being a misunderstanding of blogs and the Internet. I can't wait to actually talk to these people and get specifics on their misconceptions -- the textual evidence I have so far indicates it's everything from a misunderstanding of text boxes (people have been writing things like "huh?" and "I dont know wat this is (sic)" in the comment boxes for their name or email address -- or leaving the name of their town instead), to thinking the first result in a search list is obviously the "right" one, to seeming to think that image of celebrity=celebrity, much as that equation works on TV.

As a student in a school of education, though, I can't just chalk it up to lack of "intelligence" -- there is so much social mediation involved, and much of the time what seems to be going on is that people are clueless about socially-constructed things like genre, the operations of media outlets, and ways of knowing (e.g. scientists do not get their information about science from articles in Time Magazine). So yeah, I'd say clueless, but not dumb. Many of these commenters appear to be pre-teens writing fan letters, a stage that a lot of people just grow out of anyway. (Though there's still alarming numbers of adults.)

As far as the "finding nacho cheese chitlins in Snake Navel, AK" (ROFL, btw) example goes, I feel like that's pretty close. I actually need to clarify the boundaries of which examples count, because this could be hugely far-reaching if I don't -- I'm told by people at Blogger and other tech companies that "people will put just anything in a text box" and so of course companies like that receive insane amounts of email in addition to getting strange comments. I'm on the fence about the Snake Navel example (as it shall henceforth be known) because your post was actually about the foodstuff. I'm equally on the fence about some stuff I've already posted at -- if the post is about Dean Kamen, shouldn't it be reasonable to pour out your heart about how you'd like him to fund your new nonprofit to bring joy to the lives of children? Though your point about commenters' cluelessness regarding your understanding of chitlin distribution in small towns is a good one. I keep wondering -- how many failures of understanding are going on here? (I've got a similar post coming down the pike on my blog -- someone asking a comedy website when Dr. Phil's diet bars will return to their local Dollar Tree store.)

Possibly the reason this is so interesting to me is that, as you can see, I am inclined to answer EVERY SINGLE COMMENT in a thread, and just can't conceive of people who scroll to the bottom of the thread and comment without reading to see if someone's said what they've said already ;) That's why I don't read Slashdot anymore. I'd never get anything done if I read those damn threads.
posted by gusandrews at 12:50 PM on April 27, 2008

Response by poster: Ah, blacklite, that was you -- I've mined that one already :) when I started this project I was worried all I was going to have was those old MeFi posts, actually. And of course, I needn't have worried!
posted by gusandrews at 12:51 PM on April 27, 2008

I once had a guy phone up (pre-2000) because he couldn't log in to our site. He was trying to use his ISP dial-up password, thinking that one set of credentials would work for the whole internet. That always struck me as somewhat reasonable - this guy had been presented with a monolithic "The Internet", and was drawing not-unreasonable conclusions about how it worked. I use that as an example when I'm trying to get the importance of usability over to people - not dumb, just floundering a bit without all the domain-specific knowledge we take for granted.

Anyway, I think this might fit the bill.
posted by Leon at 2:24 PM on April 27, 2008

Here are two, but I know there are many more of these somewhere. I seem to remember somebody on one of the better know blogs collecting a few, but that's the most I can remember. Let me think and dig on this.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:28 PM on April 27, 2008

I wish you the best on your dissertation and I hope my post is generally on your topic. The phenomenon you're looking at isn't internet-specific, as you yourself say above. I hope you look at it more broadly, lest it degenerate into funny stories about blog posts.

True story: I wanted to buy a certain Dutch film on DVD if possible, but I couldn't find it for sale. I e-mailed several Dutch film-related institutions and asked for help. I don't read Dutch and I wasn't sure whether my addressees could help me. The cost to me was zero, I didn't 100% expect an answer, and the worst that could happen would be that they wouldn't respond, or that they would tell me they had no info.

So: Is it appropriate for Dutch grad students to be chuckling about the clueless American who didn't know he was writing to the wrong source? I think not. Rather, this American had the power to cast a wide net for that DVD, and used it.

Other true stories: I was in a very bad mood one day and found myself grilling a hapless minimum-wage soup scooper about why the soup shop was so expensive and why they had a noisy promotional video constantly running. I recall my grandfather similarly grilling a hapless gas station guy about whether the Tradename X gasoline sold by Big Conglomerate in Illinois was the same as the Tradename Y gas they sold in Ohio. I recall a dispute with my father about whether Encyclopedia Brittanica would have an article on "how to write checks." And today, my mother still believes there's someone at each charity who will carefully read and act on each letter she sends them asking to be removed from their mailing list.

The bottom line is that people don't always know where to go for information, so they might as well ask when there's no downside.

Reference librarians help people with these issues and always have. The fact that you've discovered the phenomenon on the internet isn't a major discovery. I don't mean to snark here; I'm confident you'll be able to focus your topic as this preliminary fact-gathering proceeds. Best of luck.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:48 PM on April 27, 2008

I believe I have an example. I am a co-administrator of a blog dedicated to Harry Potter news. Back in December of 2005 I wrote a post that contained some casting news for the Order of the Phoenix film. At this point the post has received more comments than any other post on the blog (374). Many of the commenters, most of whom seem to be teenage girls, seem to believe that I or the blog are somehow associated with Warner Bros. and will be able to help them get a role in the Harry Potter films. Almost all of the commenters on the post are there to discuss how to get an acting role in Harry Potter rather than the casting news for Order of the Phoenix, which the post is really about. I believe that most of them have not even read the original post, rather they googled "harry potter casting" or something and ended up there. The comments for the post have basically completely devolved into a discussion thread about landing an acting role in a Harry Potter film. It's actually quite amusing, since being teenage girls, they often erupt into catty little disagreements.
posted by katyggls at 10:59 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

This page is dedicated to Tiffany Brissette, the girl who played the robot on Small Wonder. It's a list of e-mails from fans around the world who think they're e-mailing her directly. It is priceless.
posted by one_bean at 2:08 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

A few years ago when I was writing a news blog for an online poetry journal, I notiiced that any post about Billy Corgan's poetry career (usually written in a carefully moderated yet undeniably snarky tone) would attract nonsensical all-caps comments assuming I either knew Corgan, or perhaps even was him. It never failed to amuse and bewilder me.
posted by hot soup girl at 3:55 AM on April 28, 2008

My wife runs a film criticism site. It's quite clearly not affiliated with any film distributors, yet she's always getting mails from people who want to buy the films they write about.
posted by signal at 6:56 AM on April 28, 2008

Letters to Zac
posted by Partial Law at 2:32 PM on April 28, 2008

Response by poster: So I log in to my dating-site account today, and find that one of the clueless appears to be trying to hit on me... so of course I blogged it.
posted by gusandrews at 7:01 PM on April 28, 2008

The cost to me was zero, I didn't 100% expect an answer, and the worst that could happen would be that they wouldn't respond...Is it appropriate for Dutch grad students to be chuckling about the clueless American who didn't know he was writing to the wrong source? I think not.

I'm not sure this is really a great example of appropriate behavior, online or off. While I certainly sympathize with trying to get obscure films from Europe, it's a little forward to spam uninvolved people in your quest for a DVD. I used to answer the webmaster@ email address for a large east-coast ivy league professional school, and it was amazing the kinds of open-ended queries we'd get from all over the globe, often by people who hadn't done the least amount of legwork.

This obviously isn't the case with your search for a specific DVD, but I think in general we should be careful of how we burden others in our own work. Wading through the inbox every day, sorting through "Hail Mary" queries, took a lot of time away from answering questions that I actually could give solid information about.

Rather, this American had the power to cast a wide net for that DVD, and used it.

Right, but I mean, at what cost to others? Seems to me there's sort of an unexamined entitlement there.

I think this gets at a broader point, however, and one that makes me thing gusandrew's focus on online discourse is legitimate: there is such a lower barrier to entry with an email. If you had actually had to dig up a long-distance calling card, wait till Europe was awake, and call up the switchboard at a few Dutch film schools, you might have thought twice about contacting them. To say nothing of the fact that the receptionist would probably have told you pretty quickly that they aren't a retail DVD store. But somehow sending an email is much easier.

As someone who had to answer a lot of these general queries once in a former career, I'm just curious about the how an electronic medium (be it email or blog commenting) encourages this kind of communication...
posted by squid patrol at 2:25 PM on May 8, 2008

Bill Murray
posted by fixedgear at 9:07 AM on May 10, 2008

I remember this from a long, long time ago - a guestbook where some people thinking they are writing to conservative columnist George Will.
posted by milkrate at 12:59 PM on May 10, 2008

I made a post once in my very geeky weblog about something very geeky, that mentioned Beyonce and Jay Z in the title only.

Five years later that post has almost a thousand comments that are almost entirely about how ugly or beautiful Beyonce is, sometimes addressing her directly.

In addition the previous and next posts received Beyonce commenting splash damage, despite only mentioning the title of the first post.
posted by jjwiseman at 1:04 PM on May 12, 2008

Response by poster: Ohhhh, Mr. Wiseman. You've committed the #1 flagrant foul guaranteed to bring unwanted commenters to your blog: putting celebrity names in the title of your posts :) That's the one finding I can really state clearly so far: Title your blog posts carefully, folks. Even if you're writing about a celebrity, don't put their name in the title if you feel passionately that you don't want the clueless to stampede your blog. Someday search engines won't suck, and maybe people will even be better educated; until then, this feels to me like a new style manual dictum. No celeb names in the post title.

That said, I'm off to create a blog which consists entirely of celebrity names in post titles, along with posts titled "Cancel AOL." This should be a fantastic way to gather data.
posted by gusandrews at 9:12 AM on May 13, 2008

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