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Why Johnny Can’t Post

hey Ashton we think you r sooo hott!!! hehe!! We r from Tennessee but Maggie moved to North Carolina. we want to tell you are number but we dont know if you are really ashton.
but we still love you. We love your show punk’d and we think your a great actor. We want you to talk to us online except for shybaby might not be on that much because her Dad took it away. We cant wait to see your movie cheaoer by the dozen!
remember we love you and we think your $exi.

maggie, and MaryAnne
Posted by: Maggie And MaryAnne on December 28, 2003 11:56 AM

The comment above was posted to a piece I wrote a few months ago updating people on how I was doing. I am not really sure what’s going on with the people who wrote it. My guess is they found the site because of my passing reference to actor Ashton Kutcher, and were somehow convincing themselves that this might be his website. I guess it’s possible that the writer was just yanking my chain, but I have seen too many posts like this to put much faith in that hypothesis:

At one point various parts of my website started to garner comments about a dance called the Crip Walk. The latter discussion began spontaneously as Googlers acc1dentally found this post of mine detailing a day with my former students in the South Bronx (it was the first hit on Google for the phrase “dancing the Crip Walk”) and began a discussion which had nothing to do with what I’d written and everything to do with the Crip Walk. Eventually I made an attempt to try to direct the discussion, thinking that if the kids were showing up to talk about the Crip Walk anyway, it would be interesting to try to get them to think more deeply about it.

But they rarely did. Most of the posts that appeared repeated things that had been said before by other posters. Very few addressed any of the questions I’d thrown out, or even other posters. Eventually, I got tired of and worried about kids showing up on my website and threatening to kill each other, or me, so I turned off comments for that page.

Lest you conclude that it’s something particular about the Crip Walk which attracts an illiterate audience, keep in mind that Ashton Kutcher drew similarly ignorant comments, and so did a short post of mine about Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. (here’s hoping that site shows up un(ens0red; I am posting from a machine with some sort of godawful parental safety software installed, and it may have reposted without any references to Playb0y. you’ll notice I also have to change other words so they can get through. this fu(|<1ng suX0rs.) As someone who has long hoped that the text-heavy quality of the Internet would spur literacy, these comments have been a cause for concern. It looks like a lot of people out there aren't reading what they find on the Internet. If they aren't reading, what are they getting out of their experiences online? I've hoped that the multidirectional quality of communication on the Internet would encourage people towards criticism of the worldview fostered by movies, advertising, and television, but is that really going to happen if people aren’t able to decode what they find on the Internet? All of the commenters I’ve mentioned seem to be able to use search engines, or they never would have found me; they’re not totally technologically illiterate. But once they got to my page, the Ashton Kutcher commenters seemed unable to distinguish a mention of the actor from a means of contacting the actor. The Olsen Twins commenters didn’t seem to catch my sarcastic tone, or didn’t care, and a lot of them ended up eagerly trading information about when the Twins were likely to show up in Playb0y. At what point did their understanding of what they were reading break down? Or is this just a subversion of an available public forum?

Most of these comments that are wigging me out are in one way or another related to TV. Does this mean the commenters’ use of the Internet becomes an extension of their TV experience? Does their Net content intake differ qualitatively from watching TV? Does their dialogue about what they’ve found differ from rehashing sitcoms around the water cooler?

Does how they watch television, and how much they watch, affect how they use the Internet? Are they most likely to search for things that they saw on TV? Does their participation in the narratives that TV makes available to them affect how they do and do not participate in the interactive elements that the Internet offers? And when they do begin to take apart the narratives offered by mass culture in Internet forums (as some kids did in the Crip Walk forum, reclaiming the Crip Walk for white well-off American, European, Samoan, and South American communities), and mass culture doesn’t reflect their additions to the dialogue — what happens then?

I feel underequipped to deal with these questions, so I’m hoping friends and professors from TC who have more background in the literature on the Internet will join in discussing this (along with the usual suspects hanging around the DSWJ, of course). Feel free to add any other questions these posts bring up for you, including simple ones like “Who do you mean by ‘people’?” and “Why do you have your undies in a bunch about this, anyway?”


  1. Most people don’t read anything that they see on their computer screen. It’s not unique to the web; it happens in every kind of software, all the time.

    Joel Spolsky notices this:

    and claims that it’s a rule of user-interface design. I’ve long claimed that (in some situations – obviously unnecessary text is bad) it’s not a rule, but a massive failure of education. This criticism largely falls on deaf ears.

    I think that you’re pointing out an interesting extension of this behavior. Now that 99% of the text being generated by computers is actually coming from other humans, and, especially on the web, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference visually, people will be arbitrarily and weirdly selective about what they read.

    That’s probably part of what causes the effect you’re noticing, but the effect is compounded because the people who post without reading and without thinking (repeating other posts, making errors which could be corrected with a moment’s more thought) will tend to outnumber those who only post things they’ve considered. First of all the latter takes more time, but more importantly, if you think about what you’re saying, you might realize you have nothing to say at all, and stay silent.

    Sunday, December 28, 2003 at 11:23 pm | Permalink
  2. Roger wrote:

    Glyph beat me to the punch here with his intelligent reply.

    Another interesting corollary effect of this illiteracy and impatience is that Web search queries almost never exceed three words; the mean length is apparently 1.2 words. This makes it very hard for smart search techniques to take off, because (e.g.) determining context and meaning is almost impossible when users give you only two words to work with. (hard to find good statistics for this?)

    This fact is often surprising to people like us, with good research skills, who are accustomed to searching for dozens of words in a row when we can’t get what we want. The average query’s monosyllabic grunting seems useless to me, at least.

    The web usability guru Jakob Nielsen also says we need to “streamline” web writing for use by illiterates:

    I think this is a major mistake outside of the application UI design area he’s mostly talking about.

    However, it’s important to remember that reading long text passages from a computer screen *is* actually much more difficult than reading paper (mostly because of type size and poor resolution). This might be accountable for some of people’s apparent stupidity.

    It’s even more interesting in this context that some publically accessible Web forums manage to stay substantive. Apparently Wikipedia’s “Edit this page” links, for instance, don’t look enough like “Post a reply” buttons for many idiots to figure out the similarity in function. If there’s ideally no minimum-amount-of-thought threshhold on *reading* Web content, this kind of thing seems to suggest there should be a slight cognitive effort required before allowing posting.

    Sunday, December 28, 2003 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Roger wrote:

    One more thought: You mention the “text-heavy quality of the Internet.” It seems to me that what we’re discussing might suggest precisely that, though there are reams of text available on the Web, most users’ experience of the Web at this point in its development is *not* very text-heavy at all. This has to do with greater availability of high-bandwidth connections driving sites to use more graphics, commercialization driving users to interact primarily with “punchy” corporate ad-driven sites, and the continuing broadening of the Web user base beyond comparatively literate early users. People mostly use the Internet to see graphics and find bite-sized facts quickly, or so Nielsen says (not really in the link I gave, but in his book _Designing Web Usability_).

    For you and me, reading has enormous affective appeal; we (I, at least) love the very thought of long passages of it. For most, the connotation of long reading is musty, boring, work-like. This has to do primarily with illiteracy, not with the Web.

    Monday, December 29, 2003 at 12:11 am | Permalink
  4. gus wrote:

    [snip]most users’ experience of the Web at this point in its development is *not* very text-heavy at all. This has to do with greater availability of high-bandwidth connections driving sites to use more graphics, commercialization driving users to interact primarily with “punchy” corporate ad-driven sites, and the continuing broadening of the Web user base beyond comparatively literate early users. [snip]

    This is something I’ve been wondering about — who has really good statistics on how the Net is really being used?

    Monday, December 29, 2003 at 2:19 am | Permalink
  5. Roger wrote:

    Oops, this was the Nielsen article I was actually thinking of:

    It’s not clear what “death” means for media except in terms of ratings and market share for commercial broadcasters/publishers. Radio, for instance, remains vibrant today — albeit in a very different form from the radio of the thirties and forties. I just noticed that several readers made this point in replies:

    Thus Nielsen replies: “In general, I don’t think the old media will be “out out of business” in the sense of vanishing. We will still have auditory content, text content in various degrees of depth and writing styles, moving-images content, photo content, cartoon content, and so on. I simply predict that these content styles will be integrated in new ways and accessed in a non-linear fashion over the Internet instead of being bought in their current (separate) packaging.”

    Which means that “being bought” was what he meant by “living” to begin with. While commerce does drive the development of media, it seems like a major mistake to think it’s the *only* factor. That is, there’s still the “culture” part of the culture industry to account for…

    Monday, December 29, 2003 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  6. itamar wrote:

    I don’t think not reading the text is the only, or even main issue. It goes a bit deeper than that. The Olsen twins text makes some pretty big assumptions about the readers’ knowledge:

    1. What a “brand” is (it’s pretty certain the word does not mean the same thing to you and to most or all of the people who posted),
    2. The role of mass media in a consumer society
    3. The difference between public and private persona.
    4. Judgement values of the above, etc.

    Without these assumptions and prior knowledge, the text can’t convey its message, and readers will just extract whatever information they can. What is written as a value judgement seem to have been read as an esthetic judgement (“they’re scrawny”) or a discussion of whether they will pose for Playboy, because the posters take the underlying system for granted. The media (and the Olsen twins’ “fame”) just *is*, like gravity, it’s not something to be analyzed, and so the concept of criticizing its existence doesn’t even occur to them.

    This happens in other contexts as well, e.g. when reading religous/mystical concepts or legal language. For example “the Breaking of the Vessels spread Sparks into the world, and we try to redeem them by prayer”. It’s possible to get some sense of what this means, but I don’t think I am (or will ever be) capable of fully understanding it, because of some basic assumptions I am missing.

    On the other hand, one of these readers who somehow googles a page with “observe how the ads and content in this ‘women magazine’ have same design. Why is this? Because etc.” might actually learn something. Or something so damn wierd and different that they get a glimpse of the possiblity of different ways of looking at the world.

    Tuesday, December 30, 2003 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  7. Mary wrote:

    In the case of Ashton and the Olsen twins, there’s probably a third motive, still socially cohesive: they want to express feelings towards their celebrity of choice, and probably to do so in the company of others.

    Imagine it from the other end — rather than writing a piece that requires what I think of as “critical literary” and which is undoubtedly called something else and having people leave fandom messages there imagine it from the end of the surfer. Assuming they started out searching for Ashton with the goal of finding Ashton and found your page (because the paucity of queries together with, I believe, the limitations of the PageRank algorithm mean that it’s hard to reliably hook critical thinkers up with critics and fans with fans), what are they going to make of it? It seems fairly likely that they aren’t going to shift up several cultural gears and engage with your argument, especially once there are other comments there which are exactly what they were looking for in the first place.

    It would be interesting to find out what percentage of web surfers are using it as a textual medium, but another question also arises: of the textual users of the internet (email users, IM users, web forum users), what percentage are using it as a social medium and how are they doing so? What kinds of cultural and social literacy are drawn on?

    Tuesday, December 30, 2003 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  8. gus wrote:

    *claps hands, squeals with glee* Excellent discussion!

    Points well taken:
    Roger’s and Glyph’s about simple textual illiteracy and use of search engines,
    Mary and Otter’s about social orientations towards the Internet. I think
    Itamar provided an interesting suggestion of a model of how mental filters of media illiteracy might work.

    So: Is there any way to help people overcome the limitations of their habits, their education, the media generally, and the technology in question?
    What would it look like?
    Which of these issues would it address — social needs, literacies, limitations of form?
    Would it be part of traditional media, or part of traditional education, a little of both, or neither?

    Tuesday, December 30, 2003 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  9. Mary wrote:

    As for your education question, I’m leaning towards the point of view that traditional education’s role in solving this problem is solving the literacy problem.

    There’s a number of things going on here:

    Basic literacy: for readers to be able to respond appropriately to your blog entries they need to share your vocabulary and be able to parse your sentences.

    Genre literacy: readers need to recognise that you’re writing essays, not fan love letters.

    Familiarity with the assumptions of your arguments (as discussed by Itamar).

    Critical thinking. If I read Glyph correctly in his LJ post , he’s pessimistic about latecomers to critical thinking, but he leaves us with a chicken and egg problem: where did critical thinking arise from if it has to be present in your life from birth? I consider this cautious grounds for optimism.

    There are related problems about life priorities that I don’t think traditional education can solve, and which I think are harder to solve. How do you make fame critiques as important to people as the undying love of Ashton Kutcher?

    In both cases, a possible lever is the social networks thing. People understand social networks, and they don’t need to be educated about them in order to use them very effectively (unlike formal language, for example). I think they’re much more basic than either the celebrity phenomenon or critical thinking, so it should be possible to use social networks to educate people — possibly far more effectively than using traditional education methods.

    But I think you’re right about your professors needing to jump in here…

    Friday, January 2, 2004 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
  10. Troy wrote:

    Great work! |

    Thursday, September 21, 2006 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
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    Monday, October 2, 2006 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  12. big thank

    Thursday, October 5, 2006 at 10:20 pm | Permalink
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    Sunday, October 8, 2006 at 8:46 am | Permalink
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    Saturday, October 14, 2006 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

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