Universal metacomments

« previous post | next post »

The latest xkcd:

Mouseover title: "NPR encourages you to add comments to their stories using the page inspector in your browser's developer tools. Note: Your comments are visible only to you, and will be lost when you refresh the page."

There are comments that can be applied to any article content, as generations of lazy spambots have demonstrated. A couple of recent examples from our spam trap:

Thanks author for your awesome topic and helpful information.
I really like reading a post that will make people think. Also, many thanks for allowing for me to comment!

And then there are comments that can be applied to any comment thread, as some of the examples in this cartoon show.

Of course there are equivalents for conversation and writing IRL, as discussed in reference to the previous xkcd cartoon. These can also descend (ascend?) through several levels of meta-deflection, e.g. "I normally avoid discussing my rhetorical choices, but …").

I had a philosophy professor in college who nearly always began lectures with a layered disquisition on his current linguistic state. One example that I remember began with a discussion of the effects of dental novocaine on speech articulation ("If you notice that I seem to be speaking more slowly than usual, it's because I've just come from the dentist, and my mouth is still numb. Or perhaps it only seems to me that I'm speaking slowly, since the novocaine focuses my attention on the peripheral aspects of the process of talking.") And so on, for half an hour of intellectual rumination about consciousness, perception, attention, and dentistry, which frankly was more interesting than what he had to say about the official topic of the lecture, which was something like Frege's contributions to formal logic.

These preliminaries were more coherent and artful than "OK, so, listen, the thing is, well, like, I'm just saying, and maybe it's just me, but, I mean, here's the thing, I could be way off here, but, look, I gotta say, …" My impression was that the motivation was similar, however.



  1. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 5:33 am

    One thing that seems to me to have changed in recent years is how journalists are completely open about quoting from random Internet users.

    In the early noughts I used to post on a football (soccer) forum, and some of the posts there would appear in newspaper sports articles, attributed to "fans". But the implication was that the journalist had actually interviewed these fans.

    Whereas now it's all, 'But Burnitalldown574 on Reddit disagreed, saying, "I'm no extremist but these politicians wallowing in their ivory bubbles should be hung drawn and quartered."'

  2. Ken said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 6:34 am

    Is the quoted spam complete? I would have expected a payload such as a link to a website, if not outright product placement. Are the spambots now sophisticated enough to use the comment URI for that sort of thing?

    [(myl) I left out the payload — but in many cases it's in the link on the commenter's name. Also, I get the impression that some spammers (bots or not) are playing a longer game, aiming to build up a record of accepted posts that will get them past spam traps and moderation rules. ]

  3. Andrew Usher said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 7:27 am

    I don't recall ever seeing that – a news article explicity quoting an anonymous Internet poster. Where would one see that happening?

    But if it does, it's not a change in usual journalistic practices, which are rather lazy. And speaking of that word, I was struck by the reference to 'lazy spambots' in the article; surely a spambot is just a computer program, and can't be lazy? But the phrase doesn't sound that strange to use.

    About that philosophy professor, yes, that seems rather weird. But I imagine philosophy will have some weird guys, and, you know, he may have found the nominal curriculum just as boring as you did, and put it off – I don't know. But it's definitely not what I would expect at any kind of lecture!

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

    [(myl) Actually I thought (and think) that the history of formal logic is fascinating, it's just that what this particular person had to say about it didn't add much to what I had learned in the reading. And this was a medium-sized seminar, maybe 12-15 people around a table, rather than a large audience with the speaker out in front.]

  4. KeithB said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 8:46 am

    No discussion of the dental use of Novocaine would be complete without reference to the famous sketch on the Carol Burnett show when the recently late Tim Conway was the incompetent dentist to Harvey Korman's hapless patient.

  5. Andrew M said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 9:24 am

    Pflaumbaum: I agree that the change you describe has taken place, but I am not sure about its explanation. I think what may have happened is that in the olden days, there was a sense that the internet was a private place, and so quoting a commenter on the internet by name was breaching their privacy. As this sense fades (though it still crops up from time to time) ordinary rules regarding attribution take over. After all, if the journalist had actually interviewed fans, it would be fine to say 'Fan Joe Smith claimed that…', provided he was prepared to be quoted.

  6. Alyssa said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 10:23 am

    Every once in a while I receive messages on OKCupid that read like they were written by lazy spambots. A recent one, for example:

    "Hello . I find you profile interesting. I have not written much about myself on this app but I will update soon. I am new on this app. I really like your profile and would like to have a conversation with you to see the possibilities. If you also find my profile interesting message me back."

    I wonder if these are actually bots, or real people? Surely a real person too lazy to write personalized messages would just go with the tried and true "hey"?

  7. bks said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 11:01 am

    Before journalists could appeal to pseudonymous Internet comments to establish some specious proposition, they had the frumious man-in-the-street interview which served the same purpose.

  8. Mark P said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 3:56 pm

    Some years ago a mainstream newspaper, possibly the NYT, had an article or column that mentioned Languagelog. They were favorably impressed not only by the content of the blog itself, but also by the polite, well-informed, reasonable, thoughtful, considerate, rational, and witty comments. They just happened to quote one of my own comments as an example. How insightful of them. As I recall, it had to do with whether it was fair to call Rush Limbaugh a racist. They did not give the name I use for my comments.

  9. Gwen Katz said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 10:20 pm

    I don't recall ever seeing that – a news article explicity quoting an anonymous Internet poster. Where would one see that happening?

    The recent high-profile case that I presume the comic is referring to is the Bret Stephens column in the New York Times about how terrible Millennials are that opened by quoting "someone with the Twitter handle @anarchopriapism," who at the time had 50 followers. Ironically, she's 20, and therefore not a Millennial.

    The two main reasons this is bad journalistic practice and different from quoting Joe Smith at the ball game: 1) It would be actively difficult to track down Joe Smith if you didn't like his opinion, whereas Bret provides a direct link for anyone who wants to harass anarchopriapism, and 2) Joe Smith gave his permission to be quoted, whereas anarchopriapism had no idea that she was going to be mentioned, unfavorably, to millions of people in the New York Times.

  10. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 4:50 am

    @Gwen Katz: Additional reasons it is bad journalism include that it makes quote shopping too easy. A long-standing feature of bad journalism is the reporter having a slot in his story to be filled by a quote that says whatever it is the narrative requires. So the reporter goes out and finds someone to give that quote. Or just makes it up, but reporters get fired for that sort of thing if they get caught. Why it is substantively worse than quote shopping is not clear to me. In any case, if you are willing to quote some random internet commenter, then you can shop around for your quote without ever picking up the phone, assured that nothing is so stupid that someone somewhere on the internet hasn't said it.

  11. Rube said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 6:55 am

    @Gwen Katz: "Ironically, she's 20, and therefore not a Millennial."

    An interesting topic for a Language Log post might be "What does Millennial actually mean, other than person under 40 that a grouchy old person wants to complain about?"

  12. Ken said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 7:07 am

    @Rube: To bring things full circle, XKCD's list of generations defines millennials as those born from 1982 to 1999.

  13. Trogluddite said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:54 am

    Regarding the professor's ramblings: in common with many other autistic people, this is a behaviour which I'm rather prone to myself. In this case, I'm not sure that it would be correct to ascribe a "motivation" to the behaviour; rather, it is a consequence of poor comprehension of social reciprocation and context coupled with attentional/cognitive bias towards details at the expense of the wider picture.

    Unless it is explicitly pointed out to me that I'm just monologuing a free-associative train of though, I can meander from tangent to tangent until the cows come home; all the while blissfully unaware that the original intent of opening my mouth has been lost, or that I might be boring my listeners to tears. An inconsequential, phatic comment is more than enough to act as the seed for this, not helped by my tendency to read figurative language rather more literally than intended.

    When writing, I have the opportunity to edit my prose into something rather more coherent (an hour or more of editing for a post of this length would not be unusual.) Many autistic people, including those not deemed to have functional language delays, report the same preference for written communication for similar reasons. Written communication eliminates many social/pragmatic considerations which, in face-to-face communication, can lead to us coming across as a bit strange.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:03 am

    While Mr. Stephens is not a pundit I generally feel obligated to go out of my way to stick up for, at least in the version of his column that ran in the less-paywalled Seattle Times he most definitely does not refer to @anarchopriapism as a Millennial, but merely as part of the "younger generation" (Joe Biden's phrase), which is expressly specified later in the column to include both Millennials proper and "their younger siblings in Generation Z." Now, that @anarchopriapism is a prototypical Millennial might be a fair inference from the headline affixed to the column, but the headline is unlikely to have been written by Mr. Stephens and for all I know may well not even have been run by Mr. Stephens for his approval before the piece was published. https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/dear-millennials-the-feeling-is-mutual-2/

  15. mollymooly said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 11:11 am

    "I don't recall ever seeing that – a news article explicity quoting an anonymous Internet poster. Where would one see that happening?"

    Contentfarm infotainment sites often throw together articles with titles like "Fans are divided over last night's episode of 'Birmingham's Next Top Survivor'" which consist of nothing but such quotes. Serious op-ed print journalism not so much.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 5:23 pm

    That is what I thought, and Mr. Stephens's quote was an exception. I imagine he did so not only as 'quote shopping' but because 'anarchopriapism' is such a silly name it just begs for it. Not getting permission to quote is presumably justified by the idea that anything made available to the public Internet is already public – respecting pseudonymity, of course.

    I figure Gwen Katz is trying to accuse him of sexism, talking about this alleged harassment she (the Twitter person) will receive, but is there any reason to think he even knew the person's gender, or thought anything about it?

  17. maidhc said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 5:59 pm

    Andrew Usher: At least 'anarchopriapism' demonstrates that its author has a pretty decent vocabulary. I would continue reading.

    It could plausibly be some kind of avant-garde art project.

  18. Michael Watts said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:16 pm

    Not getting permission to quote is presumably justified by the idea that anything made available to the public Internet is already public – respecting pseudonymity, of course.

    I'll add to this that (1) the entire purpose of a public Twitter account is to publish messages for public consumption; and (2) the Twitter terms of service are very clear that other people don't need your permission to quote you.

  19. Gwen Katz said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 10:44 pm

    I figure Gwen Katz is trying to accuse him of sexism

    Wait, what? Where on earth would you have gotten that from?

    "This person will receive a great deal of unwanted attention" is simply the obvious consequence of what happens when you use a platform with millions of readers to tell everyone that some random person sucks. If you don't realize this or don't understand why it's a problem, you really haven't been on the internet much.

  20. Andrew Usher said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 11:51 am

    Michael Watts:

    Twitter has no authority over the New York Times. If you're saying that have a legal right to use the quote, sure, I would be surprised if they didn't – but it can't be _because of_ Twitter's terms of service. [Copyright is a different issue but I'm sure this would pass the 'fair use' test anyway – quotes by journalists always do.]

  21. David Marjanović said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 10:22 am

    and 2) Joe Smith gave his permission to be quoted, whereas anarchopriapism had no idea that she was going to be mentioned, unfavorably, to millions of people in the New York Times.

    Public tweets are public – more public, in fact, than the New York Times, which is paywalled.

    So are the comments right here.

    This is why it's a good thing that Twitter lets people tweet anonymously.

  22. Sean M said,

    June 12, 2019 @ 9:10 am

    Pflaumbaum: What I see is that journalists decided that Facebook and Twitter have 'auctoritas' just like they decided that other aspects of the Internet (forums, mailing lists, reddit) do not. Journalists have a lot of conventions on who they cite which are a bit opaque to outsiders, and as FB/Google/Yahoo take their advertising revenues, they are working quicker and inclined to search social media rather than get on the phone or out in the street talking to people.

    Its a similar dynamic to academics avoiding citing reference works and websites by amateurs, a mix of good reasons ("that URL may go away tomorrow, my peers can check their own favourite reference book") and bad.

    I am concerned by it, but why I am concerned is not really a topic for Language Log.

RSS feed for comments on this post