November 11, 2012
It’s been quite a few months since I expended the entire blog on a bitter personal vendetta against robots. Well, maybe I’m able to make some putative connection to the Thornapple CSA’s nominal orientation to food issues most of the time. And as someone with advanced training in logic and the theory of knowledge, I can safely say that I haven’t really given the entire blog over to personal vendettas, even on those earlier occasions. I always make room for the obligatory tangent, you know, and I’m perfectly capable of taking that tangent into the realm of pumpkin pie filling or weeds. And weeds are a central topic for food ethics, even if that gets missed by some of those mollycoddle food bloggers who are focused on recipes and the aesthetics of artisanally grown coffees.
So I’m going to indulge myself on robots for a few paragraphs this fine, sunny November morning in mid-Michigan. Both of my regular readers will remember that if you write and maintain a WordPress blog, that has a “Comments” window (and if you peruse down the page you will see that this is indeed the case for the Thornapple Blog), you are going to get between 60 and 300 comments posted to the blog every week. While this might initially make you think that this is a reason to think that you are being taken seriously by legions of Internet surfers, or at least as an occasion for mockery and amusement, you would be sadly wrong in drawing such an inference. And you would be wrong because the Blogosphere has become a zone that is used primarily to boost the search ratings for various commercial and political websites. It seems that the function webheads refer to as “search” revolves heavily around the “ratings” that various websites achieve through, on the one hand “hits” and other hand “links”.
Now if you are a similarly aged hunk of cheese to myself, you might think that a hit is either a frequently purchased ditty from “The Top 40” or alternatively an activity not entirely unrelated to the aforementioned food ethics topic (e.g. weeds), though in this case quite indirectly so. And you might think that links is a reference to the game of golf. But once again, if you did make such inferences you would be wrong, because in this a case a hit occurs every time some unsuspecting webhead loads a page, and a link (as I’m sure both my readers actually know quite well) is an embedded bit of code that will take you from one webpage to another. Search engines have to come up with some algorithm for determining which pages come up first in the results page, and they do this (in part) by counting hits and links, under the assumption that both hits and links are in some vague sense indicators of the value or relevance that actual human beings associate with a given webpage.
So there is a large and clever industry that has developed around multiplying the number of hits and links. If you post a comment that has an embedded link (like for example, a signature that takes one to a website advertising cheap Louis Vuitton knock-offs) then every time some unsuspecting blogger such as myself “approves” the comment, posting it on the blog site, then one creates a spurious link to the site. If one does this enough, it can quite dramatically affect the rating that the various search programs give to one’s website. There’s also an even more nefarious activity of writing automated programs that create “blogs” consisting entirely of random text copied from other places, then building up ratings by automatically posting comments to these meaningless ogg blogs that are approved by a robot administer and that multiply the hit rate dramatically. It means first that anyone who doesn’t play this game (though the masters of search are onto it) is going to be confined to a rather glorious obscurity in the blogosphere, and it means second that those of us who do actually write legitimate blogs (I note parenthetically that this has nothing to do with the views of defeated Misssouri Senatorial candidate Todd Akins) are going to spend an hour or two a week going through all these spurious “comments” to our blog in order to decide what to do about them. Try Googling the phrase ‘this is getting a bit more subjective’ if you don’t believe me.
As I’ve explained before, unless you write something in the comment box that gives me pretty strong evidence that you read the blog and are responding to it, I just delete the comment. Not that you have to respond in a particularly thoughtful or intelligent way (apologies to any of you who do comment on the blog if you take this qualification personally—I didn’t mean it that way, really). So if you post a comment like “Needed to send you that bit of word to finally say thank you over again on the great pointers you …” it just goes into the trash. There are no stinking pointers in the Thornapple Blog! Or even a seemingly pleasant one like “I love to read this kind of blog, nice and attractive information I take from it,” which actually turns out to have a link to a porn site embedded in it. (Checking out the links embedded in my commentators’ signature occasionally turns out to be the most exciting part of my week, but at the end of the day, they don’t really need any help from me.)
But every now and then, a robot says something that’s kind of funny, so I break down and approve the comment, like I did a couple of weeks ago. Apology to real-live readers who weren’t actually looking for a dentist in the Nethelands or another porn site, but someone who signs themselves “Best Automated Blog Commenter”… How can I resist that?
Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State Univesity