Web Illiteracy: How Much Is Your Fault?

When hundreds of clueless commenters decided mid-February that ReadWriteWeb was the place to log in to Facebook, alerts went off in my personal network like alarms at a fire station. For the past few years I’ve been doing research on misunderstandings online; since it’s the subject of my doctoral thesis, all my friends know I eat, sleep, and breathe this topic, and was likely to be so buried in it that I’d miss new developments.

It’s a good thing they woke me from doctoral sluggishness; with thousands of comments, this is the biggest such thread I’ve seen. The ReadWriteWeb/Facebook thread looks a lot like previous threads, but it has some interesting new developments.

Guest author Gillian Andrews is finishing her dissertation at Columbia University. She collects other examples of misunderstandings on Gumbaby.com. She channels her Internet literacy energies into the hacker radio show Off The Hook and producing The Media Show on YouTube, an irreverent, puppet-fueled stab at mass education.

As ReadWriteWeb readers have learned, misunderstandings like these never fail to entertain and astound. They’ve been a repeat topic of interest on community blogs; MetaFilter, for example, has scratched its collective head about this many a time. Accusations always fly: these “strangers” (as I’ve come to call them) are idiots, illiterates, came from AOL, shouldn’t be allowed out on the Internet without someone to hold their hand. Less often, a few voices speak up from the development community and say, Wait a minute, we build the software the Internet runs on – isn’t this partly our fault?

The ReadWriteWeb thread lays the blame to some extent on search engines, as ReadWriteWeb writer Mike Melanson has already written. But it also points to the rise of social networking services as a culprit.

Social Networking Software Changed the Landscape

Examples of misunderstandings abound in listservs, blog comment threads, newspaper article comment sections and even Wikipedia. Blogs where people ask to get an account canceled are pretty common. The login fiasco on this website is the first time I’ve seen a firestorm of misunderstanding sparked specifically by people trying to log on to an unrelated website.

But then, the ability to log into a service from an unrelated website is only a few years old. Is it any surprise that people are thrown by it? These commenters arrived from a search engine, looking for Facebook. At the bottom of the page where they landed, ReadWriteWeb offered them the opportunity to “Sign in with Facebook.” They did – many comments link directly to a Facebook profile. What happened when they signed in? They were dropped right back on the ReadWriteWeb page where they started, with no indication of what had happened save for the line “Thanks for signing in, X. Now you can comment.”

Text Boxes: They’re Confusing

When commenters signed in to Facebook on ReadWriteWeb, it rewarded them with a text box labeled “Comments (You may use HTML tags for style).” Where do these comments go? It doesn’t say. It’s down at the bottom of a huge window, which means when you’re looking at it, you can’t see most of the page’s identifying information at the top of the page. (Except for the URL, but I’ll get to that in a minute.) Many text boxes around the Web are woefully under-labeled.

When I was beginning my research, a guy who worked at Blogger said to me, “People will put just anything in a text box,” and it seems to be true. Evidence abounds that people interpret comment boxes in any number of ways. Some think they are sending private email. Some think they’re sending a chat message, and get belligerent when nobody responds right away. A few seem to think it’s a word processor, and “Submit” means the same thing as “save.”

A comment which really blew my mind was posted to a blog by a woman who appeared to confuse comments on a blog with “online prayer” – an Internet activity which is probably unfamiliar to most denizens of high-tech blogs. Google it, though, and you’ll find numerous pages, with Pat Robertson’s organization ranking among the top ones.

Online prayer sites provide a form that lets you include your name, contact information, and a comment about what prayers you need – a form which looks startlingly like a blog comment form. The idea is that your message will be sent to Robertson or other church staff, and they will pray for you. Sometimes the form includes a promise that your message will be kept confidential; other times, there is no such promise, but it seems to matter little to those who don’t understand where a comment form goes anyway.

Online prayer may be new to you. Logging in to Facebook through another site is new to most of us. It’s worth keeping in mind that the vast majority of people alive today were never taught to read a webpage in school, the way they were taught to read the title, author information and pages of a book. This brings us to another theme in the ReadWriteWeb thread which is repeated across most other misunderstandings of this type.

Literacy is Not the Problem – New Kinds of Literacy Are

ReadWriteWeb readers and other “natives” call errant commenters any number of nasty names (and use an upsetting amount of eugenic language, suggesting these “idiot” commenters should be “weeded out of the gene pool.”) One favorite insult is “illiterate.”

As stated, this is a little unfair when most of these people never had a chance to learn Internet skills in school, where skills might be broken down into simple elements that most of us don’t even remember learning. (When you learn to read a book, for example, you learn which way to hold the book, how to turn pages, reading left to right, chunking letters into phonemes and words into sentences.)

But beyond being unfair, it’s not wholly correct to call them illiterate. They do read and write. They just don’t always do so in ways that are considered appropriate by the technologically skilled (and the code they write).

Literacy has never been a single monolithic skill. It involves both reading and writing, and these two skills are independent of each other. More to the point, literacy involves reading and writing differently in a range of situations. You may consider yourself literate because you have read Shakespeare, or because you can write a coherent quarterly report. But you don’t write your quarterly report as a sonnet. Different forms of literacy apply at different times, and people can be good at some kinds of literacy while needing assistance in others.

Basic decoding (reading) and writing are rarely the problem in these misunderstandings. While many comments left by strangers on the threads I have studied are misspelled, use bad grammar, or are written in all-caps (or, even more confusingly, All Initial Caps), plenty can’t be distinguished from the comments left by tech-savvy commenters when it comes to writing skill.

In fact, “strangers” are more likely than natives to write their comments in ways we all learned in school. In most of the threads I have studied, they make it clear who they are addressing (“Dear Facebook,”) who is writing (“Thanks, Linda”) and even how to understand where they are coming from geographically. They do this to the point of redundancy, sometimes entering this information into more than one comment field.

One stranger, trying to reach Maury Povich on a classic thread dug up by MetaFilter, writes a spellchecked-perfect traditional letter, right down to the formatting of the date and greetings. (When was the last time you spellchecked a hastily written comment?) Other errant commenters are published authors, or even have advanced degrees. Again, their problem is not traditional literacy; the problem is that the Internet demands new kinds of literacy, and they haven’t had the training yet. Mocking them in a comment thread doesn’t improve their skills.

Reading-wise, there are plenty of indications in my data that strangers have read other parts of the page. There seems to be a general trend that they are less likely to directly address a celebrity (for example) when the comments right above their own come from natives who say “ommfg, this is not Maury Povich’s website!” My favorite example of a stranger demonstrating her reading skills is a commenter on a thread where a blogger wrote about his joy at learning that all kinds of things – M&Ms, ketchup bottles, soda, etc – could now be customized. The blogger titled his post “Ketchup of the People.” The commenter wrote:

I found the order for custom printed m & m’s in the coupon section of the providence journal sunday paper. It said nothing about ordering ketchup first or anything about the blog. All I wanted was to surprise my 80 year old aunt who loves m & m’s with this special custom order. What is this a scam or something? If it is, it’s pretty cruel? Please respond.


Through some referral-log forensics, the blogger and his readers determined that this commenter had, in fact, entered the URL provided by her newspaper. The problem was, the offer had expired, and the only remaining reference to this URL was on the blogger’s page, where she landed. So she set about trying to make sense of what she found in the best way she could. Would she have to order ketchup first? Was the blog somehow a gatekeeper to the order? This all sounded fishy – was it a scam?

Presented with apparent nonsense, all of us do our best to make sense of it; that’s just what the human brain does. On the Web, people don’t always have the information they need to understand what’s going on.

What is a URL?

One of the most important elements errant commenters aren’t using, which the tech-savvy have at their command, is a page’s URL. Internet-illiterate commenters generally don’t know what “URL” means, or what one does. Check the URLs attached to their names in blog comments; you will often find they have entered an email address, subject line, their name, or something to the effect of “I don’t know what this is” in the URL field that went with their comment.The fact that many errant commenters seem to enter “Facebook” into Google’s search field to get to the page also suggests that URLs aren’t a part of their Internet literacy skills.

Interface designers aren’t helping. Most URL bars now resolve into search results. This may seem like a good UI solution, but it is a catastrophic mistake from a literacy perspective. URLs aren’t just how we get to a page; they are involved in how we judge its content, accuracy, point of view, and most importantly who owns it.

Obscuring or drawing attention away from URLs keeps people from understanding how to judge the quality of material on the Internet. Considering that most people have not had schooling to help them understand the Internet – and it’s unlikely that even kids in school today have formal opportunities to learn about URLs, considering the number of schools which limit Internet access – these steps taken by UI designers simply compound the problem.

Which leads me to my final point:

They’re Not Illiterate – You Are

As crazy as it sounds, Melanson makes a certain amount of sense when he lays the blame for the Facebook flap at Google’s feet. Google is the best search engine going right now, but it’s not perfect. The shift to real-time results and its underlying popularity-contest mechanic make it ineffective in specific settings. (“Specific” being key; the other problem with search engines, and the subject of extensive research in schools of information, is their inability to respond to a given user’s context. But that’s a topic for another article.)

Facebook – and even ReadWriteWeb – are also somewhat to blame, considering how the cross-site login service is presented to users; as I noted, the messages sent to those signing in are unclear (thanks for signing in to what? Now you can comment where? What does it mean to sign in to Facebook on ReadWriteWeb, anyway? Is this a scam?)

Literacy is a two-way street. They may be dumb for not reading the pages right, but some of the code, search algorithms, and interfaces involved aren’t perfect, either. Not to mention the way “savvy” commenters and other bloggers write. The more people linked to the original ReadWriteWeb thread with the words “Facebook login” in the link, the more the ReadWriteWeb thread appeared to Google to be relevant to Facebook login.

As has been noted, blog posts with “Facebook” in the title were likely to see more unwanted traffic as well. This even spread the problem to other blogs linking to ReadWriteWeb, some of whom also started to see login requests in their comment threads. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has noted bad titling among a number of bloggers’ other bad writing habits, including poor-quality About pages which don’t explain who is writing.

These are ways of writing which bring about undesired consequences, and yet bloggers and other members of the technological elite use them all the time. Is this part of the new illiteracy?

The funny thing about the patterns in these misunderstandings is that they predate the Web. Newspapers receive misdirected mail for celebrities. Scientists receive email from people who want help registering a patent. Fans have been writing letters to the heroine of Romeo and Juliet at least since the release of the first movie in the 1930s; they arrive by the mailbag in Verona, Italy every year, despite the fact that if you’ve read through to the end, Juliet clearly isn’t in any state to write a letter back. The Internet simply makes this kind of confusion more obvious to the rest of us.

The great thing about watching these train wrecks happen in real time is they leave such great evidence of how they could be fixed. Web designers could be paying more attention to labeling their text boxes. Browser designers could be building ways to help people understand URLs better, like the Firefox Flagfox extension, which shows a page’s country of origin and makes it trivial to run a WhoIs lookup. We could all be a little smarter in writing links and titling our blog posts.

Fixing search engines is a much thornier problem. More complicated still is the chicken-and-egg problem of how to make a large population Internet literate, when many teachers don’t understand the Internet themselves, and when schools face legal threats if their students have enough Internet access to accidentally stray onto pornographic sites.

But again: calling commenters “illiterate,” “stupid,” or “sub-literate monotremes” (yeah Miles, we see what you did there) is not the same thing as a solution to the problem.

Photo by Miguel Ugalde

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