The phenomenon Errant commenters on blogs

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The phenomenon Errant commenters on blogs Powered By Docstoc
					The phenomenon: Errant commenters on blogs

In October of 2003, I posted some notes to my personal blog about how I was settling in
to my first few months of Teachers College, along with a few pieces of cultural detritus
that had recently captured my attention. One was a Glamour Magazine call for men to
participate in a hair-makeover article. I had passed the call along to an angry punk friend
of mine who was bald, but never heard back as to whether Glamour had called on him to
participate. “Maybe his hair isn't ‘floppy’ enough,” I wrote in the blog post. “Oh, lord, all
that suggests to me is more Ashton Kutchers.”

Two months later, the first comment was posted to those notes:

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
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

It was quickly followed with:

is this ashon we dont know so if its not and u know him tell him we love him give him our
names and our email addresses .
So we didnt know because we read some other peples after we wrote it so we r writing

Posted by: same people that rote the hott thing to u at December 28, 2003 12:02 PM

It appeared that two young girls, ostensibly from North Carolina and Tennessee, thought
that my website was actually Ashton Kutcher’s – or else were amusing themselves by
pretending it was.

These comments were far from unique. The post garnered a number of other comments
from people who also apparently thought the site belonged to Ashton Kutcher. A few of
my other posts also began to gather comments; a post where I’d mocked Mary Kate and
Ashley Olsen gathered demands for nude pictures of them, and a post in which I had
briefly described a day on which my third-grade students talked about a dance called the
Crip Walk collected dozens if not hundreds of requests for lessons on how to do the
dance – as well as comments from self-proclaimed Crip gang members who warned that
non-gangsters should not do the dance. A friend’s site gathered requests for answers to
riddles, and angry defenses of singer Celine Dion.
As I began to ask around, it grew clear we were not alone. The vaunted community
weblog MetaFilter has at least three threads (one of them quite long) featuring instances
where blogs, consumer review sites, guestbooks, and other sites which permit feedback
have accumulated comments unrelated to their original posts, many of them from
searchers looking for celebrities or answers to questions. Many bloggers I speak to can
identify a page on their site or someone else’s where comments like these have been
posted. Software developers and webmasters I have spoken to confirm that many text
boxes, not just blog comment fields, elicit similar responses. One developer who worked
for Blogger summed it up thus: “Give people a text box, and they’ll put absolutely
anything in it.” In December of 2007, I began a blog to keep track of the instances of
these happenings, which, in shorthand, I’ve been calling the Gumbaby phenomenon.1

What is the source of this phenomenon? At what point do these commenters fail to
understand the websites they are reading? Or is it rather a misunderstanding of how the
Internet works? How do people rationalize commenting on web pages they do not appear
to have read? These are the questions I hope to answer in this study.

Introduction: Problematizing search

Judging from the long threads on MetaFilter, and the exclamations of recognition uttered
by other bloggers and software developers when I bring up this topic, there appear to be a
large number of Internet users who do not read search results and web pages the way one
might expect them to. Regular readers of MetaFilter visiting the errant comment threads
asked a number of questions which might be voiced by concerned educators: Can’t these
people read? Why are they commenting when this is clearly not the site they’re looking
for? Do they actually think they’re writing to celebrities? How did they get to this
website? (In a few cases, readers answered the last question using referral logs and
experiments with Google: a webcomic about human-computer interaction turned out to
be the #1 result for “cancel Google,” with the algorithm paying attention to the site’s title,
OK/Cancel.) The entire picture of why these sites are garnering such off-base comments
is not clear yet; this study aims to shed more light on the phenomenon.

  In the legends of West Africa, the Gum Baby was a device used by the trickster hero Anansi to catch a
fairy, Mwatiya. Anansi carved the figure of a child, covered it in sap, left it by the side of the road — and
let the fairy’s misunderstanding of the sticky figure’s silence do the rest of the work. The fairy, assuming
the gumbaby was alive, greeted it. Receiving no response, the fairy got angry. Did nobody teach you
manners? the fairy said. Do you think you’re too good to talk to me? Still getting no response, the fairy hit
the gumbaby, and stuck to the sap. How dare you grab me! said the fairy. She hit the gumbaby again —
then kicked it — and was firmly stuck. Anansi took the captured fairy to the Sky God and claimed his
reward: the title of King of All Stories, and a golden box containing every story known to humankind.

This legend is an ancestor of the story of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby, in which roles are reversed and the
trickster Rabbit is trapped by Br’er Fox. The Disney movie Song of the South is perhaps where most
Americans know of the Br’er Rabbit tale. Through that portrayal, the term “Tar Baby” has unfortunately
taken on a negative racial tone. Seeking to avoid the twisting of this tale that occurred through the legacies
of slavery, which tends to be associated with the term “tar baby,” the name of this site returns to the roots
of the story to retrieve the original gist of the metaphor.
It could be argued that users’ misreading or misunderstanding of search results is largely
responsible for large quantities of spurious information on the Internet. Advertisers
looking to profit off prescription drugs, travel deals, insurance, pornography, and other
big sellers deluge blogs and other feedback mechanisms with spam links, looking to
change their standing in Google’s PageRank and other engines’ rankings so that their
clients’ sites will be listed more highly in search results. An entire industry -- search
engine optimization -- has arisen to provide this service.

While the success of the optimizing industry relies on “gaming” search engines and
developing networks of pages, links, and spam which will drive traffic to the desired
pages, it also depends on searchers who click through high ranking results which do not
have the information they are seeking. Guiding searchers through redirects, dummy
search engines, and business websites ostensibly helps drum up sales for businesses
which choose to advertise this way. Driving this traffic is far easier when users do not
stop to assess the quality of the links and pages they click through.

For the most part, search engine users do not understand that this is going on.The Pew
Internet and American Life Project found that only 62% of its national sample were
aware of the difference between search results which appeared because of advertising
placement and those which were just ranked by algorithm. Only 18% of their overall
respondants thought they could tell the difference between advertising results and unpaid
results. (“Search Engine Users,” 2005) It should be noted that simple pay-for-play search
manipulations are much more obvious in their appearance than optimized results, as
search engine companies are under obligation to visually distinguish between paid and
unpaid results. If roughly two thirds of searchers are not aware of pay-for-play, one
wonders how many are aware of manipulations (either benign or malign) at the algorithm
level, like optimization and Google PageRank.

Speaking to this issue, 68% of the Pew study’s respondants thought “search engines are a
fair and unbiased source of information.” 57% of their respondants were not aware that a
number of search engine companies had considered or experimented with tracking user
behavior for the sake of improving search results. (“Search Engine Users,” Fallows,

The Pew study found differences among populations of searchers based on whether or
not they thought search engines were “fair and unbalanced.” Those who did believe in the
fairness and balance of search engines were found to be more likely than those who
didn’t to use just one search engine, were much (about 20%) less likely to know about
paid placement in search results, and were also more likely to feel satisfied with the
results their searches generally returned. (“Search Engine Users,” Fallows, 2005)

The Pew study found that only 7% of their population reported making use of more than
3 search engines; about half (48%) used two or three, while almost as many (44%) used
only one search engine. (Fallows 2005) Similar findings about monolithic use of search
engines has been echoed elsewhere. (Graham and Metaxas, 2003)
An interesting and largely unnoted finding of the Pew study was that some 35% of those
who have had no more than one to two years using the Internet claim that they have not
made use of search engines. This drops off as they gain more experience online, with
27% of those between 2-3 years online, 21% of those with 4-5 years online, and 10% of
those having spent 6 or more years online claiming they have not made use of search
engines. (Fallows 2005) It might be worth investigating how many of these Internet users
have used search engines without realizing it – indicating a lack of basic comprehension
of web elements. Pew does not look into this question.

To date, educators and librarians have generally been less concerned about the roles of
search engine optimization, spam, and paid placement than they have been concerned that
searchers will place faith in parody websites (Leu et al 2007), political or racist
propaganda (Graham and Metaxas, 2003), misinformation on Wikipedia (NEED CITE),
and other less ephemeral, more concerted web-based efforts to disseminate information
they deem “wrong.” These warning calls do share the same concern with searchers’ poor
development of search queries and haphazard approach to selecting search results.

Henry (2007) found that both low- and high-income middle-school students – and the
teachers who taught them -- performed poorly on tests of reading for “accuracy and bias”
on the Internet, though high-income students and teachers performed better on tests of
critical evaluation of information they found there.

A number of studies have found that users, particularly younger users, settle on the first
result returned by a search engine and either do not bother to look at the rest of their
results or go through them dogmatically without a thoughtful plan (Graham and Metaxas
2003; Guinee, Eagleton, & Hall, 2003, cited in Henry, 2006; OTHER CITES)

This poor use of search results seems to be evident in another Internet artifact: the user
search records that AOL released to the public (and subsequently withdrew) in 2006. In
records of the queries made by an AOL user assigned the number 711391, one finds that
the sites where this user ended up frequently seem unrelated or only peripherally related
to the words in the query:

Query                                         Landed on site
friends online can be different in person, an Internet magazine
women with curvy bodies             , an advice site for
anti anxiety drugs                  , which redirects
                                              to the website for New York Magazine
tips for healing blisters           , a Christian website
top alaska attractions              , a tourism website
                                              for New Jersey
what is middle aged spread          , a database of
Ultimately, though, we do not know what AOL user 711391 did with his/her results. Did
(s)he ultimately feel (s)he found what (s)he was looking for? (S)he often clicked through
multiple results for the same search. Was (s)he merely enjoying the serendipity of finding
a trove of cartoons when (s)he started out looking for “middle aged spread?”2

While the form of gumbaby comments seems to confirm that a superficial,
uncomprehending search style is common to many Internet users, the subject matter of
many gumbabies – celebrities -- also follows common patterns of search. In a 2001
analysis of search queries made to, the word “celebrity” was the 50th most
commonly entered search term (and 11 of the top 50 terms were prepositions,
conjunctions, modifying symbols, and other very common words). (Jansen et al 2000;
Spink et al 2001) In a follow up study, the word “star” was number 75, and terms related
to “princess diana” (who had died shortly before the date the data was collected) were
also in the top 75 (again, with a number of small words preceding it in the listing). (Spink
et al 2001) This paper notes that another study of Alta Vista search data turned up two
celebrity phrases (“pamela anderson” and “spice girls”) in their top 25 queries.
(Silverstein et al 1999, cited in Spink et al 2001)

Celebrity names routinely rank among the most popular search queries; the Pew study
notes that Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears had been in Lycos’s top 50 searches for
277 weeks running. (Fallows, 2005) Google, meanwhile, has documented close to 600
misspellings of Britney Spears’s name in queries made to their search engine (with the
top three misspellings being entered over 100,000 times)3, so it is possible that
estimations of query popularity which only take well-spelled queries into account
drastically underestimate how popular these searches are. Which celebrities appear
among the most popular searches changes over time, but on any given day it is a relative
certainty that some celebrity name will appear in a given search engine’s top-ranked

The Gumbaby phenomenon lends further credence to researchers’ findings that users
unthinkingly click on links, and that they maintain faith in results which may be biased
by spam or payola. Watching these comment threads unfold, one might feel inclined to
embark on an emergency campaign to develop better digital literacy instruction.
However, some lines of thought in the field of literacy education suggest it is better not to
go off half-cocked.

The problem with problematizing digital literacies

It would be easy to look at the gumbaby phenomenon and conclude that the commenters
are misguided illiterates who need to be trained to read the Internet appropriately. But

  AOL took down the records it erroneously posted, but they remain in circulation on the
web and are still retrievable by way of the Wayback Machine: for this user,
these people are still navigating the ‘net. They pass through search engines, typing
queries which find the names of celebrities and software programs; they click links; they
successfully post comments using blog software. These are, ultimately, still literacy
practices. And B.V. Street, a formative thinker in the field of New Literacies, has
demonstrated that to be so quick to dismiss a group’s literacy practices interferes with
formal attempts to change those practices. (Street, 1995)

Street has delineated problems which arise when those aiming to foster literacy in an
"illiterate" population ignore the reading and writing practices in which the "illiterates"
already engage. Street describes top-down literacy instructional programs as essentially
colonialist, enforcing the use of particular reading and writing skills to support the
development of particular kinds of labor, social or government organization, or religion.
The effect of such programs in practice is generally not what its developers intend.
Rather than adopting the practices taught in these literacy programs whole-cloth, the
population being taught is more likely to pick and choose which kinds of reading and
writing best fit its existing literacy practices, abandoning those which do not fit their
existing structure. Street gives numerous historical examples of this selective adoption,
including Fijians’ adaptation of Christian missionary reading and writing practices into
the development of cargo cults; urban Iranians’ use of bland textbook facts as a
shibboleth to distinguish themselves as more rational than “backwards” villagers; and the
adoption of writing as a means for previously forbidden emotional expression on an
island in the South Pacific. Street notes that frequently these repurposings of literacy
involved manipulation of the “paralinguistic and pragmatic features” of texts, “their
formal appearance, decoration, covers, etc.,” as well as working with syntax and word
meaning. (p 92, Street, 1995) The result is practices which do not match the ones
intended by the literacy teachers.

Scholars following in the footsteps of Street similarly find ways in which educators’
ignorance of “native” literacy practices proves to be the undoing of school-based literacy
activities. Margaret Finders documents a similar conflict in a junior high writing
classroom in the US. Unlike Street, the “native” literacy practices she focuses on are not
institutionalized as formally as they would be in masjids or cargo cults; they consist of
junior high girls’ passing notes, reading magazines together, signing yearbooks, and
writing grafitti on bathroom walls. Finders makes a convincing case that girls develop
identities in these unrecognized literacy practices which they use to undermine the goals
of the teacher as she invites students to share their writing in a “safe” space. (Finders,

Gee (CITING HALLIDAY AND MARTIN, 1993 – FIND) has developed some
hypotheses about why, on an individual level, students sometimes refuse to pick up
particular literacy practices. He describes modern school-related literacy practices as
demanding that participants sacrifice subjective aesthetic appreciation, empathy, and a
willingness to deal with ambiguity, and posits that this sacrifice may not seem sustainable
to many learners:
        The crucial question then is this: “Why would anyone – most especially a child in
        school – accept this loss?”
        My view is that people will accept this loss only if they see the gain as a gain....
        People can only see a new specialist language as a gain if: (a) they recognize and
        understand the sorts of socially situated identities and activities that recruit the
        specialist language; (b) they value these identities and activities, or at least
        understand why they are valued; and (c) they believe they (will) have access to
        these identities and activities, or at least (will) have access to meaningful (perhaps
        simulated) versions of them....
        Thus acquisition is heavily tied at the outset to identity issues. It is tied to the
        learner’s willingness and trust to leave (for a time and place) the “everyday”
        world and participate in another identity – one that for everyone represents a
        certain loss. For some people it represents a more significant loss in terms of a
        disassociation from, and even opposition to, their home- and community-based
        cultures. [emphases in original, Gee 2004 p 93-94]

If existing literacy practices -- even marginalized or stigmatized ones such as passing
notes and writing grafitti – are implicated in the failings of literacy instruction; if they are
closely tied in enough with students’ identities that giving them up represents an
unsustainable sacrifice, it behooves scholars interested in teaching literacy to understand
why. It behooves digital literacy scholars in particular to understand students’ existing
practices in the terra incognita these scholars are currently approaching. (WORDS

If we follow Street, Gee, and Finders’s reasoning, developing a description of users’
native, everyday Internet literacy practices is necessary as a foundation for information
literacy programs, if we want them to have a concrete effect on the populations we wish
to reach. To proceed without such an understanding, to proceed under the assumption that
gumbaby commenters are simply “illiterate” -- or even to proceed as if the information
literacy practices of educators align perfectly with the infrastructure of the Internet-- is
likely to result in the development of information literacy programs which the target
population might regard as alien, condescending, or useless, or from which they pick and
choose skills as they fit into what they already do.

My project at hand is to observe the literacy practices of those who comment on
gumbabies – and, possibly, the literacy practices implied by the software (search engines
and blog software) with which they come into contact. The actual development of literacy
curricula which might be based on these findings is another project, beyond the scope of
this study.

Studies on Internet literacies

Leu et al (2007) at the TICA (Teaching Internet Comprehension to Adolescents) project
ran a study which tackled similar concerns to the present study’s, though with an
approach much more oriented to developing effective school curricula. The study sought
to identify “which skills and strategies appear to be important for successful online
reading comprehension.” (Leu et al, 2007) To investigate this, they had 53 seventh-grade
students perform web searches on topics selected by the students as well as by the
researchers. Students alternately talked aloud, were prompted to talk aloud by
researchers, or reviewed recordings of their searches to explain their thinking afterwards.

The most striking finding was student interpretations of a website on the researcher-
defined search task, a joke website which claimed that a fictitious cephalopod, the Pacific
Northwest Tree Octopus, was endangered, and called for assistance in saving it. Only six
of their students took this site as anything but literally true; the rest of the students
diligently researched the octopus as if it existed, and reported back as requested by the
researchers. The six students who questioned the validity of the site had specifically been
shown this site by a school librarian, who used it to demonstrate the untrustworthiness of
information on the Internet.

Leu et al concluded that locating and “critically evaluating” information were two
“circuitbreaker” skills, whose absence from a student’s search process could hamper their
success in finding the right information online. Like (SO AND SO’S MODEL) in
information retrieval, they concluded that “critical evaluation” could take place at any of
a number of steps in the process – choosing a search string, looking at pages,
summarizing their information for others, and so forth.

Leu et al labelled students who rejected the validity of the Tree Octopus website “more
successful with the evaluation of online information,” but ultimately concluded these
        did not employ any strategy to critically evaluate the reliability of this site nor did
        [they] provide evidence from the Internet to support his evaluation[; they] only
        relied upon a previous classroom experience, where [they] had been told that the
        information was false. (Leu et al 2007)
Saying these students “did not employ any strategy” is perhaps a bit facile. Research on
information retrieval suggests that relying on one’s own past experience is in fact the
most common informational strategy, and around half of the adult population will rely on
a friend or neighbor, or a professional, when looking for information. (Julien 1998, 1999
in Case 2002; Chen and Hernan 1982, Dervin et al DATE in Marchionini 1991)

Leu et al are thus left with a problem which they do not delve into in this paper. The six
students who rejected the Tree Octopus site as spurious produced an evaluation of the site
which the researchers appear to approve of; and yet, they did not perform the behavior
the researchers wanted lead to this evaluation. This raises a question also left unanswered
by the paper: What do Leu et al mean when they say “critical evaluation skills”? (DID
THEY SAY IT ELSEWHERE) What do these encompass? Are they just specific to the
Internet, or are they supposed to be generic, domain- and Discourse-agnostic, like
traditional conceptions of literacy skills?

In a separate article, Coiro, one of the researchers involved in TICA, described skills that
would ostensibly fall into the category of critical evaluation. (Coiro, 2003) She mentions
a couple of websites which offer teachers resources to help students “validate online
information and to recognize commercial propaganda and bias,” as well as “key habits of
mind” described by Brunner and Tally (1999). These include asking the following

      What particular perspective of reality is represented?
      What explicit or hidden values underlie this text?
      What media conventions are used in this text and how do they shape the way the
       information is interpreted?
      Who is the intended audience and how might different audiences interpret the
      Who owns the text and who benefits from it? (Brunner 1999, via Coiro 2003)

These are no doubt useful questions to ask. There is, in fact, something approaching
consensus in the media literacy education community – a community which is not
generally prone to consensus (Hobbs 1998) – that questions similar to these are a bare
minimum for students to ask as they approach media texts. (Hobbs 1998) (ADD: FROM

These questions are, however, not simply matters of skill. Many of them appeal to a body
of factual, contextual knowledge. “Who owns the text?” and “what particular perspective
is represented?” suggest that the viewer has some political, economic, or social
knowledge which can be applied to the text. To ask about “explicit or hidden values” and
“perspectives on reality” again suggests political, religious, cultural, or even scientific
ways of thinking about different information. And questions about “intended audience” –
an implied monster-in-the-closet in a number of popular press articles on youth merrily
relinquishing their privacy on YouTube or MySpace – might even imply a worldliness
encompassing other cultures and age groups. In order to understand texts through these
lenses, students will have to be exposed to what Jim Gee calls Discourses or domains,
and will need to have mentally run through “simulations” or models of the text content
and how it fits in among other texts. (Gee, 2004)

A problem with “internet literacy:” domain knowledge, or skills?

Street emphasizes that a group’s acquisition of technical “literacy skills” does not
inherently imply that the group has taken on the attitudes which a teacher or other
instructor wishes them to learn. A major failing of some of the research on literacy
practices, Street writes, is its tendency to conflate technical skills with ways of thinking
or being social:

       Exponents of the ‘autonomous’ model of literacy, as we have seen, have
       attempted to treat literacy as an independent variable, supposedly detached from
       its social context, and then to ‘read off’ its consequences.... The major
       ‘consequence’ of literacy has, then, been that it ‘facilitates’ logic, rationality,
       objectivity and rational thinking. (cf. Goody, 1968, 1977; Ong, 1977, 1982a and
       b; Olson, 1977) (Street 1995, p 76)
Street’s examples of Fijian, Iranian, and Melanesian repurposing of reading and writing
demonstrate the ease with which the techniques of literacy can be separated from the
ways of thinking and being with which they are often associated, and the content they are
often used to convey.

In the field of Library and Information Studies, concerns similar to Street’s are voiced by
Tuominen, Savolainen, and Talja (2005). These researchers share Street’s attention to the
ways that technical skills and content knowledge are being mistaken for each other, and
the sensitivity to top-down prescriptions for literacy uses.

Reviewing literature in their field Tuominen et al point out that, like the literature on
literacy in schools, much of the literature in LIS has been prescriptive, and does not
sufficiently consider information-seeking which does not fit a library model – particularly
interpersonal information seeking or interaction with technology.

Inspecting standards for information literacy, Tuominen et al find them written as if such
literacy skills are “a cluster of abilities that 'are common to all disciplines, to all learning
environments and to all levels of education.'" (p 333) Additionally, they find in these
standards a suggestion that learners should be able to construct meaning entirely on their
own – without interaction with others, without input from media. A key concern of
Tuominen et al is that such constructions of “reading” information ignore the production
of knowledge by readers.

Tuominen et al conclude by calling for instruction in information literacy which is based
on research into daily tasks and situations within specific communities of practice. The
goal, they say, should be “enabling groups and communities to cultivate existing
information strategies and about supporting them in their interactions with information
technologies." (p 340-341) They suggest support should be given so that users can not
only evaluate information in the specific domains they are engaging with, but also
evaluate the domain of the technology being used to search, considering how it is
constructed, its underlying values, and its context.

A major proponent of the distinction between literacy practices in different domains is
James Gee. In Situated Language and Learning, Gee distinguishes between “vernacular
varieties” and “specialist varieties” of a given language. (Gee, 2004) Everyday language
falls under the category of vernacular dialects, while specialist varieties are used by
specific communities in working with particular subject matter in depth. Gee emphasizes
that both kinds of dialects are closely related to distinct ways of seeing, relating to, and
interacting with the world; elsewhere, he has called these ways of being or “playing the
game” “Discourses.” (Gee 1996, Gee 2003, Gee 2004) He claims that “the vast majority
of texts in the modern world are not written in the vernacular, but in some specialist
variety of language,” requiring familiarity with these ways of being in order to succeed in
a given field. (Gee 2004, p 17) This further supports the idea that “Internet literacy” as
posited by the TICA group scholars would need to involve familiarity with a range of
knowledge domains.
If we consider that Internet knowledge is its own domain, some of the findings of Henry
(2007) about correlation of Internet literacy skill and time on task stand to reason. Her
study demonstrated that amount of Internet use appeared to correlate with Internet
literacy skill level. From this finding, we might guess that the additional time successful
Internet spend on task is spent adding to their knowledge of the domain of Internet
technology. She suggests that this contributes to the Digital Divide, with both students
and teachers who have less Internet access both in and out of school less proficient at
reading online.

It follows from these calls to attend to domain-related literacy skills that if we want to
know about the apparent failures of readers online, it might behoove us to look at their
Internet knowledge as a domain unto itself, while also looking at their familiarity with the
domain implied or sought by a particular search. It may also be important to attend to the
possibility that there are both vernacular and specialist varieties of Internet knowledge,
and these may be different and possibly even conflicting.

To better understand Internet fluency, this study will pay attention to Internet knowledge
as its own domain, as well as content knowledge, so as to avoid conflating the two. It will
be adviseable to focus the study on search queries within a particular domain of
knowledge, in order to reduce the noise introduced by a range of different domain
practices. It will also be necessary to ask subjects about their knowledge within distinct

Because a preponderance of gumbabies found to date seem to be related to searches for
television shows, movies, and celebrities, this may be a fruitful domain of content
knowledge to consider, perhaps bringing in knowledge of the entertainment industry, film
and video production, or fan communities surrounding these people and properties. Such
an investigation should be of interest to scholars in the field which has called itself
“media literacy” since well before the advent of the Internet, as well as “new literacies”
scholars and others interested in newer communications technologies.

Media and celebrity as a domain of knowledge

The domain of fan behavior has been studied extensively in departments of cultural
studies, giving some insight which may be of use to this study. A survey of the literature
yields a few models of the ways celebrities may be used by those who love them from a
distance. Some of these are social, while others tend toward the psychological.

Social models of fandom and celebrity

Recent scholars have emphasized the importance of not treating fan activity as
pathological. To treat fandom fairly may require that scholars step outside of their own
socialization outside academia; popular discourses about fans are generally pejorative. In
her contribution to The Adoring Audience, “Fandom as Pathology,” Joli Jenson analyzes
these discussions themselves. She discusses two common characterizations of fans: fans
as “obsessed loners,” and fans as members of an irrational mob.

Jenson finds the roots of both of these stereotypes in anxieties about modernity, and
dismisses these origins as more emotional than they are based in actuality:

       Each fan type mobilizes related assumptions about modern individuals: the
       obsessed loner invokes the image of the alienated, atomized ‘mass man;’ the
       frenzied crowd member invokes the image of the vulnerable, irrational victim of
       mass persuasion.... the present is seen as materially advanced but spiritually
       threatened. Modernity has brought technological progress but social, cultural, and
       moral decay. The modernity critique is both nostalgic and romantic, because it
       locates lost virtues in the past, and believes in the possibility of their return. (p 14)

The “obsessed loner,” she writes, supposedly builds their fictional relationship to a
celebrity to replace the lost, stabilizing forces of community and family. Meanwhile,
screaming female concertgoers and male sports fans have supposedly built “irrational
loyalties” to the crowds they take part in, which exert an irresistible emotional pull on

These images crop up in the media in response to seemingly incomprehensible events
like John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster or
violent soccer riots. (p 11) Jenson suggests the themes of loners and screaming fans serve
more of a purpose for the self-identification of those writing and reading these stories
than they do as explanations of how media affect us. Comparing the obsessive behaviors
of fans with the equally obsessive activities of academics (!), Jenson points out that the
only real distinction between these behaviors is social sanction. She notes that the quality
of the fixation on a famous person – is it openly emotional? “excessive”? -- and the status
of that person in society, are used by the educated upper class to determine whether a fan
is an acceptable “aficionado” or a questionable “fanatic.” “By conceiving of fans as
members of a lunatic fringe which cracks under the pressure of modernity,” she writes,

       ... we tell ourselves a reassuring story – yes, modernity is dangerous, and some
       people become victims of it by succumbing to media influence or mob
       psychology, but we do not.... Unlike obsessed and frenzied fans, we are in touch
       with reality. We have not crossed that line between what is real and what is
       imaginary. (p 24)

Anthropologists no longer need to explain why they are not treating their respondants as
irrational participants in inferior cultures – they have a longstanding theoretical tradition
to draw on -- but because of the history of popular and academic discourses about the
media, communications scholars like Jenson still do. Jenson closes her article with a case
for studying “the experiences of others in their own terms” (emphasis in the original, p
26). A study of gumbabies will need to be careful of pejorative characterizations of
celebrities’ fans and of apparently irrational Internet users.
More arguments for taking fans on their own terms are to be found in the work of Henry
Jenkins, and in John Fiske’s work on the “cultural economy of fandom” in The Adoring
Audience. (Fiske, 1992) Drawing off of Bourdieu’s ideas about cultural economy, Fiske
talks about the forms of cultural capital, of “cultural tastes and competences,” which are
enacted in the use of pop-culture texts by self-identified fans. (Fiske, 1992) This attention
to skills and means of representation can be seen as parallel to literacies, particularly Jim
Gee’s work on academic ways of being. (Gee, 2003 2004) Fiske, following Bourdieu,
also outright connects cultural competence to education, linking the teaching of “official
culture” (high art, music, dance, theater, etc) in schools – and the exclusion of popular
culture therefrom – to the construction of sought-after social status. (Fiske, 1992)

Fiske is ultimately more concerned with pop culture than high culture in this chapter. He
investigates the seperate cultural production sphere of pop culture, describing its
particular practices. He outlines a number of uses of pop culture texts in fandoms.
“Selection of texts or stars,” he writes,

       ... offer fans opportunities to make meanings of their social identities and social
       experiences that are self-interested and functional. Those may at times be
       translated into empowered social behavior... but at other times may remain at the
       level of a compensatory fantasy that actually precludes any social action. (Fiske, p

The latter distinction sounds as if it may prove useful in looking at gumbaby behavior. So
many gumbaby requests seek assistance of one sort or another from celebrities; it will be
important to determine whether commenters believe they are fantasizing or actually
acting by reaching out to celebrities.

Other possibilities suggested by Fiske are that representing as a fan of a particular
celebrity may actively issue challenges to social norms (he mentions young girls dressing
up like Madonna in the 1980s), or that claims to “ownership” of characters, shows, or
even actors may signify defiance of one-way media channels owned by unseen powers at
a distance. (Fiske, 1992)

Meanwhile, Jenkins (1992) writes about fans of science fiction writing. He noted that
these fans pick and choose representations of their favorite characters to “[articulate]
concerns which often go unvoiced within the dominant media.” Jenkins documents the
art, videos, stories, and other media texts generated by fans themselves in response to
their favorite commercial media. Sometimes these challenge common portrayals of
masculinity; other times, they define the fan community as distinct from other media
users; at still other times, they directly confront commercial media producers who
threaten to take a favorite show off the air. In general, characters and actors serve as a set
of reference points available to all viewers

Prandstraller (2003) builds off of Jenkins’s claims, looking at an online community of
fans dedicated to discussing U2 bassist Adam Clayton.
Dyer, quoted in Prandstraller, writes that celebrities “’enact ways of making sense of the
experience of being a person’ in a society that separates life into public and private
spheres.’” (Prandstraller p 5) Prandstraller continues:

      The star image promises what mass society denies: intimate access to the authentic
      self. Through stars, mass media offer their fans consumable images, ideological
      values, and personal relationships. Thus, we can say that fantasies about stars are
      cultural products of mass media commoditization, which are used by fans to close
      the gap between what they need or want and what they can have. (p 5)

Prandstraller describes ways in which fans post messages, photos, and so forth as a means
of making themselves part of a community, using messages, photos, and other artifacts to
“reify” (in the sense of Wenger, 1998) the identity of the celebrity in question and fans’
relationships to that celebrity. This reification even happens as fans select online
nicknames, which often establish their feelings about the celebrity, or repurpose certain
words and phrases, establishing an “in group” of those who understand what it means to
be a fan of this celebrity. At the same time, she finds that fans want to identify as “not
crazy” in their feelings about Clayton, identifying as “otherwise fairly normal” aside
from their crushes on him. (p 23)

The community Prandstraller studies, in particular, leaves a good deal of room for fan
development of the identity of the celebrity in question, as Prandstraller notes Clayton is
a private figure, leaving not many “clues” as to his actual personality in the public eye,
and lots of room for fans to fill in. While they negotiate his identity, they also negotiate
the appropriate complimentary female identity and models of romantic relationships.
Like Hinermann, Prandstraller also notes that fans’ love of Clayton provides a sense of
escape from their everyday lives, while not actually confronting the things they would
like to escape.

Prandstraller suggests that one appeal of being part of a community like this is
availability of information; alone, individual fans would miss out on some information
about a celebrity, but together they are more able to amass a large body of texts to share
with each other. Prandstraller suggests that Internet fan sites in particular make it much
easier to support smaller, more specific fandoms and a feeling of greater closeness among
distant fans around the world. (Prandstraller CITE)

On an emotive level, Prandstraller’s understanding of fans’ desire to relate to celebrities
resonates with gumbaby comments. The use of celebrities to fill an absence in fans’ lives
appears to hold true across many investigations of fan behavior.

However, while some of the practices Prandstraller notes appear in gumbabies –
particularly the identification with celebrities through handles, construction of celebrity
identity, normative descriptions of how one ought to approach the celebrity or be a good
member of one’s gender – there are many ways in which gumbabies involve a lot of
“maladaptive” fan behavior, which does not appear to actually contribute to creating a fan
community. Gumbaby commenters frequently do not respond to each other or refer to
each others’ posts; there is not much sharing of information. They more often address the
celebrity directly. The blog comment thread is not ideal as a space to share media;
beyond the fact that they’ve chosen the “wrong” threads to begin with, blog comments
often do not support sharing the graphics, links, or movie clips which fans use to cement
their group identity. In fact, there is little reference to a fan group in these forums at all;
fandom is more often expressed as a solitary individual affair. One wonders whether
these commenters are really seeking out a community of fellow fans, or whether they are
modelling their relationship to the celebrity in a different way.

Reading Fiske, Jenkins, and Prandstraller, it begins to feel appropriate to make a
distinction between “high fandom” and “low fandom,” as between highbrow and pop
culture. Both researchers are specific that self-identified fans make distinctions between
themselves and “everyday viewers.” Their cultural production – of videos, fiction, poetry,
images, and other texts – sets them apart from other viewers. Neither Fiske, Jenkins, nor
any other writer of this perspective on fandom seems to have a sense of exactly how large
communities of “fans” like these are in proportion to “regular viewers.”

My own research on video game players suggests the community of “high fans” may be
quite small. Out of some 118 students at two schools of very different socioeconomic
status, I found only about half a dozen were engaged in viewing or creating movies, art,
screenshots, walkthroughs, music, or other texts related to but outside of the games
themselves, the way Fiske and Jenkins describe fans as doing. (Andrews, 2007)

Another troubling aspect of research on self-identified fans is that even though it refers to
“everyday viewers,” references to literature on these viewers is not presented. Who are
the “normal” viewers of shows like Star Trek or fans of Madonna or Elvis? What about
casual viewers or listeners who do not actively seek out the company of others in viewing
these shows, or viewers of shows which are less marginal and get higher Nielsen ratings?
How do these viewers interact with their texts? It is not clear what an investigation of
“low fans” might reveal – or, in fact, whether there is any real difference between fans
and their imagined others at all.

Fiske, however, hints that there may be a continuum, or at least multiple fandoms,
exercising their pop-cultural capital in different ways. He suggests that the more intensive
participation of “serious” fans could be “understood as elaborated and public versions of
the interior, semiotic productions of more normal viewers.” (p 46) Fiske identifies the
distinctions “fandoms” make between themselves and other groups of viewers as part of
the cultural capital they wield. He also notes gender distinctions between fandoms, with
older and male groups more likely to employ the “official or aesthetic” criteria of high
culture to their favorite pop cultural texts than younger female groups, who will more
often draw on criteria developed within pop culture which may fly in the face of high-
culture norms. (Fiske, 1992) Considering that in the initial review of gumbabies, the vast
majority of commenters seem to be female, it will be very important to follow
commenters as they speak and enact distinctions between “everyday” and “serious” fans,
high and low culture, and genders.
Psychological models of fandom and celebrity

Writing elsewhere in The Adoring Audience, Hinerman (1992) recounts stories of fan
activity which are very reminiscent of gumbaby comments, and may thus shed some light
on the phenomenon. Hinerman draws themes from Elvis fans’ narratives about “the
King’s” participation in their lives – since his death in 1977. Drawing on Lacanian
psychology, Hinerman suggests that “fantasy” experiences, from the paranormal
experiences described by some Elvis fans on down to anyone’s idle daydream about their
favorite celebrity, satisfy desires which are otherwise unattainable or prohibited. He links
this to Freud’s “pleasure principle,” which states that humans seek pleasure to minimize
tension. Hinerman is specific that tension-reducing fantasy behavior is universally
human; like Jenson, he does not cast judgments on Elvis fans for the expression of their
specific fantasies, even though others might characterize these fans’ claims to have had
paranormal experiences as “irrational.” (Hinerman 1992)

Hinerman describes Elvis fans as drawing off what what they know about Elvis from
various media sources to fantasize about him as a “conversational partner.” Frequently,
they have conversations with Elvis during a time of trauma; he speaks words which the
fan interprets to make sense of emotional pain. Hinerman ultimately notes that many of
these traumas are caused by “institutional and social systems of power and control,”
specifically gender inequality, in the case of Elvis fans. Hinerman notes that while
fantasies fail to solve these systematic problems, they do give individuals relief from the
distress they cause. (Hinerman 1992)

Judging by the tremendous number of gumbaby comments which allude to family or
personal hardship (many of which also implicate structural inequalities in the healthcare
system, the job market, and domestic violence), and the intimate requests and statements
many fans make on gumbabies (“i was wondering if u could come to my birthday;” “if i
ever do meet u i promise i won't fall all over u ill be a regular like a sister!”) it seems
plausible that celebrity fantasies play a role of sense-making and healing trauma in their
lives. It also seems likely that the comments they leave might be a continuation of
fantasies about conversation with celebrities. As such, it would be problematic to treat
these comments as simply irrational. The practice of commenting on a gumbaby may
serve an emotional purpose in commenters’ lives.

Fan activity as healing; as a mark of belonging; as a sign of rebellion; as a form of
capital; as enjoyment: clearly, there are many possibilities of what we might find as we
begin to speak with gumbaby commenters. It will be important not to go in assuming that
one particular model of the fan-celebrity relationship applies.

Reaching out to celebrities celebrities
The literature on fandom discussed above mostly concerns fan activity in society at large,
among each other, or fans as they explain themselves. But what can the literature on fan
behavior tell us about fans when they actually try to reach out and speak to celebrities?

Beginning some time ago, with high-level theories, one finds C. Wright Mills’s
explanation of the power of celebrity. (Mills, 1956) Mills frames the power of elites in
terms of public rhetoric adopted by politicians: they often describe their enemies or
foreign powers as “omnipotent.” “According to such notions of the omnipotent elite as
historical cause,” Mills writes, “the elite is never an entirely visible agency. It is, in fact, a
secular substitute for the will of God, being realized in a sort of providential design...” (p

This description of elite power resonates somehow with the comments left on gumbabies.
Oftentimes, a celebrity or television show is called upon to intervene in the life of the
commenter, to make a spouse happy or a child behave, or to help the commenter find a
job or pay for medication. Viewed on television, Maury Povich may intervene to send a
recalcitrant teenager to boot camp; Bill Gates may pay for schoolchildren’s medications
in Africa; Overhaulin’ may pick a janitor’s car to be revamped on camera. What appears
to remain obscure to the commenters is the process through which this happens: the
selections made not by the celebrity themselves, but by program managers and other staff
of the show or organization. One wonders whether the lack of visibility contributes to the
sense that appealing to these elites will bring about a sort of divine intervention.

One other contribution from Mills is the idea that more traditional elites – the wealthy,
businesspeople, politicians and military figures – now garner some of their status from
their association with media celebrities. He also posits media celebrity as a means for
non-elites to attain equal status with and connections to the powerful; specifically, he
mentions the role of modelling schools in grooming non-elite women for matches with
elite men. (p 81)

This suggests two more reasons for non-elites to seek connections with celebrities. One,
celebrity in and of itself is a means to attain parity with the powerful. Two, elites such as
politicians and businesspeople reciprocate and reinforce this status by seeking out the
company of media celebrities, modelling and affirming the value of media celebrities to
those reading tabloids and gossip columns.

Mills stands apart from current scholarship on media and celebrity: he looks not at the
influence of celebrity over everyday people, but the way star power works over (and
with) that of the Power Elite. The work of Mills and that of contemporary popular culture
scholars are somewhat at odds; the suggestion that “mass man” engages in any kind of
magical thinking about celebrities – or that in fact that audiences consist of uncritical
“masses” to begin with -- is more or less anathema in contemporary studies of popular
culture. However, Mills’s focus on celebrities’ interaction with power structures is worth
keeping in mind. Some explanation must be made as to why celebrities attract the
attention and energy of fans to begin with, and Mills begins to lay a foundation for such
an explanation.
There are also some more concrete examples in the literature of fans trying to
communicate with celebrities. An impressionistic piece towards the end of The Adoring
Audience sheds a bright shaft of light on the gumbaby phenomenon, as it presents
requests digested from fans’ letters to a British newspaper prior to 1984:

        A 16-year-old boy requests Paul McCartney’s address. He knows McCartney has
        a house in Kent and ‘once caught a train towards that direction but ended up lost.’
        A housewife wants Michael Jackson’s address immediately so she can ‘fly to the
        States, find him and I would be a friend to him.’ A born-again Christian wants the
        same: ‘I believe very strongly that I can help him.’ A boy complains he can’t get
        near Adam Ant: ‘I have forked out so much money for concerts all over Great
        Britain to get his name in my [autograph] book...’ A girl wants the Sun to arrange
        for her to spend the day with Duran Duran. Another girl, who has been a David
        Essex fan for eight years, begs for ‘just two minutes’ with him to say: ‘Hello, how
        are you?’ (Fred and Judy Vermorel, 1992)

The similarity in tone and content between these requests and the gumbabies is so strong
as to leave no doubt that the gumbaby phenomenon – at least insofar as the content is
concerned -- is not at all new. The requests being made by celebrity-seekers on the
wholly inappropriate channel of blogs are not specific to the Internet. People have been
making requests like these for years.

For how many years? It could be argued there is evidence that people have been
confusedly seeking contact with those they see in images or read about for at least a
century and a half. Wilkie Collins, whose Victorian “sensation” novel The Woman in
White was published in 1860, received letters from men who wanted to know the identity
of the woman on whom the fictional heroine was based. Many of them sent marriage
proposals. (Collins, 1999) The tomb of Juliet Capulet in Verona, Italy, has received
letters to the star-crossed heroine since the late 1930s, when the first film version of
Romeo and Juliet was released; these letters are often addressed simply to “Juliet,
Verona, Italy.”4 (Most sources pin responsibility on the movie, but one wonders if letters
arrived before that.) Consider, also, children’s letters to Santa Claus. While Santa’s
existence may or may not be known to writers, the Juliet letters present a clearer case,
considering anyone who has finished Shakespeare’s play ought to be aware that the
heroine is really in no shape to be answering her mail, even if the stabbing only happened

Juliet and Santa Letters and many of the letters written to the Sun share something with
gumbabies which letters received by Wilkie Collins do not: they will end up being read,
if at all, by the “wrong” people. To triangulate the gumbaby phenomenon, it might be

4, which comes from “Shakespeare's Juliet is an agony
uncle in Verona” Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA), at Khaleej Times Online, UAE, February 13, 2004; ; Google’s cache of . Tip of the hat to Elvis Costello
and the Brodsky Quartet for bringing these letters to broader attention.
worth looking into the literacy activity associated with sending messages which are not
received by their intended receivers, or contain “inappropriate” content. Doubtless, movie
studios and agents as well as newspapers and postal services could provide a great deal of
information on the subject.

Of course, Juliet and Santa letters involve sending messages out into the wilds of the
postal system with addresses which are fictional (the house in Verona known as Juliet’s is
only a best guess at where the girl assumed to be Shakespeare’s model lived) as well as
vague. This begins to suggest that the literacy practice these writers engage in is in fact a
knowing engagement in perpetuating fiction. It remains to be seen whether gumbaby
commenters address themselves to stars as writers address themselves to the ostensibly-
no-longer-able-to-read Juliet, or whether they actually believe their message will reach
their target.

Library and lab as a domain of knowledge: Problems with classical models of
information seeking

As Gee’s work suggests, each domain of knowledge has its own means of organizing
information to make it legible. The literature on “information seeking” which comes from
departments of library and information science (LIS) has recently tried to expand its
domain to everyday information seeking; however, its strength lies where it began, in
libraries and academic search. Here I will briefly describe the field and the theories it has
suggested to make sense of information-seeking behavior, but this will mostly serve to
explain why I do not plan to rely heavily on this body of literature. I will then briefly
discuss some of the more promising recent literature arising from this field.

Were he subject to journalistic Discourse, Donald Case -- the author of a major review of
the literature in the field of what is variously called “information behavior” or
“information retrieval,” often lumped in with “library science” – would be accused of the
informational faux pas of “burying the lede.” His most insightful summation of his field
is buried deep in his section on research about information-seeking performed by
scientists and engineers:

       this is where the research in this vein really got started. The “Big Science” (Price,
       1963) sparked largely by World War II and afterward by the Cold War resulted in
       an explosion of research material. There were simply too many findings being
       published for individual scientists and engineers to monitor effectively. The
       outcome was frustration and sometimes outright duplication of research efforts,
       because researchers did not always know that others were gathering or even
       publishing findings of interest to their work. As a result, money and attention
       became available to address problems in the dissemination of scientific
       information and to study communication among scientists and engineers.
                A 1984 comment by Tom Wilson accurately characterizes the nature of
       the literature at that time: “the study of information-seeking behavior can be said
       to be the study of scientists’ information-seeking behavior” (p 199). From the
       1940s through the 1970s, investigations of scientists (and to some extent,
       engineers) dominated all others. (Case 2007, p 252)

These paragraphs are immensely telling about the historical assumptions and structure of
studies of “information.” The field long took for granted that a search for information is
1) textual, 2) performed for work, 3) accomplished in a formal setting, 4) involves one
seeker with a high level of sophistication in the domain in question and probably also 5)
an intermediary such as a librarian; it assumed 6) formal organization of such information
(card catalogs, citations, etc.), 7) articulable and practically-applicable reasons for
performing a search, and finally, by extension, that 8) empirical facts could be found in a
pot of gold at the end of the search rainbow.

These traditional assumptions left a mark on the field for a long time after the focus had
shifted away from scientific knowledge; the influence of these beginnings is still visible
in many of the models of information behavior which Case (2007) puts forth, and is even
more so in older summaries of the field (see e.g. Marchionini, 1995) As recently as 2001,
summaries of the literature still found it necessary to remark on the limited number of
studies which dealt specifically with Internet searching. (Jansen and Pooch, 2001)

Older literature on information seeking is thus not particularly applicable to current
searching on the Internet, which involves searchers and situations who in the majority of
cases are different from the searches enumerated above. The theoretical offerings of this
field are also only recently coming around to a point at which they can be useful lenses
for viewing Internet search. I explore these theoretical approaches below.

Within (what I will somewhat idiosyncratically call) information studies, there have been
a number of theories developed about the general reasons why people search for
information. Case (2007) describes these as drawing predominantly on sociological,
psychological, and mass communications theories.

It may be because it draws so much on psychology, Case speculates, that information
literature has often posited information “needs” which arise from desire, conflicting
ideas, or other sources of emotional tension – a focus which he suggests derives obliquely
from the work of Sigmund Freud (1922, cited in Case 2007 p 149). A couple of lines of
thought derive from this way of looking at information: the Uses and Gratifications
paradigm and Play Theory/Entertainment Theory. (Case, 2007)

Uses and Gratifications is a tradition most often applied to media in general, not just
library-based or general information seeking. It posits that audiences actively choose the
media they watch, read, or otherwise consume in order to fulfill internal needs, resulting
in a feeling of gratification. (Case, 2007)

Play/Entertainment Theory – which Case suggests can be viewed as a subset of Uses and
Gratifications -- posits that much information-seeking that people do arises from a desire
to be entertained, not just from a desire to be informed. Studies in this vein have looked
at reading newspapers as a form of “intellectual puzzle” and catharsis, researching
hobbies, and the emotional states of people watching television. This theory’s strength,
Case suggests, is being able to do away with the “artificial distinction between
information and entertainment.” (Case, 2007)

Case notes that these traditions have unfortunately not developed many solid
operationalizations of their terms (“needs” and “gratifications,” among others), and do
not make many connections to other traditions of research. He does note that the field has
recently been grounded somewhat by a sub-field identified as Media Use as Social
Action, which pays some attention to how media viewers shape their interpretations
depending on their personal characteristics and context. (Case, 2007)

Because of the weaknesses Case cites in the Uses and Gratifications tradition, this study
will not generally deal with models of information seeking which are based on
“information needs” or the internal state of the speaker, except as they come up in the
specific case of fans’ relationships to a celebrity. As Case notes elsewhere, “most
information needs could be said to be accounted for by more general needs, and in any
event they cannot be observed.” (Wilson 1981, Poole 1985, cited in Case 2007)

It may be useful, however, to follow the lead of Play/Entertainment Theory and not draw
distinctions between “playful” and “serious” information uses. Following traditions of
grounded research, whether this distinction appears should ultimately depend on whether
it is a distinction made by the population being studied. (DO I NEED TO DEFINE

According to Case, it is only relatively recently that information studies have come
around to social constructionist theories which treat the information which searchers
encounter as co-constructed by all participants in the context of their current situation. A
major proponent of this line of thought in information studies is Brenda Dervin, who has
developed what she calls a “sense-making methodology.” (1992, 2005, cited in Case
2007) Tuominen, Savolainen, and Talja, who have been cited elsewhere in this paper,
have also worked on projects with a similarly constructivist focus. (CITES – Case says
2005, T&S 1997) (WAS THERE MORE HERE?)

Because of the mismatch of older information studies work and its theories with the kind
of searching done on the web, this study will draw more heavily on literacies research
than it will on the older corpus of information studies. Certain parties in information
studies have begun to turn in the direction of literacy research anyway, with Tuominen et
al recently citing James Gee, Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, and other stalwarts of literacies
research. (Tuominen et al 2005)

There are, however, recent efforts in information studies literature which have begun to
overcome the traditional assumptions of the field and have come up with findings with
direct impacts on this study; I will explore these below.
More recent information studies work
Pioneering research on large bodies of data about everyday Internet search behavior
highlighted the problems with applying the assumptions of earlier information studies
literature to this new set of behaviors. Jansen, Spink, and Saracevic (2000) found striking
differences between the literature on experts’ formal searching of article databases and
patterns they themselves found in 51,473 queries made to the Excite search engine. While
older studies of information retrieval had found query length to be on average between 7
and 15 words long, Jansen et al’s Excite searchers averaged 2.21 words per query. Fifty
eight percent of searchers did not go any further than their first page of results (which, on
Excite, displayed 10 results), They also found that Excite searchers made much less use
of Boolean operators, quotation marks, and other modifiers than formal searchers did.
Less than 1% of all queries in their dataset used the Boolean operators OR or AND NOT.
Only 8% of queries and 5% of users used the operator AND, though the authors
acknowledged they did not and could not distinguish between standard grammatical and
Boolean uses of the word. (Jansen et al, 2000)

Jansen et al were able to look at data on the level of a “session,” meaning that Excite kept
unique IDs for users for a length of a few minutes up to a few hours. Their study thus
does not yield any information about searchers’ longer-term information seeking
behavior, but it did turn up some results about sessions over the short term. On average,
these users generated 2.84 queries per session, though 67% only entered one query in a
given session. 22% of all queries were found to modify an earlier query. Those who did
modify their queries added and subtracted terms from their query strings in roughly equal
numbers (one in five added terms compared to one in six subtracting). About a third of
queries used the same number of terms as the user’s preceding search. About 43% of all
queries (from about 33% of users) were assumed to indicate that the first ten results users
were presented with did not satisfy their search.

A later study on a larger body of Excite data turned up similar findings about queries per
session, though distributions revealed that about half of searchers only entered one query
in a given session. In this study, a larger number of users added terms when modifying a
search (41.6%) than subtracted terms (25.9%) In general, this study confirmed the
findings of the authors’ previous study. (Spink et al 2001)

Recent responses to information studies oversights: Focus on context

Information scholars have recently called certain of their field’s historic assumptions and
oversights into question. One failing of the literature has traditionally been its treatment
of information-seeking out of context. This has more recently been addressed. Rieh
(2004) notes that

       [s]ince 1996, information seeking in context (ISIC) has been the theme of a series
       of international conferences. Research on context highlights an approach to the
       study of information seeking that emphasizes real users with actual information
       needs prompted by situations arising in daily life (Kuhlthau & Vakkari, 1999)
       (Rieh, 2004)

The dependence of search strategies on the subject area being searched has been
indicated by a range of studies focusing specifically on searches for information on
particular topics; Case notes, drawing on Bryce Allen (1996), that “Being a member of a
group, such as abused spouses, cancer patients, senior citizens, or janitors, is seen as
sufficient to influence individual information-seeking behaviors and patterns.” (CHECK

A number of studies of information-seeking found that outside of the formal context of
libraries, information-seeking was conducted very differently. In at least three different
studies (Julien 1999; Chen and Hernan 1982 and Dervin et al 1984 as reported in Case
2002), participants cited relying on their own existing knowledge and experience more
often than any other source (74% of respondants in Chen and Hernan; 89% in Dervin et
al). In Chen and Hernan, the next most popular source of information was interpersonal:
57% of respondants said they went to a friend, neighbor, or relative to seek information;
43% would go to a co-worker, 41% to a professional. (Chen and Hernan, 1982, via Case

Within traditional library searches, Gross has acknowledged the importance of context. In
the qualitative component of her study, she found that requests for research made by a
teacher tended to be accompanied by the provision of texts the teacher intended students
to use and by specific language shaping the question. When the language provided by the
teacher did not employ the same language as the texts students found, students tended to
be confused. Synthesis of many sources proved tricky for them, though older students
knew to compare sources to other sources or “known facts” when assessing relevance.
(Gross 1999)

Interestingly, Gross notes that “In general, the idea of a correct answer made sense to
them mainly in terms of their mathematics lessons” (p 513). This is a rather reductive
approach to knowledge when approaching more qualitative topics like history, or ongoing
theoretical scientific explorations like the process of evolution. Gross does not
extensively explore what “context” means in the classroom environment, but her finding
that students seek empirical “correct answers” suggests that beyond the context of an
individual class domain (English, history, biology, etc), the context of “classroom” itself
may have the strongest formative influence on queries imposed by a teacher.

Some of Rieh’s work has explored the specific situation of information seeking in the
home. (2004) Rieh employed semistructured interviews in review of participants’ Internet
search diaries to explore how users’ Internet information-seeking at home built off that
environment and its affordances.

Making use of Xie’s (2000) breakdown of user search goals into four categories
including short-term and long-term concerns, Rieh found that her participants often felt
satisfied about their searches even when they did not end up on sites which had the
information they sought. She saw users conducting searches on the same topic over a
long period, explaining that these searches supported a long-term interest of theirs. (Rieh,
2004) This finding undermines the reliability of studies where users’ landing on
particular pages is taken as a measure of “success.” At the same time, it supports
suggestions that Internet reading can be a very personal, dialectical process (Bertram
Bruce, 2000), and suggests the utility of longitudinal studies of users’ search practices.

Rieh found interesting indications that searchers’ limits of domain knowledge have an
impact on how they search:

       general search engines such as Google, Altavista, or Excite were not the first
       place that subjects went to in looking for information. Rather, for most subjects a
       search engine was the last site to turn (sic) when they could not think of any topic-
       specific sites.... Subject 01 said “I only start at Google if I don’t know anything
       about what I’m doing.” (Rieh 2004, p 749)

Rieh also found that even when using general search engines, participants calculated their
queries to seek out topic-based sites or sources of information first, then looked around
these sites for more specific answers. (Rieh 2004)

It should be noted that her population was not based on a random sample, and their
reported use of different search engines puts them in a specific bracket of the Pew study
findings: they did report using two or three different search engines, which in the Pew
study was correlated with greater savviness about paid placement and less trust in the
objective truth of search results. (Fallows 2005)

Possible sample bias aside, Rieh’s work and other studies on context support the case that
critical digital literacy cannot be separated from specific domain knowledge. Rieh in
particular notes that her relatively sophisticated users employ specific search practices
when it comes to subjects like weather, maps, and images. (Rieh 2004) It also echoes the
Pew finding that most respondants seeking religious information online went first to sites
they already knew rather than to search portals. (Fallows 2005)

Mental models

The small body of literature on “mental models” which has arisen in library and
information science can be understood within Gee’s division of different kinds of
language and literacy use into specialties, Discourses, or domains. Specifically, the
literature on users’ mental models of search engines can shed some light on their domain
knowledge of the Internet, which as I suggested earlier ought to be considered separately
from their knowledge of other content. (I NEED TO ELABORATE ON/CLARIFY

Gee posits that the process of comprehending what we are reading involves engaging our
existing mental simulations or models of how objects described in a text work in the
world. Gee also spends a great deal of time talking about how players “read” the
possibilities for action presented to them in video games. (Gee, 2003, 2004) This
perspective on reading strongly suggests that we understand users’ mental models of
search engines, blogs, and other Internet infrastructure in our analysis of how they are
reading links, banner ads, search results, and other elements of the web.

In the information studies literature on mental models, Efthimiadis and Hendry
contributed a number of studies. Among some 232 university students in their study --179
of whom were majoring in information studies -- few drew sketches which indicated an
understanding of how search engines index pages or match results to queries. Spiders,
indexes, and even ranking were among the elements of a search engine which appeared in
less than 30% of participants’ drawings. (Efthimiadis and Hendry, 2005)

Zhang (2007) similarly instructed users to draw out their mental models of “your
perceptions about the Web” on paper. Categorizing these, she found four types of model:
     technical (composed largely of computers and other technical elements, with
       some people);
     functional (based on behaviors one performs on the web);
     process (with the search engine as the center of the web);
     connection (emhpasizing connections between pages, people, information, and
       technical elements).
Zhang did not find that having any one of these models seemed to give users an
advantage in conducting searches. She did find some gender differences, however, with
more men drawing technical models of the Internet and more women drawing process

Blandford et al (2007) discussed users’ mental models of the Internet in their case study
of users’ perceptions of libraries. They concluded that in fact, “most participants did not
clearly distinguish between different kinds of digital resource, viewing the electronic
library catalogue, abstracting services, digital libraries and Internet search engines as
variants on a theme."

Even among their participants, who were masters’ students in their own department of
library and information science, they found little understanding of the process which a
search engine uses to return results in response to a search query. Participants mostly
understood differences between search engines at the superficial level of the interface;
they could not articulate how differences might affect what they should enter as search
queries. Misunderstanding of search engines led users to trial-and-error search methods,
which Blandford et al suggested might be remedied by “rich feedback” integrated into
search engines by their developers. (Blandford et al 2007)

In sum, Blandford et al concluded that users misunderstand how search works, and this
inhibits their ability to fruitfully use search engines. However, some of the participant
quotations they include seem to also indicate that users’ misunderstandings of the
domains they were seeking within may have been as much the culprit as their
misunderstanding of search engines. Their finding that users’ lack of awareness of the
range of documents which might be available to an engine they were using – which they
found tended to discourage users -- could also be seen as an interaction between the
engine and the domain of knowledge it covers.

Statement of question

Building on the research in information studies and in new literacy studies, it behooves us
to ask: What are the conceptions of the Internet and other specific knowledge domains
which bring gumbaby commenters to search engines and comment boxes, and lead them
to comment? In context, how are they reading, and to what end are they writing?

In order to investigate this, we must also know about the Internet environment they
encounter: what aspects of the construction of Internet elements – like blogs, search
engine algorithms, advertising, and portals – are also implicated in the production of
gumbaby comment threads?

(Fallows, 2005; Graham, 2003; Henry, 2007; Leu, 2007)

Fallows, D. (2005). Search Engine Users. Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American
       Life Project.
Graham, L., Metaxas, P. (2003). “OF COURSE IT’S TRUE; I SAW IT ON THE
       INTERNET!” Critical Thinking in the Internet Era. Communications of the ACM,
       46(5), 71-75.
Henry, L. (2007). Exploring new literacies pedagogy and online reading comprehension
       among middle school students and teachers: Issues of social equity or socal
       exclusion? Unpublished Dissertation, University of Connecticut.
Leu, D., Reinking, D., Carter, A., Castek, J., Coiro, J., Henry, L., Malloy, J., Robbins, K.,
       Rogers, A., Zawilinski, L. (2007). Defining Online Reading Comprehension:
       Using Think Aloud Verbal Protocols To Refine A Preliminary Model of Internet
       Reading Comprehension Processes. Paper presented at the Conference Name|.
       Retrieved Access Date|. from URL|.

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