Hallo again to all.
Recently we were perusing a new website launched by the national office of one of the larger branches of the Anglican Communion. After half an hour or so of clicking here and there, we found ourselves wondering how much of its content was written by actual humans, and how much was mechanically gathered by 'aggregation software'.
When the online world was young, everything you read was written or plagiarized by real humans. Right or wrong, true or false, the content of every web page was put there by someone who wanted you to read it. Gradually other forms of authorship evolved, the best-known of which is the 'wiki', in which hundreds of people contribute to the authorship of a single web page. There are also 'content management systems', whereby human authors put articles into a database and the software assembles the web page from what it finds in the database.
It is now close to 20 years since the first time someone read a web page written by someone else, and the boundaries are almost all gone.
We're going to give you some examples, but unfortunately most of the bad examples don't work in the Safari browser. If you are using Safari, we recommend that you switch to Firefox or Chrome or Opera for the rest of this page. Here's a little test: if your browser shows you something nonblank for this page and something that looks professional for this page, you can keep using it. Otherwise we entreat you to switch browsers so you'll be able to follow along.
Welcome back, Safari users.
Nearly everyone has seen Google News. If you haven't, or if you don't quite remember, go take a look, but do come back. It has a newspaper-like front page that is assembled entirely by robots from actual newspapers around the world. Most of those newspapers were, in turn, made into web pages by content management software, so there are at last two automated steps between the author of an article and its teaser showing up on your screen. What you see on your screen was selected by Google's computers as being what you wanted to see, and will usually not be identical to what someone else sees on their screen.
Now look at difficultybreathing.com, and after you've had a chance to look it over, see this page on anxieties.com. The first one, difficultybreathing.com, was generated by a computer that is lurking like a spider hoping you will wander into its web. We dearly hope that no one who is having difficulty breathing is poking around the internet looking for advice, but self-diagnosis using information assembled by a greedy robot is incomprehensibly foolish. Notice that the entire difficultybreathing.com website is just links to new searches and vaguely related topics. They're hoping that you will see an advertisement and buy something, at which point the owners of difficultybreathing.com receive a small payment. The anxiety.com page, in contrast, was written by a person (though was assembled into a web page by a content management system) and is actually trying to help you deal with difficulty in breathing.
As we continue our tour, have a look at prayerbooks.com. Were it not for the for-sale sign at the top of the page, it might not be immediately obvious that this is a robot page trying to lure you to an advertisement. It's clear to us that this robot didn't know what a prayer book might be, so just guessed by riffing on the word 'prayer'. If you find a link marked 'Christian Book Sellers' and click on it, you'll not have much trouble finding a site that sells the Book of Common Prayer, so you could pass through prayerbooks.com without realizing that it was a robotic fake. It is not entirely useless.
Now take a look at anglican.com. You'll see something quite different if you look with Safari or IE6 than if you look with Firefox or Chrome; however the computer is determining what to show you, it decides very differently depending on how you arrive. But notice that it never seems to know what an Anglican is, and refers you to Apostolic Bible Colleges and Barack Obama and Medical Appointment Software.
We think that most people have seen enough of these robotic pass-through sites to have learned to ignore them, but obviously some people are fooled, or it wouldn't be worthwhile for their owners to pay the internet charges. The profiteers are staying ahead of us, though, further blurring the line between real and imaginary things online. There are now sites that, instead of giving you a list of links produced by a robot, actually give you a few paragraphs actually written by a robot. It's difficult to be certain these days whether a site was created by a human or a robot, but we're pretty sure that robots had the upper hand in making Garage Door Opener Repair and Easy Alternatives to Shoe Polish. Some pages such as Shoe Polish are intentional fakes, made for humor and not fraud.
The next time you see a high-gloss, minimal-content web site produced by church authorities, perhaps calling itself a 'portal' or a 'digital network', see if you can determine if actual humans were involved in creating its content. We shan't be unkind and tell you what we believe.
See you next week.
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