Aliens and Analytics: A Meditation on Using the Internet Well

Except for the small slice that you could vouch for yourself, the rest of the Internet might as well be bots. We already know that they exist out there, driving up those follower counts. How deep does it go? Because human action on the internet is always digitally mediated, is it ever going to be possible to screen for “human” in a meaningful way?

Alien by Saneef Ansari from The Noun Project

Alien by Saneef Ansari from The Noun Project

Your website is more or less like a space probe, really, sending signals back to you about the interactions it has with others. These many clicks (of a mouse, not a radiological counter), this many “close encounters,” this many interactions with other light cones, etcetera. This is why so many people have turned themselves into digital marketing savants and social media experts over the last decade: it’s nothing but data in need of interpretation. And interpretive needs always always enable the rise of a class of interpreters. You could have priests, or accountants.

But what would it look like to sift that data and actually find a way to help somebody? Recently, I found an example of just that: Scott Alexander’s recent post at Slate Star Codex, “Based on Your Findings, Which Theory About Alien Thickness Seems Most Valid or Most Accurate?” The entire post is worth a read. Here’s the short version:

Guy checks his inbound traffic analytics to see what keywords are leading people to his site. Among them is the phrase that gives the piece its title. Cognizant that his own wide-ranging writings probably included clusters of the phrase’s words to place the site high in the search rankings, he still wonders what situation could give rise to the phrase in the first place. Come to find out, it’s a question from 7th grade science homework in use at least one (and maybe more) school: certain aliens have a certain range of thickness, but which of several factors determines that thickness? Is it sunlight? Is it temperature? Is it random? Alexander then further traces the problem to a “web gizmo where you adjust water, temperature, and sunlight to a group of little aliens and it tells you about their changing phenotypes.” Surmising that the high traffic in search of an answer must be the result of a teacher (or a curriculum) failing to explain this piece of the homework, he spends the rest of the blog post unpacking the answer for any future seventh-grade scientists who search the original phrase.

After reading, all I could think is: here’s a guy who’s showing all the rest of us how to use the Internet right.

There you are, trying to understand others via the (textual) inscriptions they’ve made on the surface of your Umwelt. You’re using the tools at hand to build an awareness of the many invisible audiences or eyeballs around you, specifically using keywords for inbound traffic and other site analytics as a way to extend the circle of disclosedness around you. When you turn over evidence of another’s interest in something that your writing somehow resembles, do you turn up your nose? Or better, do you use inference and research to create an interpretation around you that’s good enough to direct your action in what seems a right-minded and community-minded way. Even better: you’ve worked to understand the original context of the query in a thorough way and then acted within that. And as a former but still occasional teacher, I see through this to classrooms on the other side. There’s some things to be said here about approaches to teaching: try to be comprehensive, but gaps will just open up anyway.

We should all try as much. Alexander here is like an alien himself, friendly and far from thick.

Width by Tracy Hudak from The Noun Project

Width by Tracy Hudak from The Noun Project

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About David D. LaCroix

Learning and education strategist; Director of Operations at Versatile PhD. All opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent those of my clients, partners, or employers.
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