Here’s a puzzle that more internet savvy readers may be able to help me with.
On March 7, I received the following email with the subject line “Broken link on your page”.
I came across your website and wanted to notify you about a broken link on your page in case you weren’t aware of it. The link on http://www.case.edu/provost/UCITE/learning/general.html which links to http://www.hcc.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/teachtip.htm with the anchor text of “teaching tips is no longer working.
I’ve included a link to a useful page on Tips for Teachers that you could replace the broken link with if you’re interetsed in updating your website. Thanks for providing a great resource!
I checked and Carrie was right, the old link was broken. (It should be noted that she was pointing out a problem on the website of my university office and not my blog.) I was able to find the new link and since the link she suggested had some useful information, I added that as well to the webpage. I sent her an email thanking her for pointing out the problem and got the following reply.
No problem! Thanks for maintaining a great resource and I’m glad that I could be of assistance.
I then thought no more about it. But then on April 4, I got another email with the same subject line “Broken link on your page”. This one said:
I came across your website and wanted to notify you about a broken link on your page in case you weren’t aware of it. The link on blog.case.edu/singham/2006/10/26/negotiating_with_terrorists which links to http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/fs/37191.htm is no longer working.
I’ve included a link to a useful page on Foreign Terrorist Organizations that you could replace the broken link with if you’re interested in updating your website. Thanks for providing a great resource!
This broken link was from an blog post on my old site. Again, the link was in fact broken. The wording of this email seemed vaguely familiar to me and I went back and searched and found Carrie’s email and you can see that the wording is identical, except for the links and the corrected spelling of the word ‘interested’.
Intrigued, I sent an email to Tori, thanking her for pointing out the broken link. I got the following reply.
You’re welcome! If you find the alternate site that I suggested to be useful, please let me know.
So the replies to my emails are similar but not identical. So what is going on here? I then sent out an email to both Carrie and Tori with the following message:
Dear Carrie and Tori,
I received emails from each of you pointing out broken links on webpages that I maintain and was grateful for the information.
However I noticed that the wording of the emails were identical (see below) and was curious as to how that came to be. Do you know how that happened?
I got a reply from Tori that said the following:
Carrie must be a colleague of mine. Although I don’t know her in person, our goal is to provide a similar resource to people who can replace their broken link. It is a great project, hopefully my resource can be helpful to you and your readers.
A couple of days later, I got an email from Carrie.
I believe Tori might be on the same project as me. Although I don’t work with Tori, providing a replacement for broken links is a great project.
Thanks for your time Mano.
As you can see, the correspondence has been cordial. But I am still puzzled by what is going on, especially the peculiar identical wording of their initial emails, which neither really explained. Are Carrie and Tori people who work from a common script, like telemarketers? And what would be the point of pointing out fairly obscure broken links and suggesting new ones? Is this some effort to promote such places by getting links to them embedded in .edu sites, which I am told raises their rankings?
Is there a company that uses real people to scour the web for broken links and suggest new ones? Even if those links are to commercial sites and the idea is to boost rankings by creating inbound links, is that a viable business model? It seems like it would be hardly worth it to go to all this trouble to raise one’s web profile. Or is there something else going on here that I am not aware of?
If these emails and links were being generated by a computer, that might make it worthwhile. If so, computers are now far more sophisticated than I suspected, since I was clearly not able to distinguish between a machine and a real person.
Which raised in my mind a related question. Most people are aware of the Turing test as applied to computers in artificial intelligence work to see if people can distinguish whether they are talking to a real person or a computer. But it seems to me that this is dependent on the person who is interrogating the computer since it surely must be harder to fool an AI researcher than a layperson. Is there an ‘inverse Turing test’, applied to people, that measures how easily real people can be fooled by a computer into thinking they are talking to a real person?