And what would you have me do?
Seek for the patronage of some great man,
And like a creeping vine on a tall tree
Crawl upward, where I cannot stand alone? - Edmund Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac
I really, really hate parasites; there’s just something inherently revolting about creatures that feed off of other beings not by openly and honestly attacking and devouring them, but by insidiously creeping onto or into their bodies, attaching themselves, draining blood or other vital essences and perhaps even multiplying until the unwitting host is dead. Nor is that death the quick, comparatively-merciful one afforded by a hungry hunter, but instead a slow, lingering, debilitating descent into sickness, weakness and eventual expiration which in the end leaves it a pathetic husk of its former self. I’ve never been disturbed by the sight of a carnivore killing its prey, but stray animals literally crawling with fleas and ticks, or biology-text photos of intestines jammed full of ascaris worms, are to me the stuff of nightmares.
That being the case, I’m sure you can guess how I feel about blog parasites, those creatures who attempt to derive their sustenance by infesting healthy, thriving blogs like mine. I don’t mean “scrapers” or plagiarists; though I certainly understand why some bloggers are very incensed by them, they don’t really bother me because their use of my material neither harms my reputation nor decreases my traffic (though I might feel differently if they were making money from my content when I wasn’t, and without acknowledging me). And I have no idea why some commercial entities have tried to frame quoting and linking as “copyright infringement”, nonsensical claims about “deep linking” notwithstanding; links and references are advertising and help a site to grow, and the vast majority of my traffic comes via deep links. In fact, linking is so good for a site that it’s precisely the raison d’être for the most common and debilitating form of blog parasitism, namely comment spam.
Those of you who don’t have blogs yourselves may be blissfully unaware of this plague, which pours into popular blogs every day like a veritable river of leeches. Some of it looks like real commentary, though extremely vague (“Thank you for sharing superb informations”), completely inappropriate (“I’ll be sure to order from you!”) or even composed of inapplicable criticisms (“You should proofread more carefully, this post is full of typos.”) What marks it as spam is that the website link in the poster’s name goes to a commercial site of some sort or to the client of an SEO scammer. Another common type contains nothing other than a number of links, and the most odious form is a gigantic wall of links for various pharmaceuticals, knockoffs of designer accessories, or things advertised in languages I can’t read (most often Russian or Polish).
Fortunately, the Akismet program monitors all comments and shunts spam into a folder for later review and discard; it’s extremely rare that it misses one, but even that goes into the moderation queue where I can catch it and throw it back into the spam folder. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s sometimes too aggressive and mistakes legitimate comments (even from regular posters) for spam, I would simply empty the folder without looking at it because scanning the contents of that folder now takes up a measurable fraction of my time here. But even though that is a drain on my resources, it’s nothing compared to the damage this blog would suffer if it got through; 72% of all attempted comments over the life of the site have been spam, which will give you some idea of how repellent and uninviting the comment threads would be if they got through. Considering that a large portion of the success of this blog comes from the stimulating and entertaining discourse in those threads, I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that these parasites have the power to severely weaken a site by making it look ridiculous and unprofessional and rendering its comment threads virtually inaccessible.
Another (though fortunately vastly less common) kind of comment-thread parasite is one we might call the “Missionary”; this is a guy who searches the internet for comment threads on which he can post long, repetitive and link-filled rants on the topic of his one track (and he never has more than one). For example, there was the guy who tried to post seven column-length comments about the Whore of Babylon on “Harlots of the Bible”, and the more recent lunatic who attempted a couple of dozen long, viciously misogynistic, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory posts on “Pendulum”. One might suggest that perhaps these people might simply get their own blogs, but they don’t because nobody would read them; a blog has to be interesting and to consist of more than one single endlessly-repeated (and generally hateful) idea in order to attract readers, so the missionary sallies forth on his one-man crusade, with the intent of feeding his ego on other bloggers’ hard-won audiences.
The last type I want to talk about today is one I’ll call the “Self-invited Guest”; this comes in the form of an email from some entity representing itself as a woman who asks if “she” could please write a guest post on one’s blog. Keep in mind, this isn’t a famous person or one connected to one’s general topic; I mean, it isn’t Dolly Parton offering to write about her views on decriminalization or something like that. No, this is an endless succession of similarly (not to mention poorly) worded emails offering to make guest posts about industrial organization psychology in the workplace, the great shortage of nurses, the rigors of today’s marketing programs or the joy of free online university courses. At first I replied to them, politely explaining that I’m quite capable of writing all my own posts (thank you very much), and that on the rare occasions when I have a guest blogger it will be someone I know and respect. When they started coming more often I just ignored them, only to find that they would ask repeatedly like a poorly-raised child begging for candy at the supermarket. When Ken White of Popehat receives this sort of trash he replies with absolutely hilarious letters, always about ponies in some way or another; until September 26th I never felt inspired to adopt Ken’s strategy, but on that day I received five identically-worded follow-ups, and soon discovered that Ken had also heard from them (her? it?) again. So I wrote my own response and sent it to all five (plus a new one I had received three days earlier); though I despair of ever reaching Ken’s level of genius in this area, I’ll share my humble attempt in tomorrow’s column.
The thing all these have in common, and what differentiates them in my mind from scrapers and the like, is that they not only want to feed on my work, popularity and traffic, but damage and weaken my blog in the process. Imagine comment threads full of pointless sentences alternating with enormous, ugly ads and hateful crackpottery attached to dreary, inane, inarticulate posts on subjects you couldn’t possibly care less about; how long would you stick around for that? Spammers, hacks and nuts lack the ability to compete with other internet content or to draw an audience on their own, so they attempt to worm their way into a healthy site, drain it for all they can get and then move on to the next victim.