February 20, 2015

#14 The Art of Making and Fixing Mistakes

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

A social media mistake for the record books, and a quiet saint of Wikipedia. Our theme song and scoring is from Breakmaster Cylinder. Ad music is by Build Buildings

Further Reading:

Andrew McMillen's profile of Bryan for Medium


PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All.

[Theme Music]


PJ: Okay. This week, my boss, Alex Blumberg came to me, as he so often does, with a question about the internet.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Um, I hope you don't mind, but now, uh, I think of you as my, as my, (laughs) as my internet research squad.

PJ: Oh, that's much better than having it, like, fix the printer. Whatever else.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I also think of you as the people who fix the printer. (laughs) Anyway.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So I have a question. That I was hoping that you and Alex could answer. But ...

PJ: Alex is changing a baby.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. So I guess, I guess it's up to you. (laughs)

PJ: Okay! So Alex had seen a Facebook post with the headline: “10 Reasons Why Girls Don't Give Blowjobs.” It was a link to a stupid, misogynist humor article from some content farm. But the reason he was curious about it, was that the link had been posted by Delta Airlines' official Facebook page.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Whatever their corporate brand strategy is, I can't imagine a scenario in which that's part of it.

PJ: So that's part of what was confusing to Alex. But beyond that, he found this inappropriate Delta Airlines post because somebody had tweeted about. And the person who tweeted about it said the Delta Airlines' Facebook post was nothing compared to something called "vagina plane." Alex hadn't heard of that, either. But I had. So I showed it to him.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright so it's a series of tweets, it's three tweets, the first one is from someone named Elle. And it says, "@USAirways, unhappy that 1787 sat for an hour on tarmac at CLT, because overweight resulting in over hour late arrival in PDX." So this is an angry tweeter that happens to know a lot of airplane jargon.

PJ: Yeah!

ALEX BLUMBERG: And then US Airways tweets back, "@ellerafter We truly dislike delays too and are very sorry your flight was affected." And then Elle responded "@USAirways yeah, you seem so very sorry. So sorry, in fact, that you couldn't be bothered to address my other tweets."

PJ: Right. So uh, so you know, it's like a thing that happens millions of times a second, which is that somebody gets angry at an airline on social media, and the airline sort of apologizes and the person's still mad. So there's one more beat to that -- this. If you could just read the following tweet, and then you might have to move the browser a bit to be able to see the accompanying image.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay ... uhhhhhhh ... "We welcome feedback, Elle. If your travel is complete, you can detail here for review and follow up." And then there's a pic-twitter link ... (laughter) oh my GOD. And then there's a picture ... of a person.. with a model plane ... stuck in their vagina.

PJ: Yup. Yep. That was "vagina plane."


PJ: (laughter) I mean, I think that clears everything up, right?

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: In case that doesn't clear everything up, here's what happened: In response to a customer complaint, US Airways invited the customer to follow a link to a place where they could get more help. That link, instead, lead to a photo of a naked person with a model airplane in their private parts. Now, occasionally, on this show, we do this segment called “Yes Yes No” where Alex Blumberg asks me and Alex Goldman to explain some confusing internet phenomena to him. But in this case, I've got my own questions about what's going on here. Specifically: how did this happen?

ALEX BLUMBERG: So do you think that the person that was running the social media account at US Airways, like, they snapped?

PJ: Well what, what I think ... is that ... the fact that these two companies had similar mistakes, and that, they happened on social media and their both airline companies are related. I don't think anybody snapped. What I think happened is that some employee, they were tweeting or Facebooking for their company. And then ... they were like, oh, this pornographic image, or this stupid article is really funny, I gotta share it with my friends ... on my small, private, personal account. And then go to Tweetdeck, or whatever, and they just go to the wrong column, and drop it in, and they send it, and then it's gone.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And instead of going to their friends ...

PJ: It goes to everybody.


PJ: This is my theory.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I love that theory!

PJ: Right?

ALEX BLUMBERG: So we just have to find somebody who had that job.

PJ: Right.

[Theme music plays]

PJ: So we sent Reply All producer Chris Neary to try to talk to some of the people who have worked doing social media for these big brands, airlines and otherwise, to find out what they think might have happened. Uh, Chris?

CHRIS NEARY: So, unsurprisingly both Delta and US Airways were not too forthcoming.

PJ: (laughs)

CHRIS: Uh, Delta's statement to me was that uh, their site got hacked for an hour. Like, just that simple. It was gone for an hour, and then they took it back. And no more offending posts. Uh, US Airways ... uh, their only statement about this was that they're taking steps to ensure it will never happen again. Which, seems right.

PJ: Yeah, that seems credible.

CHRIS: (laughs) Okay, so what I did do was talk with six ... people who've done this kind of work before.

PJ: So, so since the airlines wouldn't talk, you went after people who do social media work, some for airlines, some not, to try to get THEM to talk, right?

CHRIS: Right. And most ... of them didn't want to talk, at least on the record (laughs). Two of them did though, and the first one did, she asked that her name not be used?

PJ: Okay.

CHRIS: So we'll call her Jen, and she told me that, when she started doing this job, a few years ago, there were really very few prerequisites ... for getting hired.

JEN: Um, so I got a job in social media because I am ... basically internet-aged. One of the interview questions was "Do you read blogs?" And I was, (laughs) and I was like "yes!" They were like, "Perfect!" You know, like -- I don't even think we talked about what blogs I read. They were like, "Do you know what Twitter is?" and I was like, "Yep!" And they were like, "Great -- you're hired!"

CHRIS: Jen worked for a company that handled a bunch of brands. It was an agency. So ... basically all day she was replying to Tweets for different companies. Just, constantly, over and over and over again, but ... it wasn't automated. So, imagine if one of her brand's wanted her to publish a tweet, uh, about a sale on one of their products. So ... to save space, she would have to go ... and shorten ... uh, one of those links, and that ended up being like a crazy, complicated process.

JEN: If you think about what you're actually dealing with, so I have an e-commerce link, and then I go to a website-shortening service, and I paste the e-commerce link into the, into the URL shortening service, and then I get the shortened link, and I copy that, and then I go to Twitter, and then I paste that into the Twitter box, and then I go to my document that has the approved language that I have written and then sent back and forth with the client for weeks to get approval on. So I copy, you know I go to today's date, and I copy the text there, and I paste it into the, you know, the Twitter box. And then I tweet it.

Okay, so, that's one microtask, that should take like 30 seconds. And then you just do that all day long, for a bunch of different clients, and while you're doing this, you're logging in and out of your personal Twitter.

CHRIS: Ironically, Jen said that she and her co-workers got over the tedium of tweeting and tweeting and tweeting by tweeting amongst themselves from their personal account, and just talking about how horrible some of these customers could be, through their personal accounts.

JEN: Yeah, so, I mean one of the joys of working in social media is that you have this team of people who are dealing with the same stuff you're dealing with, and everyday all this flack comes in off the internet, and you can kind of turn to your coworker and be like, "Look at this asshole. This is ridiculous."

CHRIS: And Jen, like a lot of people I spoke with, said that people who do this job are sort of set up to fail. Like you're set up to make, the "vagina plane" mistake, just fortunately for most people it's not on that scale.

JEN: Obviously, I have no idea what actually happened, in, in the case of that image. But, it wouldn't be surprising to me if this person had been sending, you know, been trying to chat it to a coworker, being like, "This is disgusting and ridiculous, look at what I just received on the internet." And, you know, you know, instead of copying and pasting it into their g-chat, they copy and paste it into one of these hundreds of tweets they're sending, and press post, and -- you know, I think the most remarkable thing for me about that incident was that it took a long time for that picture to come down.

Which speaks to, just the sheer volume of stuff, you're posting. You know when you're in this position and you're doing this job, you're just posting a bunch of stuff.

CHRIS: "Vagina plane" totally could've been just someone mixing up their weird, disgusting personal Twitter content (laughing) with the Twitter content of a major corporation.

PJ: Which is my theory, like, from the beginning.

CHRIS: Right. The other person I talked to, who was willing to go on tape, uh, said there's another way to look at this. And like, the key to it, is ... how long the tweet stayed up.

JOHN COLUCCI: And my theory is that someone was kind of, done with their job and they were quitting.

CHRIS: This is John Colucci. He used to work for Virgin American Airline doing social media. To him, just how bad it was and how long it stayed up, makes him suspicious. Uh, most of these mistakes get taken down immediately.

JOHN: 'Cause for it to just go silent, and not have anyone go in and delete it seem like this might have been the only person who had their hands on the controls, so, if you want to really read into that tweet a little too much and kind of overanalyze it, I can even read that and be like, here's where you can put your feedback, in this vagina. (laughs)

PJ: Okay, so John thinks that this is an example of somebody that wanted to quit their job and they wanted to do it in the most public, burn down the house way possible. Jen thinks that this was a mistake that ... is like a very easy to understand mistake, but just done on an unimaginably bad scale. What do you think?

CHRIS: Well, right, so John was the only person who believed in the burning down the house theory. Which I like, but don't quite agree with after talking with the other people. They all said it was a mistake, and they all felt this sympathy for whatever nameless social media professional was behind "vagina plane". Um ... when they were talking about it, to me, it seemed like, they, they could easily like, imagine, the horror of that moment, and the horror of "vagina plane," following you for the rest of your life.

JEN: And I think a lot of people feel like the internet's ... you know, there's a certain facelessness, about the internet, like, who is? We don't ... you were saying, we don't know who this person is. But, it doesn't change the way that it feels when it's you, who's being grilled about it. You know?

CHRIS: Right.

JEN: It's like, oh, nobody on the INTERNET knows that I did this, but this is going to be in social media round-ups as the worst thing that ever happened on the internet for the rest of time, and like, this person is going to have to look at that, and, and be like, that was me. That's terrible!


PJ: Coming up, we go from somebody publicly making mistakes, to someone quietly correcting to them. And in the process, we travel pretty much as far away as you can get on the internet from pornographic images. But first, a word from our sponsors.

PJ: Welcome back to Reply All, a show about the internet. As a Wikipedia editor, you're sort of a specialist. Can you tell me what you specialize in?

BRIAN HENDERSON: Well I specialize in, in copyediting, and in particular, copyediting on particular error of English usage, uh ... the phrase "comprised of."

PJ: How many times do you think you've corrected ... incorrect usage of that phrase.

BRIAN: Well, um, I know him pretty well, it's about 48,000.

PJ: The voice you just heard belongs to Brian Henderson. He's one of Wikipedia's more prolific editors. We found out about him because writer Andrew McMillan profiled him for the website Medium. Brian has been correcting incorrect uses of the phrase "comprised of" for the last nine years.

BRIAN: I normally do this late at night on Sunday nights.

PJ: Will you say, I'm going to spend an hour doing this? Will you do it to unwind until you feel like you want to go to bed?

BRIAN: Well no, I actually, I ... I don't spend a fixed amount of time, I, I ... I mean these days I just edit until I'm done.

PJ: But when you say you'll work until you're done, I mean ... I imagine there's an incredibly high number of instances of this mistake on Wikipedia. So how do you decide that on a given Sunday, you're done.

BRIAN: Okay, well you're wrong. There are none. If you look there right now, the only instances you'll find are either in quotations or ones that I haven't got to yet. You know, there might be like, 50. They're, they're added at the rate of 50 to 100 a week, and I take them all out.

PJ: So I'm taking to you Wednesday at noon. You're telling me that Sunday night, when you when to sleep, there were no instances of this one grammatical error throughout all of Wikipedia?

BRIAN: That's correct. Except for in quotations.

PJ: Nice job.

BRIAN: Now that, that came as a surprise to me. When I started, there were 16,000 of them. And I actually didn't think I would ever get to the end, I was just -- I knew I was going to make a dent. One of the reasons I decided to concentrate on just one, usage error, is that uh, I knew I could at least see, see progress. But I really didn't think I would really get to the bottom. But after three years, every last one was gone.

PJ: How did that feel?

BRIAN: That felt fantastic! (laughs) I mean that was really something, because, and besides that, it also put a bound on the amount of time I could spend on it, because there's no point in continuing when they are all gone. Whereas until then I actually did I have to, I had to quit before I was done. When, there's, you know, some stress involved in that. I could, you know, I could go another half-hour, but no, it's time for bed.

PJ: Maybe you think the phrase "comprised of" sounds fine. But you and I, according to Brian and most usage manuals, are wrong. Here's the problem: comprise is supposed to be a synonym for includes. So it's correct to say: The house comprises four rooms. It's incorrect is to say that the house is comprised of four rooms. Because that would be like saying the house is included of four rooms. But of course nobody says included of. And lots of people say comprised of. And the reason is, that when people say comprised of, they're thinking of the phrase composed of, which is okay to use.

[Typing noises]

PJ: Brian's written a program that scans Wikipedia and finds each instance of "comprised of." He showed our reporter Leslie Griffy how it works.

BRIAN: So it comes back and says there are 362 pages that contain comprised of. Uh, 25 of these I haven't edited before. Of those 362, besides the 25 I've never seen, uh, they're almost entirely ones were comprised of is in a quotation.

PJ: Brian's program will find the errors, but it won't make the fix for him. He does it by hand.

BRIAN: Okay, so it takes me to a, a sentence that says, "It was comprised of 145 separate courts." I'm going to back up and read the rest of that paragraph so I know what it really is talking about. "Mass executions were finally ceased by commander Mannerheim's order and the Political Offence Court was established in the late May." Okay, so we're talking about this court. "It was comprised of 145 separate courts." So this is a good case for uh, for composed of, because this is a court, I can tell this is a court that sort of divided up into separate courts. Um ... so I just typed in "composed." And, I'm careful to put in the edit summary a link to this, six-thousand word essay of mine that explains the edit, because I can explain a lot with just that one link.

[Music and the sound of rapid typing]

PJ: Brian's long battle against the misuse of this one phrase started back in college. He heard somebody misuse the word comprised. He checked the dictionary, confirmed that the guy was wrong, and it's been hurting his guys ever since. Brian has used Google's Ngram Viewer, a tool that allows you to see the popularity of a word over time, to pinpoint the decade were comprised of first because to run amok.

BRIAN: Right around the late ‘60s, people started really using it a lot, and uh, they even added it to dictionaries, uh, because ... you know people use it and they have to tell you what it means. And I don't know, but it may have to do with the fact that, uh, there's a concept which became really popular in the '60s, of freedom, the idea that people shouldn't be told how to talk. And they shouldn't be told how to do anything really. People should, should be themselves. And so the idea of correcting grammar sort of lost steam.

PJ: How do you feel about that '60s, "everything-goes-man" attitude towards language.

BRIAN: Well, I believe in "everything goes, man," for, for the individual, and that's fine. But the problem is when you're writing, you're writing for everybody else, and you really have to take their thoughts into consideration. And there are still so many of us out there, they just bristle when we hear something which is, incorrect, or -- you know it's just basically a concept of disorder.

PJ: As far personality types go, I am far away from Brian. The urge to correct an obscure grammar mistake that doesn't even sound to my ear like mistake, is utterly foreign to me. In fact, it can feel a little lecture-y. But from Brian's point of view, the mistake is what's annoying. In fact it's painful. Literally painful.

BRIAN: I've studied this from a, a neuroscience point of view, one of my other hobbies, is studying the brain. It's -- the amazing things that go on inside the brain. And one of the areas in, in the brain, that uh, in the frontal lobe, is designed for detecting things that are out of pattern,and it's actually the same area that causes pain, physical pain, and it's the area where, when it's not working properly, you get an obsessive compulsive disorder. But everybody's got it. And ... it, it causes a uh, a form of weak pain, when you see something that's not the way it's supposed to be and it doesn't fit the pattern that you're used to.

PJ: Do you think that you have more of that pain than some other people do?

BRIAN: Oh I know I do. I'm much more attuned to patterns, and I try to, I wear the same thing everyday, I typically eat the same thing almost every day.

PJ: What are the clothes that you like to wear, and what is the food you like to eat?

BRIAN: Well I wear, a, red pocket polo, shirt, of which I own, eight. And uh, when they get worn out I buy one just like it. And then I wear, just a pair of jeans, which I, I change into grey slacks when I get to, to the office.

PJ: And what about food?

BRIAN: Grilled chicken sandwich in the company cafeteria every day for lunch. And I try to, I try to actually have the turkey sandwich, which is even better, but this particular cafeteria, their supplier was not reliable, and I kept going in there to order the turkey sandwich and they'd say, "We don't have that today." And that was just more than I wanted to deal with (laughs). So I switched to something they would have everyday. But I love it that I get up in the morning and I don't have to choose what to wear, it's already been decided for me, and the same thing is true when I get in line at the cafeteria. I don't have to look around and pick something. I like routine a lot. So yeah, I definitely have that more than others.

PJ: It's very possible to create a stereotypical image of this guy, who wears the same outfit everyday, eats the same thing, spends every sunday obsessively correcting the same Wikipedia mistake. But Brian's' not that stereotype. He has a high paying job in software, he's not a loner, in fact he's lived with a partner for 14 years, a partner who is annoyed with but tolerant of Brian's copyediting obsession.

AND, as obsessive as Brian can be, he can also let it drop. Some people will occasionally take issue with Brian's correction, saying they prefer comprised of, thank you very much. They'll change his composed of, back to comprised of. And argue that comprised of is right. Because it -- t feels right. It's just language evolving.

This is a version of an argument that's probably been around as long as language itself, and Brina will not fight with them about it. He seems to know that in the great battle between language purists and the language hippies who say "if it feels right, it is right" the purists like him often lose. If they didn't, Shakespeare wouldn't need so many footnotes.

BRIAN: The word lunch, um, is fairly new, up through the early part of the 20th century, the meal in the middle of the day was called "luncheon." And you can't call it luncheon anymore, because now it's change, the word luncheon refers to a big meeting that centered on lunch. Uh, so you have to make a choice. I couldn't go through Wikipedia and change all the lunches to luncheon.

PJ: Do you at all wish you could go through Wikipedia and change all the lunches to luncheons?

BRIAN: I do. Yeah, I -- I -- it would be nice. I said before, I would love it if English never changed. Except where it has to because the world around it changes, and it would be great if you could make it static, and uh, but you know, that's something we can't do.

One day's one of these people who keeps, uh, struggling to get 'comprised of' declared okay, uh, might succeed and the Wikipedia might change at some point where that thing is considered appropriate for "The Manual of Style," and they might say that this is, just like, now it says the Oxford comma is okay, and it's also, you know, you can either use it or not use it, they're both okay. If somebody ever, you know if those opinions ever change, and that happened, I'd ... I'd back off.

PJ: How would you feel?

BRIAN: Um ... Well it sort of takes the sense of accomplishment that I keep talking about away if somebody kind of invalidates the work I've been doing for the last 10 years or however many years it might be.

PJ: Yeah, it would make the time feel wasted.

BRIAN: Yeah, yeah, I kind of hate to bring up the wasted thing.

PJ: The wasted thing. Lots of people, especially language hippies, they love to tell Brian that he's wasting his time. Wasting his time, that argument's never made sense to him

BRIAN: Most people's' hobbies aren't something that save the world. Hobbies are just something you do that for some crazy reason makes you feel good. So, uh, when people talk about wasting time, I mean is it wastin time to, to attend a football game. You're not really accomplishing anything there, right?

PJ: Also I think you are the rare person for whom that the thing that makes you happy actually does improve the world.

BRIAN: Uh, it improves, yeah, it certainly improves the world for lots of other people, and that's, I really get a kick out of that. And there are still so many of us out there that will tell you "comprised of" is wrong. Half the people say, "I never knew this was a problem and thank you for pointing it out." The other half say, "Thank god somebody's finally fixing this." So, so there are plenty of those, those kinds of people.

PJ: Brian says that when he's on pages that aren't Wikipedia, he'll often find grammatical mistakes. He'll reach for the edit button and realize it's not there. The good thing about Wikipedia, he says, is it's a place where you can change things that really bother you.

PJ: Reply All is me, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. Our production team also comprises Chris Neary, Katherine Wells, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and we were edited by Alex Blumberg. Our show was mixed by The Reverend John Delore.

Matt Lieber is an HBO GO login that your friend's being cool and just letting you use for awhile. Special thanks this week to Leslie Griffy, Sylvie Douglas, and Lizzie Vogt. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, and our ad music is by Build Buildings. They've got a new album out. 

You can find us at iTunes.com/replyall, or replyall.limo. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.