During the brouhaha over some of my recent "Sarah Palin is an embarrassment" postings — I'm quite certain we set the Volokh Conspiracy record for number of comments on a single posting (419 at last count) — one dubious reader (who shall remain nameless - you can look it up easily enough if you're interested) asked "Are you a real law professor? which school?". Later on in the very same thread, a day or so later, the same reader wrote "I really want to know if Post is a real law prof, and if so, where." And he/she asked the identical question on a different comment thread attached to one of my other postings a couple of days later.
What's interesting about this is that the reader didn't, of course, really want to know where I teach law. If he/she really wanted to know that, he/she would have taken the 1.8 seconds it takes these days to answer questions like that; you go to Google, you type in David Post (or better - "David Post Bio"), and you find the answer to your question. (Not to mention that we have links on the side of the VC page directing you to our bios). No, he/she didn't want to know the answer to the question, he/she wanted everyone else to know that he/she was asking the question. Meta-communication, as it were — "by asking this question, I am signalling to you all that I think David Post is a dope."
There are many interesting things about this. It's one of the subtle ways that Google is transforming the way we talk to one another. I've noticed this same meta-communication thing — which should have its own name, I think — in my conversations with friends over the past several years. I participate in a very active, and quite marvelous, e-mail listserv with about 15 of my close friends from college. On the rare occasions we're together face-to-face, conversation will include questions like "What was the name of that retarded guy in To Kill A Mockingbird who was charged with the murder?", or "Was it Mondale? Bentsen? someone else? who came up with that "Where's the Beef" line in one of the debates a while back?", or "Was "I've Just Seen a Face" on Revolver or Rubber Soul?" We used to ask questions like that on the listserv, too — but no longer. They're only useful as meta-communication now — in the time it takes to write out the message, you can get the answer from the network, so why bother? Now that information-gathering is so easy, communication that once had an information-gathering function has to serve some other function, or it will disappear.
It's also interesting to ask whether, or in what circumstances, this might actually be an effective rhetorical device? Why might it be more effective to imply that David Post is a dope this way — hey, where does this guy teach, anyway? — than to just say it (hey, Prof. Post, you're a dope)? I suspect there's a tinge of elitism here — the reader was, presumably, hoping that the answer would be "Shitsville University Law School" so he/she could say — well, what do you expect from such a dope. But you wouldn't think it would be effective in this context, where all of the other readers have the same 1.8 second task if they want to actually get an answer to the question.
Mind you, I don't think this is a bad development, or a good development - it's just an "is" development, the way things now are to which we are all necessarily adjusting.
[Can't even wait 1.8 seconds to find out the answer to the question? Click here.
Update -- I was wrong about the record for number of comments, as Orin points out; the record appears to be 550 comments, here