Anaphora resolution on the Internet, and other irritating things

Part seventeen million approximately of how not to bug Mary: understand how anaphora are used.

Anaphora are the shorthand words that you use in sentences rather than naming something in an identifiable way. The obvious examples are pronouns: “she” and “you” and whatnot. There are plenty of less obvious examples: “one” in “I hate the tall woman and like the short one” is an anaphor. (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on “one” in the anaphoric usage and it was exactly as weird a computing thesis as that might lead you to believe.) Respectable noun phrases, particularly definite ones like “the idea” in “I like the idea, don’t you?” can also be anaphoric. An anaphor is, loosely, a reference to something that you need some fairly immediate context (not always verbal, you could, say, be pointing at something and calling it “that”) to be able to work out.

So far so good. Which is why I don’t understand how people use them on the Internet. I’ve had people use “it” to refer to an idea they discussed with someone else several hours previously, and judging from their profuse apologies, have genuinely actually forgotten that it might no longer be foremost in anyone’s mind.

More generally, text mediated communication seems to reduce everyone’s capacity to actually model what other people might know. Mostly they assume too much of their audience. “Which idea? The idea I discussed with someone you’ve never heard of who lives on the other side of the world in a lead box, of course. That idea. Hello? Duh.” Some assume too little. “You want to change your tyre? OK, let’s back off a step. A wheel is a round object that, together with an axle, allows low friction in motion by rolling… [thanks Wikipedia].”

In the ultimate failure to model one’s audience, the other day I sent a mail about the Google thing. I got a reply from someone I don’t know reading, in its entirety, “women engineers?????????????????????? And me?” It was tempting to reply “Lookit, cannibals!” or something. Instead I politely replied that I hadn’t understood the question, and my correspondent has failed to enlighten me.