Ruhl Agbah loved words, and he wanted people to use words correctly in speaking and writing. He was reasonably adept with social media. He tweeted a bit, but he assiduously avoided the limelight.
That’s what makes this story so ironic. Ruhl ended up smack dab in the middle of a publicity hater’s nightmare.
Ruhl got into a knock down drag out Internet fight with a computer. The Internet incident made national news.
Ruhl inadvertently caused his own 15 minutes of fame. A TV talk show host used a plural pronoun with a singular noun on national television. The host said: “I’ll give each panelist their own chance to speak on this issue.”
That gaff made Ruhl shiver. Using a plural pronoun with a singular noun on national television was, he felt, like blowing one’s nose into the palm of one’s hand in public.
Ruhl got online and Googled the network’s website. He phoned the number listed there. A recorded message told him to push a series of numbers on his keypad to reach the right department. It was frustrating. Rather than waste more time, Ruhl hung up and sent a scorching e-mail to the network’s “contact us” Internet address.
Within minutes Ruhl received an e-mail reply from the network. This was the computer-generated message: “Thank you for your comment. We take all comments and suggestions seriously…” Another sentence said, “This website is not monitored. Please do not reply to this message.”
With quivering fingers Ruhl clicked “reply” then typed: “Go straight to !@#$%^, you jerks.” Within minutes another identical message came from the network: “Thank you for your comment. We take all comments and suggestions seriously…” And, “This website is not monitored. Please do not reply to this message.”
Ruhl smiled. “Ohhhhh Kayyyyy,” he said, and clicked “reply” and typed, “Thank you for nothing. This e-mail address is not monitored. Please do not reply to this message.” He pressed “send.” Within minutes the identical reply came from the network. Ruhl copied and pasted his message into the “reply” space and pressed “send” again.
An hour later Ruhl’s inbox was full of identical computer-generated network messages and his repeated replies. He opened each message to see if it had been written by a human being. No such luck. All the messages were identical and all had been computer-generated.
By that time Ruhl had calmed down. He felt better. He had taken a stand in favor of correct grammar, even if it turned out to be a back and forth argument with the television network’s computer.
An hour later the phone rang.
“May I speak to Mr. Agbah?”
“Sir, this is Barbara Brandistone. I’m a reporter with the Associated Press.”
“Someone here came across a lengthy Internet exchange between you and a national television network. Would you please tell me about that?”
“It wasn’t an EXCHANGE,” Ruhl said, raising his voice. “I stormed their electronic barricades trying to make human contact, but I failed.”
Ruhl spoke with the AP reporter for another five minutes. Finally he said, “You’re not going to make a big deal of this, are you?”
“No sir. I’m just doing a short piece about the Internet.”
If Ruhl was mollified by her reply, he shouldn’t have been. The AP reporter put Ruhl’s Internet experience in the lead paragraph of her story.
A few days later when things had calmed down, Ruhl got a tweet.
“I’m here,” he tweeted.
“Mr. Ruhl, This is Marygliss@. I want to apologize. Your experience with our system was regrettable. We have taken steps here at the television network to rectify the situation.”
Ruhl: “That’s good. Thank you.”
Marygliss@: “Not at all, sir, we appreciate your input.”
“Then the network got my message after all.”
The two exchanged a few more pleasantries. Ruhl, happy that he had finally made human contact, signed off.
The next day Ruhl read an article that made his skin crawl. Cutting edge software techniques, said the article, now allow corporation computers to interact with humans on twitter as if two humans were tweeting. Ruhl called Barbara Brandistone at the AP. She did some digging. It turned out that Marygliss@, was just a television network computer.
Larry Day is the author of Day Dreaming: Tales from the Fourth Dementia.
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