The Gumbaby Project is an attempt to gather together a directory of comments posted on blogs (and guestbooks, and other inappropriate places) by people apparently led astray by search engines. Certain threads on some sites seem to attract confusion over and over again. People arrive at a blog, mistake the author for a celebrity, an expert, or an authority, and they begin talking as if that’s who was listening.
This is a remarkably widespread phenomenon; most bloggers and other site managers I talk to can identify posts of theirs which have attracted rich troves of such shouts in the wilderness. MetaFilter has run two threads on which bloggers have gathered numerous examples of gumbaby posts like these.
I’m developing this archive for its own sake, but also for the sake of my dissertation. I am interested in improving critical media and digital literacy skills. My hope is to study these comments — and possibly even contact the commenters — in order to figure out how and why it is people use the Internet this way. I also hope to take a higher-level view, looking at how search engines and search engine optimizers may be implicated in the development of comment threads like these.
Update, 4/20/08: Due to an ingenious new method of finding these little buggers, I now have a great deal more content and will be posting twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday mornings.
Update, 9/26/13: Obviously by now things have slowed down. I’ll keep adding stuff that presents itself (mail’s still appreciated, or better yet tweet at me), but I’m not actively looking for material outside of a general baleen filter of the Interwebs.
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In the legends of West Africa, the Gum Baby was a device used by the trickster hero Anansi to catch a fairy, Mwatiya. Anansi carved the figure of a child, covered it in sap, left it by the side of the road — and let the fairy’s misunderstanding of the sticky figure’s silence do the rest of the work.
The fairy, assuming the gumbaby was alive, greeted it. Receiving no response, the fairy got angry. Did nobody teach you manners? the fairy said. Do you think you’re too good to talk to me?
Still getting no response, the fairy hit the gumbaby, and stuck to the sap. How dare you grab me! said the fairy. She hit the gumbaby again — then kicked it — and was firmly stuck.
Anansi took the captured fairy to the Sky God and claimed his reward: the title of King of All Stories, and a golden box containing every story known to humankind.
Who are these people getting stuck to gumbabies? What moves them to talk back? And is the world’s box of stories still at stake?
 This legend is an ancestor of the story of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby, in which roles are reversed and the trickster Rabbit is trapped by Br’er Fox. The Disney movie Song of the South is perhaps where most Americans know of the Br’er Rabbit tale. This has unfortunately given the story a negative racial tone. Seeking to avoid the twisting of this tale that occurred through the legacies of slavery, the name of this site returns to the roots of the story to try to understand what it used to be about.