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Great Moments in Public Signage, Internet Edition: The Rhetoric of 404 Pages

August 29, 2011

If you’ve ever used the Internet (and you have, because you’re using it now), you’ve run into a 404 page. 404 pages are what you get when you ask a real website for a page that doesn’t exist. If you’re a good typist, you see them once in a while. If you’re a bad typist, you see them all the time. Either way, you probably haven’t given them a second thought. But you should, because 404 pages are surprisingly interesting rhetorically.

A quick example to define the genre: If we try to go to www.google.com/willpenman, we would expect to get a 404 error, because Google probably hasn’t named a page after me. Sure enough:

Different websites create different 404 pages (with complicated rules governing whether your browser shows you a default error page or not). Google’s 404 is on the cutesy end (what a cute broken robot!). There’s also snarky, simple, and earnest, just to pinpoint a few from sites I check often. Go ahead, try it out yourself. How does your favorite website cast itself when no one’s looking?

404 pages are the id to every website’s ego because there’s complete freedom in writing them. They are pages that signify no-page. Not only are they a blank slate (every new page is), they are an anti-slate: no one, including the creator, wants people to see a 404 page. The job of the 404 page is to get people to leave it.

This sense of embarrassment and urgency to persuade people to leave underlies the first of two 404 pages we’ll look at. Steve Lambert created a video of himself awkwardly shooing us off the page.

Click to play Steve Lambert’s 404.

Notice how deeply embedded into the page the video is: you can’t see how long it is, or how far in you are, or control your location. It’s like the man talking to you is autonomous. He’ll pause for you, but you can’t make him repeat himself. And you can’t click to see the video on Vimeo; you have to watch it on Lambert’s page. I’m not even authorized to mark it with Vimeo’s “like.” The video belongs to the page. It is the page–that is to say, these display features contribute to the video’s metaphor that the 404 page is an empty room. Or, to use the academic convention of capitalizing metaphors, THE 404 PAGE IS AN EMPTY ROOM (I promise I’m not shouting at you). By extension, WEBPAGES ARE ROOMS OF A HOUSE.

Lambert’s video is a pretty funny study in rhetorical gestures of awkwardness (long pauses to give us opportunity to leave, shiftiness and lack of eye contact to avoid escalation of conflict, self-deprecation, all kinds of attempts to establish “referential identity” in the hopes that if we’re talking about the same thing we’ll just use the search bar and leave the room…). But I want to talk about metaphor, because there’s a second 404 page that also came out a few weeks ago:

Click to play Nosh’s 404.

Interestingly, the metaphor is different:

Periodically, pages go missing, assets get misplaced — you should not be concerned. This is a startup, this kind of thing happens.

Here, webpages are compared to soldiers, and the website overall is a force of war. Metaphorically, EARLY BUSINESSHOOD IS WAR.

How do Lambert and the creators of Nosh benefit from their metaphors? For Lambert as an artist, our “presence” at his 404 page enables his performance of awkwardness. We enact his business: we are the audience, and he is the show. The metaphor WEBPAGES ARE ROOMS OF A HOUSE makes us feel invited to his website, where he is the gracious host, always attentive and ready. And finally, the metaphor as meaning-management shows us the deftness with which Lambert can take a part of our daily experience and enliven it–exactly what he’s trying to prove with his website.

For Nosh, a restaurant food-rating app startup, our presence happens to be at the scene of a heroic war effort. Like Lambert’s 404, our failure to find the right page on Nosh is rhetorically constructed as a success. In this case, it’s a successful battle, which we are assured happens regularly (“At Nosh, we are fortunate to have a relationship with several teams of ex-special forces operatives who help us track down these missing pages”). This encourages us to see the continuing existence of Nosh and Nosh’s website as them winning.

The point is, these 404 pages promote their authors, but they do so by creating metaphors that implicate other aspects of their site and our browsing experience. Websites can be comfortable personal invitations or war zones. The more time you spend online, the more important that difference is. It’s up to the rhetoric of the 404 pages to help us decide which metaphors we follow.

If you want to know more:

  • Can’t get enough of 404 pages? Check out these satirical 404 pages. Talk about the sublimated desires that could come out in an expression of the id!
  • You can’t really talk about metaphors without mentioning Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (1980). They showed everybody that metaphors are kind of a big deal.
  • Both of these videos got some press on the interwebs. Nosh’s has about 500,000 views as I write this, and I bet Lambert’s has many more. Here’s a nice write-up of Lambert’s page on Rhizome.

Will Penman is an MA student in Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University.

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