Today I Learned) Michigan State University will identify any insect, arthropod, plant or weed for free if you send a picture of the specimen via email,” posted reddit user “cive666” on Aug. 10, 2015.
Within hours, the post had made the front page of the entire website, and with 7,000 up-votes (reddit users vote content up or down in an effort to democratically push quality to the top) it became one of the top 50 most up-voted posts of all time on its subreddit: /r/TodayILearned.
The reddit post linked directly to the MSU Diagnostic Service webpage, which contained an email address that anyone could use to send in pictures of bugs they wanted to learn more about.
“It probably resulted in like 2,000 emails at that point,” Howard Russell, academic specialist and entomologist for MSU’s diagnostic program, said.
“Our IT guy was scurrying around because…it sort of overwhelmed our website, it overwhelmed our email,” Russell said.
The traffic was such a strain on MSU’s servers, and the emails became so overwhelming that MSU was forced to contact reddit and request that the post be removed from view.
“But by then the damage had already been done,” Russell said.
The responsibility to identify thousands of bugs via email fell onto Russell– he is the MSU Diagnostics Service’s entomologist, after all.
“The article, it didn’t say anything that wasn’t true,” Russell said. “That’s a service we provided. Although our priority is…The citizens of Michigan because they’re the ones that pay our salaries.”
Russell said the main reason for going through and responding to all the emails was to maintain MSU’s integrity.
“We didn’t wanna really say, ‘No, we don’t. You’re not from Michigan. Don’t bother.’ Cause since Michigan State was sort of on the reddit post…We were gonna honor that and we didn’t want anybody slamming the state or slamming the university or slamming diagnostic services,” Russell said.
And so Russell set forth to identify the thousands of pictures of bugs sent in from across the world.
“I was doing 500 a day for a while,” he said.
Russell even created a reddit account just to post in the comments about the situation.
“Our feeling was once we plowed through that initial burst of requests for IDs that it would level out and…It would all be good after that,” Russell said.
Yet even after the dust settled, the effects of the post are still being felt to this day.
“I still get photos from around the world. The Middle East, Australia, Europe. Throughout the U.S.,” Russell said.
Russell said that he is able to identify, by family, insects from across the world.
“A stink bunk here would look like a stink bug in Iran say or Iraq,” Russell said.
The original poster of the link, “cive666,” wrote in in reply to an inquest:
“That is a lot of email that they got, I hope it didn’t stress them out. I am a fan of MSU so I like to share things I find out about MSU since there is so much the university does other than football.”
The user continued, “I found out about the diagnostic services from my fiancee a day or so before I posted that. I didn’t know people would be so interested in it and was kind of shocked and happy at the same time that people took an interest.”
Russell said one of the big takeaways from the post was his ability to give advice to people having problems with bugs.
“A lot of times it wasn’t just idle curiosity but they were having a problem with the bug. A mother in Minnesota or somebody down in Oklahoma and they had these bugs in their home and (they’d ask): What are they and what can we do about them?” Russell said. “And that’s what we do here. I think I (helped people). Or I’d like to think I did.”
Although Russell himself admitted that due to the nature of time, and the internet, he’ll likely never know.