Which People are Stupid on the Internet?

I don’t think that the answer is “everyone” or even “everyone other than my geeky friends“, but obviously it is a large number of people.

Many people apparently type “facebook” into Google and try to login to the first thing that they see, if it happens to not be Facebook then they whine – this became known after a Google search for “facebook login” happened to not return the Facebook login page as the first link [1].  This blog post claims that they are not stupid [2] – the specific claim is that URLs etc are just too complex.  I disagree, if my mother and my mother-in-law can both do better than that then I think that we should expect that a significant portion of retirees can do so and we should also expect that younger people will do better than older people.

In a more specific sense, when I was in primary school I was taught the Dewey Decimal System aka Dewey Decimal Classification. With the DDC a primary school student can look up the location of a book in the library index system (cardboard files when I was at school) and then know where to find it. After looking up a book on one occasion no-one would want to repeat the effort so the sensible thing to do is to write down the DDC index to any interesting book. The same mental processes can be used for dealing with URLs, someone might find Facebook etc through Google on the first occasion but they can then use browser bookmarks and written notes for traveling to track the URLs that interest them. I think we should expect that a typical adult nowadays should be able to complete any task that would be expected of a 10yo when I was young, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call an adult stupid if they can’t compare to a 10yo from the early 80’s! As a specific example, while 10yo children were given assignments to look up various books in the DDC I think that an adult can be expected to work out the value of an index on their own – young children should be expected to require a little more training than adults!

Some people will claim that it’s not stupidity but ignorance. What exactly is supposed to have prevented these people from learning? Have the primary school libraries stopped teaching the DDC and most other things related to storing written knowledge? Is there supposed to be such an utter lack of computer skills in the general population that anyone who wants to learn will be unable to do so? I’m sure that there are plenty of retirees who could seek advice from my mother or my mother-in-law if they wanted to learn about such things. NB I’m not making any general comment about gender specific computer skills here, my father and my father-in-law don’t seem to use the Internet much and they aren’t the ones to complain to me when things break – so I can’t assess their skills. I am talking about four individuals and the only generalisation that I am making is that 2/4 retirees I know well seem to have good Internet skills and therefore I expect there to be a reasonable number of retirees who successfully use the Internet.

The Making Light analysis and discussion of the issue has a lot of good points (Making Light does in fact “make light”) [3]. But does have some claims that I find really strange, one example concerns a woman who misunderstood the way the up/down buttons work to call an elevator. Misunderstanding the buttons is one thing, but she also shared her “knowledge” of elevators with others, presumably she had more than a few people try to correct her and she ignored their advice. I think that someone who ignores advice from a variety of people, ignores advice that can easily be tested (just push the elevator buttons and observe what happens), and then goes around sharing their wrong ideas seems to have clearly crossed the line separating cluelessness from stupidity.

One of the Making Light comments references the Clients From Hell blog – a summary of strange, stupid, and amusing requests that clients have made to web design companies [4]. It seems to me that there are two noteworthy categories of anecdote on that site. One is requests that demonstrate ignorance of the work, such as requesting something significant and complex to be done in an hour. The other is requests that demonstrate contempt for the people doing the work, such as offering to pay $10 per hour. Misjudging the time taken to complete work is forgivable – if someone has the skill to accurately estimate the time required then they would be able to do the work and wouldn’t be asking for a quote for someone else to do it. Demonstrating contempt for someone that you are about to hire is stupid no matter how or why it’s done. Clients From Hell also documents people who have requests that are obviously silly, it’s understandable that someone might expect a blurry image to be sharpened as done on “CSI”, but wanting use image editing to reveal the face of a person who was facing away from the camera is simply assigning magical powers to the computer – the fact that this sort of thing is done in shows such as Star Trek says a lot about the shows in question and their viewers.

Often car metaphors are used for computers, you can be a good driver without knowing the details of how a car works – but you do have to know how the pedals, switches, and steering wheel work as well as the meanings of the various dials. You can be competent at using the Internet without knowing much about bits, bytes, assembler code, or how a CPU works – but you do need to know how the controls work and this means knowing how to type a URL.

The basic operations of browsing the web require considerably less skill than driving a car and less skill than is commonly used in operating the telephone system (including PABX systems, mobile phones, and international calls). Anyone who is unable (not unwilling) to drive a car or make any phone call other than a local direct call and yet is reasonably intelligent could be used as an example of how an intelligent person could be unable to understand some aspects of technology, I don’t think that there are many people in that situation – it’s difficult to find an adult in Australia who can’t drive a car.

Finally while it’s reasonable to be uninterested in some things, it’s not reasonable to be interested in doing something without wanting to learn how to do it properly. If typing “” is so difficult that it exceeds someone’s level of interest in the service then they shouldn’t complain if they find that they can’t access the service. Really typing “” into the address bar of a web browser is easier than starting the engine of a car with a manual transmission, it’s easier than filling the fuel tank of a car with the correct fuel, or figuring out when a car is due for service.

Now there are serious security issues revealed by this event. I’m sure that lots of people use similar methods to access their online banking etc. I just did a quick Google search for online banking with Australian banks, and I noticed that a few of the search results have adverts from rival banks. So it seems quite plausible that someone could trick Google into thinking that they run a bank (there are many thousands of banks in the world), run adverts competing against established banks, and phish the people who click on them.

I wonder whether the best solution would be for the banks to test the security of their customers. Then any customer who gets phished by the bank’s anti-fraud division would receive increased bank fees for the next few years and the rest of us who are less risk to the bank could receive lower fees. The current situation seems to be that my bank fees are partly determined by the need to recoup the money that the bank loses from customers who just use Google to find their bank’s web site. I would rather not pay for the stupidity of such people.

In the end all security comes down to people issues, technology just helps people do the right thing. I believe that one of the groups of stupid people on the Internet are those who believe that the Internet should be made safe for people who want to know nothing about it – not even the basic library skills that are taught to primary school students.

12 comments to Which People are Stupid on the Internet?

  • I’ve been “monitoring” this issue myself for quite some time now. There’s just something in the mind set of young people to literally reject learning anything that’s new. One example could be “death of email”, since new generations think its waste of time and use (i.e) facebook for communication, collaboration and so on.

    That’s all not problem, for new technologies replacing the old ones, the problem is that we (who are creating all this) are conforming to these people and some of the great technologies are just being wasted.

    I in particular was in situation, where I was making a system (student information system) that was from technical side brilliant, but the UI wasn’t like “facebook” or “myspace” therefor my new goal was set to redesign the whole UI and system itself.

    What the problem is, is that people hate learning anything, even if it’s at its minimum; i.e: I’m Facebook user, how did most FB users react to recent UI changes? Horrified, even though new UI is much much better then the old one. Why did they hate it? They were used to the old one, and they hate learning new UI that’s just been rearranging site components, buttons and etc …

    I think of myself as very adaptable person, but no matter how much I think how the future (technology) will look like, I can’t figure it out, but if the people who do not want to learn anything take over in future … we’re doomed :)

    Very nice post, I enjoyed reading it :)

  • Barnabyh

    Hi Russell, good points. I have long come to the conclusion most people are too (not stupid) lazy to even think.
    We’re living in a risk averse society in which personal responsibility is more and more an alien concept. People expect to be spoon fed and for “government” to make life safe for them.
    There’s no way around that apart from a culture change back to 30 years ago.
    (Yet the same people will often point at homeless or other less lucky than them and say their situation is their own fault.)
    Take care.

  • etbe

    Adnan: Interesting idea about young people not wanting to learn new things. While I generally reject arguments of the form “young people nowadays don’t do X unlike 30 years ago” I think that you may be on to something here – but maybe not what you think.

    Maybe people tend to learn something as a tool if they are exposed to it while young in a way that they won’t if exposed to it when older. So maybe someone who learns how to use a computer when they are ~30 will approach it in a more sensible way than someone who learns it when they are young.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong in wanting an interface to remain the same. Once you get used to something it saves mental effort if there are no changes.

    Barnabyh: I think that people are overly criticised for wanting the government to do things for them. The way society works forces people to rely on the government. For example the fact that it’s impossible for the majority of the population to buy a house on a single income (the median income is not adequate to pay for the median house) forces both parents to work which then means that the government has a much greater role in raising children than it might otherwise have.

    Being risk averse is also a problem, I could write a series of blog posts about these issues.

  • I’ll paraphrase someone from Slashdot: the average IQ is 100, and 100 isn’t very bright at all. Half lie below that level.

    The world is full of people who don’t really understand what’s going on in their lives, but fake understanding well enough to get by.

  • Barnabyh

    Hi etbe (if you are returning to this thread at all),

    I did not touch on the causes of this and one could indeed argue that governments have created this dependency, partly in response to society changing in pursuit of ever more wealth or simply the necessity, for the lower paid, to keep a roof over their head, and partly promising ever more to get re-elected. We’re having a curious mix of extreme capitalism and in some areas overbearing socialism last seen in the countries of the old eastern bloc.

    My point was about a mindset though. I fully understand the need as you have mentioned, but my point was about thinking for yourself, common sense.
    These days people will drink themselves into oblivion claiming they did not know alcohol consumed in vast quantities is damaging to them simply because there was no health and safety sticker on the bottle telling them so.

  • etbe

    Barnabyh: In terms of “promising ever more to get re-elected” you seem to be referencing the meme that people will vote themselves money – which is a claim that seems to be without any supporting evidence. People do however routinely vote for other people to have more money (such as voting for tax reductions for the rich just in case they ever become rich).

    I am not aware of any “overbearing socialism” in Australia or the US. Of the little I know of the political environment in your country (which I will not mention by name to preserve your privacy) I don’t think there’s any evidence of it being socialist. I would like to see your evidence to support that claim.

    I doubt the essence of your claim “These days people will … because there was no health and safety sticker”. I don’t think that the real behavior of people has changed in this regard, maybe the excuses are different though. Long before there were any good medical studies it was well known that alcohol and tobacco caused health problems, yet people still consumed those substances. I believe that common sense is somewhat more common nowadays due to better health standards. There are lots of ways that the diet of pregnant women and young children will affect the average IQ of the population. I think it’s reasonable to look at the historical record and consider that the average height of a population will be correlated to average IQ – this is not to say that taller people are inherently more intelligent but that a population which has a poor enough diet overall that they don’t grow tall will also be intellectually stunted on average.

    Do you have a blog? Maybe it would be good if you could write an article with your thoughts on some of these issues in detail.

    Also as this is my blog I read every comment. If I don’t reply it merely means that I don’t think anything more needs to be said. I generally check for comments multiple times per day, if I don’t reply quickly it may mean that I’m too busy to give enough time to write a good reply.

  • steffen

    Coming from Germany, where socialism is still one of the core values (that the capitalists work hard to eradicate), I am amazed again and again how the meaning of this word was perverted in the western world.

    One would think the cold war is long since over, but even today people often associate socialism with dictatorship and capitalism with freedom.

    When it comes down to the actual meaning, capitalism basically gives the additional freedom to die on the street due to hunger or cold, while socialism will restricts the extent to which you can exploit others. These aspects are exactly what distinguishes the “free market” in US (or China) from the “social market” in several European countries. And to me, this difference implicitly follows when you believe into such basic things as human rights.

    That being said, there’s definitely something odd about those facebook folks. With that level of idiocy and ignorance, they’ll make great politicians one day.

  • Barnabyh

    Hmm, I thought I had more or less agreed with your opinion that a lot of people just can’t be arsed to look or think for themselves instead of acting like brain dead zombies and acting upset if something changed.
    I can’t see that you have actually addressed that. I’m sorry but you look a bit like a smart arse trying to make a scientific paper out of a simple reply to your article. It was never about material provision of anything but about being responsible for your own choices.
    There is also a lot more that people vote for apart from money into their pockets, for example promises of being tough on crime, cracking down on … you name it. I suppose you really have too have lived here for a few years to know what I mean re. H&S gone mad for example. Or social housing of which I’m not sure you have that in your country, and does not exist in this form in Germany either.

    You obviously did not get my exaggeration (often used in political satire) in relation to drinking to highlight an important point. It is just an example and is valid for many areas of life. To stay with this perhaps not so good example as you did not understand what I’m saying, of course people have always liked to drink, but if they woke up puking in the morning they accepted it’s their own fault and that’s just how it is when you drink too much. These days the government or ‘somebody’ should have warned them. If people are too much in debt on five credit cards they will never be able to pay back it’s not their fault for being stupid or greedy and borrowing too much, it’s the governments or the banks fault- partly true (aiding and abetting) but still, nobody forced them to take out that loan or mortgage they could never afford.

    By the way, apparently the trend is for human beings to be smaller and ‘wider’ in the future due to not so advantageous changes in nutrition. What does that say about the IQ?

  • Barnabyh

    Steffen, I refuse to be drawn into a capitalism vs socialism debate, that was never the issue here. There was no valuation attached to my statements and if anything I am critical of both. Extremes are always unhealthy.
    Not quite sure where you see the meaning of socialism perverted just because I would rather have people who can and do think for themselves.

    Oh, oppressive societies of all kinds don’t like people like that.

  • Barnabyh

    Sorry etbe, don’t have a blog. It might make for some interesting exchanges but in general I’m too busy with work and life, and at the inflationary rate of blogs out there, most with not much to say if you can actually spare the time and read, I never felt the need to add another.
    The whole web 2.0 never caught on with me either, there have been weeks when my only net use was ftp and rsync. (Giving too much away here- beware the data miners :) .) Take care now.

  • steffen

    > Not quite sure where you see the meaning of socialism perverted

    You wrote that you see elements of “overbearing socialism”. I assumed you were referring to the increasing overprotective attitude of western governments, since there certainly was no observable increase in *social* security in western capitalist countries for the last several years. But while it is correct to associate “overprotective government” with “old eastern bloc”, it has, by design, little to do with socialist concepts. The fact that this behavior now occurs in highly capitalist societies is just further proof of that. This association is propaganda from cold war times that happens to be useful today to make capitalist societies even more extreme(look at health care discussion in US)

    > By the way, apparently the trend is for human beings to be smaller and ‘wider’ in the future due to not so advantageous changes in nutrition.
    > What does that say about the IQ?

    Not much. Most advertisement is highly targeted manipulation of values, designed by highly paid psychologists or PR people. Most of the food you can buy is heavily processed, i.e. “easy to eat” with lots of hidden fat, sugar and salt. Basically, you have a billion dollar food indutry spending millions on consumer manipulation to sell even more food, preferably food that is cheap to produce. The general public is bound to lose against such a system. (However, if you live in, say, Norway, this industry and the resulting advertisement is not very strong yet)

  • Barnabyh

    Getting involved in more and more aspects of people’s private lives and trying to steer the way they live, thereby also raising expectations and dependency, is certainly a hallmark of authoritarian governments. Our so-called economic and political elite have managed to rig the system even more to their advantage over the last few decades. In the case of politicians they will always point to the fact that they were elected, therefore legitimately making decisions for us. Only that in power Realpolitik is developing its own dynamic. Our current system has nothing in common with democracy as practised in ancient Greece but the name. Whatever you call it, it is certainly not a free society.

    Re. the 2nd paragraph, I was responding to “There are lots of ways that the diet of pregnant women and young children will affect the average IQ of the population. I think it’s reasonable to look at the historical record and consider that the average height of a population will be correlated to average IQ – this is not to say that taller people are inherently more intelligent but that a population which has a poor enough diet overall that they don’t grow tall will also be intellectually stunted on average.”