on Mar 10, 2010
Mark linked to this article on Quiet Babylonian, which filled me with dismay. The short version is that this blog post became the #1 search result for “Facebook login”, and as a result hundreds and hundreds of Facebook users showed up and left comments to the effect of, “i hate this new facebook page how do i log in?” The questions repeated over and over. Hundreds of people obviously just type “facebook login” and take whatever result the search engine gives them. The level of ignorance and misunderstanding was so staggering that for a couple of minutes I actually thought the whole thing was some sort of 4chan prank.
But it wasn’t a prank, and it demonstrates just how many people are out there surfing the web who have no idea what they’re doing. They’re not stupid. These are most likely people who manage to buy groceries every week without going broke or starving, and they drive to work every morning without killing anyone on the way. They’re just not interested in technical things, and they’re not compelled to investigate technology for its own sake. Their computer is just another appliance to them.
I think there are a lot of factors contributing to this…
1. Indifferent attitude towards computer knowledge.
Some people simply aren’t interested in learning to use a computer well. They want to learn just enough to get to their Facebook and check their email, and beyond that they just don’t care.
In the 90’s I worked to bring some friends and family into the computing world. At first they were afraid of computers and it required a lot of encouragement to get them to use and experiment with the machine. Don’t be afraid of the computer! It doesn’t bite. You can’t hurt anything. This was mostly true. There were dangers on the net back then, but they were generally in places that new users wouldn’t find. You could get into trouble if you were looking for game cracks or P2P programs, but you had to go into those back alleys of the internet to find trouble. Now trouble is lurking right outside the front door and the danger is pervasive.
Phishing schemes began with emails like, “hi im you’re bank and forgot your password please varify you’re account or it will be locked out.” Now phishing emails can generally pass the laugh test, and spotting a fake takes a little technical knowledge.
“They should learn to use the net. You wouldn’t let someone drive a car without them learning to drive first, would you?”
True, but this mindset needs to be imparted. You need to explain to the hapless surfer why the computer is more like a car (dangerous to use without proper training) and not like a TV. It certainly looks more like a TV, and its purpose (entertainment device) is more like a TV.
2. User is usually unaware of knowledge deficiency.
Many people think of viruses and malware as “something that happens”. To them it’s like getting a cold. As far as they know, it happens from time to time and it can’t be avoided. They don’t know what they don’t know.
3. Lack of demonstration.
Most of us spend over a decade observing people drive before we get behind the wheel ourselves. We see the driver follow road signs, use turn signals, and put gas in the car. When it comes time to learn, we have some sort of framework to hang it on. When you’re driving, you can see other people on the road and evaluate your own performance by comparison. If a time traveler arrived here from 1850 and you taught them to drive, they may well do something that would seem obviously boneheaded to us. If they drive the car until it runs out of gas it’s not because they’re stupid, it’s because they had gaps in their knowledge and didn’t know it.
We don’t have this sort of learning with computers. Most of us don’t watch another person intently when they’re using a computer. It would be boring and would usually be considered rude. If we’re using the computer or the internet poorly, we have no way of knowing we’re doing it wrong.
4. Changing internet landscape.
I learned to drive in 1990. In the last two decades, I haven’t really needed to learn anything new. Once in a while a slight change comes along. I think sometime in the mid-90’s I used cruise control for the first time.
But the net is ever-changing. New technologies, new interface conventions, and new threats. You have to keep learning just to keep from falling behind. You don’t need to learn a lot once you have the basics down, but many people won’t bother to learn at all if they don’t see a need.
5. The newbie influx.
The Endless September is still going on. Grandparents are hopping on the net for the first time. On the other end, parents are dropping their teens in front of the computer and trusting them to figure things out on their own.
The real problem is that their shortcomings are having some really powerful repercussions. Ignorant users having their credit cards or their personal information stolen is one thing. It’s tragic, but at least the damage is localized to the person who made the mistakes. But when their infected boxes start spewing spam and denial of service attacks and gobbling up network traffic, it causes problems for everyone. We talked about this a couple of weeks ago. These compromised machines are acting as nodes on various criminal botnets. It’s all very sci-fi sounding to me.
It is fiendishly difficult to envision a solution that doesn’t require people to stop behaving like human beings in order to work.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.