The Ignorance Hazard

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Mar 10, 2010

Filed under: Random 195 comments

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.


From The Archives:

195 thoughts on “The Ignorance Hazard

  1. Inscrutibob says:

    Perhaps the internet requires the equivalent of a driver’s license and proof of insurance (anti-viral/mal/whatever). Except no one’s qualified to regulate it.

    1. Zethavn says:

      I just heard on the radio this morning that they will be implementing an “Internet Safety Course” in Ontario elementary schools starting next fall.
      It’s about 8 years too late, but at least they’re doing something about it.


  2. Joshua says:

    How….bizarre. Facebook users usually like to complain about Facebook constantly changing its interface, so I could possibly see how people would be upset and thinking that Facebook had changed once again. However, why would anyone use Google to find their basic login screen for a program that they already use? Are there that many people trying to find Facebook for the first time who understand searching in Google but can’t understand something as simple as trying in the URL window?

    1. tapper says:

      Truth of it is, there are a lot of computer users who absolutely WILL NOT use the address bar to get to a website. Sometimes they’ll type it in Google because they think it’s “safer”; but most of the time it’s because they don’t even realize the address bar is something you can use.

      Now, for those that do know about the bar, they will not use it because they’re afraid that they may misspell, and they find the idea of going through the bar confusing — because it requires an accuracy that they’re not all that happy with.

      I say this as a man who provides computer support for a bunch of people who don’t even have a computer savvy friend or family member to rely on.

      1. Shinan says:

        I have to admit I don’t use the adress bar at all. It originally started from a fear of losing the “recent visits” pull down in the adress bar. Writing in new adresses always overwrote those so I just used a search engine instead. For some reason that behaviour has stuck with me. (So yes. I’m actually one of those who google youtube and facebook in order to get to those sites)

        1. Groboclown says:

          This is the same form of behavior that my wife uses. She only recently started to use bookmarks after I showed how she can save some of her favorite YouTube videos. Now I need to convince her that organizing bookmarks into folders will be that much easier.

        2. Huh, I never thought of that. I use the bar all the time.

          One thing that messes the bar up all to heck is the plethora of add-on bars that various programs try to install onto your browser. Many users will have six or seven layers of such bars (one from Norton, one from AOL, etc.) cluttering up the top of the browser and making it a mess.

      2. Mari says:

        Actually, I wonder how much of it is people who type “Facebook” in the address bar (rather than or and their browser/ISP defaults to a Google search from which they select a link. I’d never done that before until my husband pointed it out when I mentioned Mark’s link. But if I open Firefox and type “Facebook” into the address bar, I get a Yahoo search result page with my ISP’s logo on it so I assume some other ISP’s users would probably get Google instead of Yahoo.

        I guess it shows, if nothing else, how large the gap is between the web savvy and the unwashed masses because frankly it never occurred to me to use the address bar for anything other than web addresses and I never really thought about actually navigating the web in any way other than the address bar. I mean, I use Google but it never occurred to me to use that as a primary means of navigation. It would be like driving cross country using only state highways. Sure, you can do it but it’s the slow way.

      3. Shamus says:

        The article I linked to had a great quote stating that for a lot of users, the adress bar was just this complicated gibberish that they ignored. It was like the command line.

      4. Johan says:

        Yeah the address bar isn’t entirely necessary or useful for many. If you don’t know what they do, you’re afraid you’ll end up deleting something important. If you DO know what you’re doing you know how badly you can screw up. The website heading proudly proclaims this to be “Twenty Sided,” but type into the address bar and you get this (Actually, I my first try got me, which is a whole another can of worms). I can see why it can be easily overlooked during normal searching.

    2. Andrew B says:

      Yes, there are.

      Think of it like this: I’ve never used a computer before. Someone teaches me how to use this fancy new-fangled interweb thing. The steps are:

      1) Open browser.
      2) Browser defaults to Google (or any other well-known-search-engine(tm)).
      3) Tell Google what you’re looking for.
      4) Follow Google’s links.

      And you’re done. That’s it. That’s all you _need_ to get out and about on the internet. And for a lot of people that’s all they want/ever get in the way of instructions.

      Or to put it another way, if you’ve started using the internet since the rise of Google as a massively dominant force, why would you even _bother_ with the address bar? Think how much less human friendly it is compared to Google.

      When you think about it, it’s easy to see how people end up doing these things. It’s just very hard to make ourselves think in similar ways when we’re so used to knowing more.

    3. lazlo says:

      Yeah, really, there are. I can think of several reasons. 1) many people don’t comprehend just how dynamic the Internet, or even their own computer is. If typing “facebook login” and hitting “I’m feeling lucky” worked once to get them to the facebook login page, then they expect that it will always work. 2) they don’t want to use the address bar because there’s already something there. That field is already filled in, but the google query field is empty and just waiting for you to ask it a question. Along with that, if you have your home page set to google, when you go there your focus ends up in the query field, not the address bar. Typing in “Facebook” is easier than finding the address bar and using it, and 99% of the time, will work just as well. 3) People expect autocomplete to make sense. They suspect (without really examining the implications of that thought), that when they type in “face” and a list of things shows up including “facebook login”, that a thinking being chose to put that entry there because it would be useful. They may understand that the world doesn’t yet have artificial intelligence, but they don’t really grasp the implications of the fact that we have widely implemented artificial stupidity. 4) OK, I was going to make this point about reading what the fields are asking for, but I just looked at my browser a bit more closely and note that there is really nothing to distinguish the address bar or indicate what, if anything, you should use it for. So I’ll make the point as a tangent: different people have different reactions to reading. I’ve known people for whom reading appeared to nearly cause physical pain. On the other end of the spectrum, some people read compulsively. I’ve read the list of ingredients on my shampoo, not because I actually cared what they were, but because it was words, printed, right in front of me, and I didn’t have anything better to do at the time. I’m guessing that people who fall into the first group probably restrict their internet usage to things like porn and youtube. But for people towards that end of the spectrum, they may not notice what they’re doing because they don’t obsessively read all the text around it that may explain it for them.

      1. TehShrike says:

        A word of friendly advice: people will read what you say, but you have to use paragraph breaks.

        1. lazlo says:

          You’re absolutely right, and I had actually intended to replace that with an html-ified ordered list, but then noticed that OL wasn’t in the list of “you can use these tags”, and I needed to do something else…. so I hit post and didn’t get back to it until my edit window had expired.

          So just pretend there are nice breaks and such in there. :)

          1. Shamus says:

            I see complaints about the edit window closing from time to time, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen a case where the edit ability was abused. So I’ve upped the window from 15 to 30 minutes. We’ll see if that helps.

        2. Atarlost says:

          Those compulsive readers he’s talking about will read it.

          1. AnZsDad says:

            Errr…like me. I thought the arguments were quite accurate, but the wall-of-text was somewhat daunting. My usual take on first seeing that is “this person doesn’t appear to have enough intelligence to compose their post nicely, so they likely don’t have anything intelligent to say.”
            Thank God I have turned that filter off for Shamus’s site or I’d miss things like this.

            1. Octal says:

              I know, right? And yet, I’ve actually seen someone argue, when this issue was brought up, that finding a wall-o-text hard to read was “lazy” and that “print books don’t have extra white space”.

              I guess they’d never seen indentation.

              (Er, not to pick on lazlo here–I’m not trying to attribute the “why does it matter, you can still tell what it means” thing to you. It’s just kind of a pet peeve.)

              1. Hee. I read the line at the bottom of my window and then hit the down arrow when I get to the end, so I’m usually in the middle of a wall-o-text before I notice it, and then I’m interested in what it’s saying. I am a compulsive reader, though, probably other people might get bored and go away.

      2. Agammamon says:

        Heh! I have this compulsion too. As an example, there’s a airbag warning/instruction sticker on the sunvisor and if I get a glimpse of it I have to fight a strong urge to read the writing (which I’ve read many times already).

        1. Andrew B says:

          Hallelujah! It’s not just me!

          No wonder insurance premiums are so high…

        2. Galen says:

          Wow I’m not crazy after all!

        3. AnZsDad says:

          I’m home… :)

        4. Danel says:

          When I was a kid, I got in trouble in school because I’d stop making papier mache to read the newspapers we were making out of. I just couldn’t help myself.

          1. Mari says:

            I’m so glad I’m not the only one who did that. My name is Mari and I’m a compulsive reader.

          2. Fukiku says:

            Same here, my girlfriend always gets angry on me, if I start reading old newspapers when I’m cleaning windows or starting a good old wood-fired oven. :)

            1. El Quia says:

              Wow, this is creepy… are you stalking me and then retelling my anecdotes as if they were yours? :p

      3. Christopher says:

        There’s also more to it than sheer ignorance. I think for some people there is just an inability to learn either through stubbornness or senility. I cringe every time I have to watch my boss (a man in his 50’s) navigate an interface. We’re a graphic design and 3D animation studio and technology is something we have to keep up with, so he knows how computers work. Yet he will consistently do things that make no sense or are not what he intended, like hitting the X in the upper right corner instead of the – when he wants to minimize the window, thus closing the program instead. He knows what those buttons do and expresses frustration when he hits the wrong one, but he makes this mistake over and over. I’ve tried showing him simple navigation functions that will make his life easier, yet he won’t retain that information. It’s like his brain cannot connect the dots and learn to do the right things automatically.

        Then for others, stubbornness keeps them from learning the correct way of doing this. They’ll say, “It works, so why should I change?” For these people, convincing them otherwise is nigh impossible.

      4. pulse says:

        I initially scrolled right past this because of the lack of formatting, but went back after reading some interesting replies and wondering what they replied to. The new tree-like layout is a really nice feature.

    4. Meredith says:

      That part baffled me too, Joshua. Especially in the QB article when he talks about urls being confusing and full of random code. WTF? is about as simple as it gets, no? And bookmarking isn’t as difficult and confusing as he makes out. It’s a button click.

      1. krellen says:

        I work for an organisation that is part of a larger university; as such, our website is not “www.[something].com”, but rather “[us].[university].edu”. Very frequently when we give out our web address, people will try to reach it by doing “www.[us].[university]”, because they’ve grown so used to the “www” and “.com” around web addresses and no one has ever taken the time to explain what the nomenclature actually means.

        1. Mari says:

          I’ve noticed that behavior as well. Many people honestly believe web addresses must begin with www and end with dotcom. It’s not helped when many marketing teams print their web address as “visit us at [business].com” or even “visit us on the web at [Business].”

          1. Nick says:

            Many of them do have to start with www. thanks to idiot sysadmins not understanding aliases.

            1. krellen says:

              The difference between www. and anything else is simply a matter of DNS. I’m not sure how many “idiot sysadmins” you know that don’t know basic DNS, but if it’s a lot, there’s something seriously wrong with this industry.

              1. blue_painted says:

                There are far too many idiot sysadmins who do not understand DNS, or IP … or in fact anything, so yes, there is something seriously wrong with the industry.

    5. Duffy says:

      I can vouch for this. I constantly try to get my mother to use the address bar, but she quickly lapses back to using google.

    6. Soylent Dave says:

      Adding to all the other comments along these lines, there are also plenty of users who use the address bar as if it were a search engine.

      Which plenty of (most?) modern browsers are well equipped to deal with, depositing the user in the expected ‘search results’ screen (for the default browser search engine) – meaning that those users could feasibly fail to even realise that the bar is anything other than an alternative search bar.

    7. I frequently just type “facebook” in the address bar (because Firefox automatically does a Google search on whatever I type in there unless it looks like a URL). But if I ended up at a page I obviously didn’t want, I would pretty much instantaneously figure it out.

      The stupidity here goes beyond “I don’t understand how the intertubes work”; this is “I cannot process written information in front of my face”.

  3. Daphne B. says:

    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(…)

    So, you’ve seen Time After Time then?

  4. BCR says:

    “It is fiendishly difficult to envision a solution that doesn't require people to stop behaving like human beings in order to work.”

    I disagree. The ipad or iphone with apps seems like a solution for all those people. It’s extremely restrictive in what it can do, but in exactly the ways that solve these problems for these users…

    1. kikito says:

      Mmm… that would make nice ads…

      “iPad: the computer for ingorants”

      Typo intented. The iPad will fix it.

    2. Ace Calhoon says:

      I dunno… I haven’t heard of any limitation that would make users less likely to Google “Facebook Login,” or fall for other phishing schemes.

      1. Andrew B says:

        Not those aspects, but it does limit other things, like installing malware etc by closing the platform. (Of course, if it’s massively successful, I’m sure someone will work out how to get around that, but that’s life.)

        And in essence Apple ads have been hinting at that (the Apple & PC ads, for example), although they tend towards a more customer friendly term than “ignorants”. :)

      2. Meredith says:

        I think the point is that on iWhatever these people could click the Facebook App button and go straight there. No need for Google or fancy address bar thingamajigs.

        1. AceCalhoon says:

          Perhaps… I wonder what would make someone more likely to take the extra step of installing a dedicated app on their iPhone, versus just using the browser (and how many people do one over the other). Is it just the strong app store integration? The catchy marketing?

          1. Meredith says:

            I’ve no idea as I don’t use them myself. Probably mostly marketing. It would be interesting to get some numbers on who uses various apps and why, though.

          2. Kirin says:

            On my Droid at least, and I’ve heard the same from iPhone users, apps load MUCH faster than the browser. The app is dedicated code that renders application images and fetches clips of data from the net (I presume) and a browser has to load the browser,(then the bookmark if not a homepage) and then has to render a full webpage.

    3. T-Boy says:

      This answer makes me want to scream.

      Not because I detest Apple for their dedication towards user experience over everything else, including stuff That Geeks Care About, like software freedoms and open standards.

      Not because of the legions of fanboys, and the cult-of-personality mystique that the Steve Jobs seems to inculcate.

      But because it is the correct answer to making a safer, more inclusive Internet.

      I just wish to god that Apple isn’t seen as the best contender for opening the market for a dedicated Internets device; one that can be used by anyone and everyone for a small subset of actions that involve the Internet.

      Because for one thing their stuff’s expensive, yo. And it’d be under the thumb of Apple, which has been acting rather dickish lately.

      1. Adam says:

        You realize the fact that Apple doesn’t support What Geeks Care About is exactly why it’s the future of the mainstream internet, right? The closed platforms and standards are exactly why it works; the outpouring of nerd rage at the announcement of the iPad is exactly why the iPad is going to succeed.

        The other possibility is that someone at Google takes Chrome OS out of the hands of the engineers and turns it into the future of the Netbook platform, but I’m not optimistic.

        1. T-Boy says:

          You realize the fact that Apple doesn't support What Geeks Care About is exactly why it's the future of the mainstream internet, right?

          Yes. That is why it makes me want to scream.

          A future where Apple is the default is as bad as the present, where Microsoft is the default.

      2. Nick says:

        Not because of the legions of fanboys, and the cult-of-personality mystique that the Steve Jobs seems to inculcate.

        Ohh, a new word, thanks.

    4. Zak McKracken says:

      I wrote a lengthy reply, but then I had forgotten to enter my name, got an error message, and the complete post was gone. (Shamus, is that my browser’s fault or the site’s?)

      So I’m just going to point to this (link found at Penny Arcade!)
      And say that I think Apple manufactures just the opposite type of user interfaces. Very easy to master, but rather promoting ignorance towards what you’re actually doing.

      1. Tobias says:

        Interesting – that fits Jesse Schell’s fascinating thoughts about the future of gaming like a glove. Go watch his DICE 2010 speech here, it’s absolutely worth it:

        Something else I find hugely interesting about the case of MS Office: The problem that most people have with MS Word, or in fact pretty much every word processor out there, is, I think, not the comlexity of the software, although everybody seems to think it is. No, it’s the complexity of the task itself. I guess most people are perfectly capable of managing a great deal of Word’s options so long as they serve their needs. But for the most part, they have no idea what they needs are, and the fact that we’re seeing ill-formatted documents all the time does not come from the Word not letting you do what you want to do.

        I think it has more to do with the fact that sophisticated text editing is a task that most people had no use for prior to the massive proliferation of computers and, in the same vein, word processing. Who would have needed to know the difference between a hyphen and a dash? Who had a need for concepts like text orientation? Who had to know the difference between apostrophes and acute accents? That’s so much knowledge on the side of the task that word processors assume you to have.

        1. Zak McKracken says:

          I don’t quite think so.
          I just watched it, and this guy describes a Orwellian scenario where you’re surveilled every second of your life and thinks it’d make people better.

          It scares me.

          It is not going to make anyone better, it is (if it actually happens, which I contest) a way to reduce human autonomy, to make a person do what someone else likes. And because all of these point systems are designed by commercial interests, it would turn customers into cattle. I would never ever play that kind of game for the live of me, because, as Jesse Schell says, it’s just a psychological tricks to make people do stuff. No way, sir. All the data collected that way would not be used by your descendants to look up what books you read but by completele other persons to look up and expose parts of your life that were not meant to be made public.

          *pling!* Achievement unlocked, you just gave someone a double orgasm!
          |Rewatch| brag about at facebook| tell a friend | offer via interporn (10k additional points)|

          And now imagine how helpless your mother would be in that type of world …

          Luckyly, most of the stuff he described is illegal anyway, so that’s a relief.
          Gaaaahhh, I’m all in rage now … shouldn’t have watched this thing.

  5. neothoron says:

    If you look at the current new generation of computer devices, you see that they are working towards a solution.

    In the words of Ed Finkler:

    When folks need an elevator, we should give them an elevator, not an airplane. We've been giving them airplanes for 30 years, and then laughing at them for being too stupid to fly them right.

    Whatever you think, it is undeniable that the device makers are currently hard at work to make elevators.

    The specific problems that you refer to are being solved, in the following ways:
    -Reduce the importance of the all-purpose browser in these devices, give ways to get the meaningful functions into convenient boxes. For example, an app or a link towards Facebook, neatly accessible in a single tap.
    -Lock down the devices in a way that makes it difficult to get malware on them. (Difficult enough that the only people that would be able to get malware are the ones who know what the risks are)

    The problem is not purely one of human ignorance – it is simply a gap between consumer expectations and the effective experience.

    1. Deoxy says:

      The problem is that people want an elevator… that goes exactly as high as they want it to go. This would be an airplane (or a helicopter… the analogy isn’t perfect).

      Analogous elevators have been available for many things for a long time… they just don’t sell as well because they don’t go high enough. Sure, the modern equivalents are getting taller all the time (Ed: this analogy is getting stretched dangerously thin), but they still don’t go arbitrarily high, and NEVER WILL, by definition.

    2. eri says:

      Sadly, I think this is the right sort of solution. I think we are going to move towards increasingly specialised and closed-off devices, designed for very specific applications. These unfortunately go against everything the computer means: openness and customisation of hardware and software, innovation brought on by fierce competition, etc. I’m instantly reminded of Adobe and its stranglehold on several markets due entirely to the fact that its bug-ridden, insecure software somehow became industry standard, or Internet Explorer 6 for similar reasons. Such examples totally reduce our capability for advancement, and yet creating platforms that revolve around these sorts of functions may be the only way to make these truly digestible.

      Did everyone notice how Facebook is now available on the Xbox 360? Aside from effectively monopolising the social networking market on the Xbox platform, from an end user perspective it’s actually probably a pretty good thing: easy to use, well-designed and clean, and most importantly, standard. I certainly don’t like it, but it’s undeniable that such a setup works both in the favour of Facebook and their users.

      I’m not necessarily proposing that the Xbox is the “future of computing” – but even when examining platforms like the Mac, it becomes extremely obvious that good interface design combined with functional, pre-installed, easy-to-use software makes for a better casual computing experience. It certainly explains Apple’s rise to popularity in certain market segments (i.e. students and young adults, as well as both “clueless newbies” and “creatives”).

    3. Peter H. Coffin says:

      I’m always so disappointed when someone like Ed starts off with a really valid metaphor, then completely veers off into the inapplicable, like the airplane connection. Because the elevator was a really great start.

      See, elevators started out being complicated devices that required no small skill to use well. They were boxes with an automatic speed brake, a motor controller for elevation, a manual braking lock, and a mechanism to open and close the doors. It took a fair amount of finesse to wrangle the motor controller in a way that got you to your destination rapidly, but not so rapidly that it set off the speed brake, slowed gently enough to prevent the people inside from staggering, stopped with the floor of the car level with the floor of the story, remembering to set the braking lock to hold the car there, and used the motor controller again to adjust the cable tension to account for the people let on and off so the thing didn’t lurch while the braking lock was released. And, while all of this was going on, we had a human operator brain evaluating the traffic flow over time, adjusting the operating rules to account for whether people were mostly going up or mostly going down, how fast they were showing up, etc. And of course, making sure not to open the doors when the car was moving.

      Once we automated *all* of those things, then it became safe to let loose the users into control of the “elevator”. While even some of them were, there was still a trained human mind managing it, through automatic floor leveling and automatic cable tensioning, semi-automatic doors, and acceleration control, etc. But it took pretty much EVERYTHING except fully automatic doors to be safe, and even those are necessary to make it convenient.

      Contemporary computers are pretty much those fully-manual elevators except with a couple of features set up. Not all of them. Maybe they’ve got pushbuttons to pick the destination floor, and an automatic tensioner so the thing doesn’t lurch when leaving a floor, but it’s still up to the user to make the car floor even with the outside floor, and control the speed of the thing, with no warning as to how fast is too fast for the speed brake, yet some of us have been around since the completely “manual computer” days and know how to do it properly. We have not yet reached the fully automatic stage yet, and probably won’t until there’s some way of vetting the starting points. (Honestly, I think this would end up looking a lot like Steam, but for an entire OS plus cloud sync of documents including version control, limited bookmarks for the correct starting points for major sites, etc. You’d hate it, I’d hate it, but your mom and your idiot cousins would love it.)

      1. Susie Day says:

        And this is why I would absolutely love to see Computers and … the automatic “safe” personal communication device split into two separate things.

        I’ve been using Linux for a couple years, and even though it is the bastion of Nerdy, it’s slowly been slipping into “make it work for the people who don’t care” mindset rather than the “learn to use it or face the consequences” style that all computers used to follow.

        1. Groboclown says:

          There’s an answer to this problem: Gentoo

  6. eri says:

    I think the major problem we are faced with today is that people are being forced to use a relatively complicated device with no obvious parallel in society, without significant education on how to use it properly. The simple act of interfacing with a computer using a keyboard and mouse can take months to learn and years to master, and that in itself can require all of one’s attention.

    On top of that, the people who do learn how to use computers do it in one of two ways: by way of their school system and by way of family members and peers. Learning from family/peers is definitely the most common of them, but this carries with it the frankly stunning problem of people who do not know how to use computers properly teaching others how to use them, incorrectly. We trust those who are close to us, and computers do not seem outwardly difficult to learn as other devices, such as cars; furthermore, the risk that misuse of a car carries with it seems far more real to us than misuse of a computer does – a deadly car accident is a bit more severe than getting a computer virus.

    (As a quick aside, it’s something you touched on already, but worth pointing out: our words for computer problems are typically analogous to human sickness, which perhaps is a false analogy and misleading. “Bugs”, “viruses”, “infections”… people get sick from time to time for reasons beyond their control, and the implication of using these terms is that the same happens to the computer. This is, of course, simply not the case.)

    The second way people learn to use how to use computers, as mentioned, is in the education system, either in public schooling or secondary/post-secondary. This might seem on the surface to be a sufficient and far more thorough and “correct” way of learning, and to some degree it is, but in my own experience the ways in which these courses are taught do not actually help with general computer use, only specific tasks. Let’s examine this.

    The ideal way to teach students how to use a computer would be to essentially go over its internal hardware components, giving simple and easy to understand explanations of what they do, and then, when that is understood, to move on to how software works; namely, what an operating system is, the way in which it is arranged, where one can find tools and options within it, etc.

    Yet I think most of us will agree that this is not at all the way computer use is taught. When I was in high school, the way they taught us to use a computer was essentially by making us do a loosely strung-together combination of office applications, typing exercises, and beginner’s HTML. None of these are in any way useful, and don’t get at all to the heart of how computers operate; they only instruct how to use very specific sorts of things, and while students can figure things out on their own through use, it’s far easier to teach them how and why computers are set up the way they are. To argue by way of analogy, it is more effective to teach people the structure of a language and have them figure out the meaning of individual words on their own, than it is to teach them individual words but not the way in which they are arranged.

    Of course, there are many other things to blame as well… our culture of sensory plenitude and instant gratification, the socio-economic structures that are increasingly shrinking our free time while simultaneously increasing our responsibilities and requirements, etc. It’s quite a complex thing and it goes beyond computers themselves. I don’t have time to expand, but if anyone wants to do so then feel free to.

    In any case, thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking read, Shamus (and the disturbing/hilarious scenario you brought up).

    1. Strangeite says:

      We send people in the real world everyday without training in basic life skills.

      I have two friends that are married and both recently received their PHds. Very smart people with decades of education between them; however, they are clueless when it comes to basic finance. I was helping them navigate buying a house and selecting a mortgage. It was FAR more difficult then I ever imagined because they did not have a basic foundation in consumer finance.

      Balancing a checkbook, compounded interest, amortization schedules, etc. are very simple principals that each member of our society should have a basic grasp; but, we do not teach these concepts in school and send millions and millions of individuals into the world without same. It is no surprise that most Americans have too much debt and not enough equity. We expect them to hit the ground running financially but never taught them to crawl.

    2. T-Boy says:

      I think the major problem we are faced with today is that people are being forced to use a relatively complicated device with no obvious parallel in society

      I’m suddenly reminded of Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry’s demo of this concept at TED.

      We do have a parallel for it; we used to call it ‘magic’ and ‘the sixth sense‘. And this, seriously, might be the way entry-level computing should go.

    3. kmc says:

      Well-spoken. Let me share a brief anecdote–my parents were hardware and software developers before I was born, so we were pretty tech-savvy around our house. Even as a very young kid in the 80s, I performed basic functions (word processing, file searching, gaming, no programming) almost daily on one of our multiple computers, all of which ran DOS. Forward to third grade, where our math class was used as a vehicle to teach us about computers by using Macs. All we did was run a math program, because I guess they assumed it would be our first computer experience anyway. Well, I was so frustrated trying to figure out the menu structure and user interface that I typically failed the assignments, and when I finally asked the teacher for help (not something I have typically ever done), she called me stupid.
      So, the morals of that story are, when you’re trying to teach computing, it doesn’t help to just say, “you don’t know how to write and print your essay? have you tried doing it better?” and, you can’t rightfully call someone stupid until you understand where they’re coming from, and by that time, I bet you won’t (it doesn’t change anything anyway).

      1. scragar says:

        I didn’t have too disimilar an experience, my first computer ran DOS, when I started high school the computers ran windows 95(and later win 98), although the school was prepared to teach people basics I already had a good enough knowledge of some things, however I was completely thrown when it came to the whole graphical interface, when using the dos command line if you wanted to use something you could type it in, with the graphical interface and the number of programs installed(broken up into meaningless menus like “Encarta” or “Microsoft Of…”(because it didn’t fit the the computers were set up smart like that) made things very hard.

        I got over that with 5 years of spending time sitting at the computer at weekends, after school, in breaks, any time I got. I enjoyed the things I could do in dos, I refused to give up until I could master the graphical interface as well.

    4. krellen says:

      No one is forced to use the internet. Some of this problem stems from the fact that there is a belief that you are “supposed” to be on the internet.

      1. eri says:

        Most educational, corporate, and government bodies use the Internet as the primary means for interaction with the public these days. Want to apply for a job? Got to do it online. File a complaint to the health department? Get a computer. What about that university course that’s looking like it might be up your alley? Hmm… have you registered on our web site yet? While these things are not necessary, they are presented as the primary means of getting things done, so much so that often when teaching how to do these things, we don’t even stop to consider how one might do it “the old fashioned way”. Obviously this can vary from place to place and such, but certainly in my experience this is how things operate.

        1. krellen says:

          This is exactly that sense that you are “supposed” to be on the internet I’m talking about. For centuries we existed with a certain system that really didn’t vary that much, then suddenly come the 90s everything’s online, everything’s electronic, everything’s impersonal, and the human psyche just doesn’t evolve that fast.

          It’s the source of all these problems. The internet should still be a nerd’s toy; it hasn’t been around long enough for widespread use.

          1. Yar Kramer says:

            So? By that logic you could say that nobody’s “supposed to” to drive a car, in the same sense that you’re “supposed to eat food and drink liquids and get eight hours of sleep every night.” I’m technically doing just fine with just a bicycle. However, this makes life difficult in that I can’t even look for jobs out of town, I can’t visit friends and family who live more than, say, five miles away, I can’t go anywhere with any degree of comfort and without a lessened degree of safety when it’s raining or snowing …

            Mark Twain said “Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.” Regardless of how elitist you’re going to be, internet access is one of them.

            1. krellen says:

              Cars took a lot longer than twenty years to take off. I’m not saying new things shouldn’t be embraced. I’m saying that it takes longer than we’ve given the “information age” to mature.

              It’s not “don’t use the internet”. It’s “slow down, stop using the internet for everything.”

              1. d7 says:

                Considering how well society is handling its access to cars, I think Yar Kramer has it right: we’re still massively screwing up with cars, let alone anything that’s come since.

                The analogy is apt, and the Internet is just the latest example of a disruptive technology that society is having difficulty adjusting to in a healthy way.

      2. …where do you live?

        Because, over here, the only career you can pursue without using the internet would be one in manual labour. Possibly not even that, since it’s likely schedules and work plans, etc., would only be available via the net. Unless you’re over 50-60 years old, you’re also pretty bound to using the internet to set up social events, and to keep in touch with friends and family.

        The most damning part, of course, is that it is impossible to get any kind of education, even at the elementary-school level, without being required to use the internet. I’m currently in university, and they will only accept papers handed in via their web service. They do offer public terminals where this can be done, but you still have to either use the internet, or get somebody else to do it for you.

  7. Henebry says:

    Are you sure this isn’t a 4chan prank?

    If you type facebook login over on Google, you get a whole page full of hits””every one of them after the first one is a site that’s hoping to get you to log in to FB via their site. So if people are really getting to FB by typing facebook login on a search engine, those same people are pretty well used to sorting through the nonsense to find the real site.

    And the page in question here looks NOTHING like FB: bright red rather than muted blue.

    Many of the people who posted in the comments are striking a pose of willful ignorance, but at the same time show a remarkable sophistication in using misspelled curse words to get past the forum’s comment sensor.

    So my money is on this being a prank””or, wait I see what you’re getting at now, Shamus.

    Some of most clueless comments were posted by people who commented using their FB identity. You can see their FB profile picture there next to the comment. And you can click through to their FB profiles. These people really are clueless! They’ve left their profiles largely open to strangers. They’ve got a full network of friends. If these profiles were set up as part of the prank, an awful lot of people have gone to an awful lot of trouble to manufacture middle American networks of friends and family.

    1. AnZsDad says:

      First, I’d hazard that the article has been updated since this issue became widely-known, especially since it includes a paragraph (in bold) advising visitors from Google that this is not the FB login page. It is conceivable that the original article may have been formatted to look more like an FB page as a style editor’s conceit.

      Secondly, your comment that “These people really are clueless!” is exactly the point of Quiet Babylonian’s article: these people aren’t stupid or “clueless” in any way that calls for such derision. They simply don’t know what they don’t know. We who spend most of our waking moments navigating through this cyber-jungle known as the Internet are familiar with what we see (often even without reading it thoroughly, on a subconscious level). Those who only skirt the edge of the jungle on the way to the FB and YouTube oases haven’t needed any deeper knowledge.

      And who are we to say that the average web-user should need more knowledge? After all, if they knew what we know then we couldn’t consider ourselves to be the cyber-elite any longer, could we?

      1. AGrey says:

        Is it possible to have an Oasis in a jungle?

  8. Strangeite says:

    I agree with the above comments that locked down devices similar to the iPad will be perfect for these “ignorant” users. In fact, I am recommending it for my grandparents, as it will do everything they need without the proliferation of toolbars, spyware and other crap that slows their current systems down.

    However, what worries me is that if these devices start to grow in popularity and become mainstream, what is going to happen to us users that want an airplane?

    I don’t think it is too far fetched to imagine a world where most games, professional applications, etc. are developed exclusively for these locked down devices and we become stuck with an environment that makes the options for Linux users today look plentiful.

    I don’t have a solution, but I do see on the horizon the masses moving towards lockdown devices like the iPad because they will simply work.

    1. eri says:

      Not going to happen, if the creators of malware and such have anything to do with it. If one platform grows in popularity, they will simply latch on to it. We’re already starting to see it with Apple computers – there are most definitely viruses out there for Macs, as well as spyware and adware, even if it’s still much less common than stuff made for Windows. There have also been viruses for the iPhone if I remember correctly. If Apple does achieve some kind of market dominance similar to what Microsoft now enjoys, I can guarantee that their security advantage will be lost, allowing for a similar “we don’t have viruses, and we’re easy and hassle-free” platform to be erected by someone else, either an older company like Microsoft or a new upstart.

      1. Strangeite says:

        Maybe. I am no expert, but a device that does not give its user root access in order to be able to install and run programs seems a far more difficult environment for the black hats to exploit.

        I agree that OS X primary advantage is because of its obscurity but I am not so sure about things like the iPhone and iPad. I believe the viruses that are in the wild for the iPhone only work on jailbroken iPhones. The iPhone is now 4 years old and very popular. It seems that it would be a very popular platform for the black hats but since it is locked down, they haven’t gotten through the gate.

        1. Peter H. Coffin says:

          I’m not so sure that locking down the platform is the CAUSE of the cure you’re seeing. Compare the number of viruses of the closed platform iPhone to the semi-open platform Blackberry and you’ll find them rather similar, even though the dev kit for Blackberry is essentially free, and anyone can distribute Blackberry programs for anyone else to install, subject to only an enterprise policy control that arguably most Blackberries never have, and the platform is twice as old as the iPhone one…

        2. Susie Day says:

          Sure iPhones are popular, but they are no where NEAR as popular as Windows. If I look at my internet traffic, iPhones and all the other mobile browsers make up a fraction of a percent of all my traffic. Perhaps someone with a more sophisticated audience would have a higher percentage, but I think even worldwide traffic analysis shows it only at maybe 3%. This is about equivalent to Linux … in fact, I think I know more people in my general area that run Linux (and are not into computers – just general users) than own an iPhone.

  9. RibbitRibbit says:

    It seems that the computer as an all-purpose networked device is indeed an overkill, and is targeted for professional users.

    People don’t need computers, apparently. They need TVs with a “talk to the guy in the TV” button, right below the “read my mind and show me what I want” button.

    The slightly smaller problem in the scenario Shamus describes is the fact that Google fukked up in its page rating (although what percentage of people bother checking the 2nd search result, let alone the 2nd page of search results), hilarity ensuing.

  10. UTSquishy says:

    I do desktop support for a living, and it still amazes me when people have these type of problems, and it amazes me even further that they don’t even have the vocabulary to communicate what is actually happening. I also find that a lot of intelligent people think they know all the lingo””but they have all the definitions wrong.

    Most of the people I work with are Engineers! They design and build infrastructure of the world around us, yet they don’t understand the box that they are using to design said infrastructure.

    It doesn’t help that certain Large Corporate Entities use said ignorance to get people to use their product. (I’m speaking specifically of those people that don’t understand the concept of a homepage)

  11. kmc says:

    Huh, so it really isn’t a prank? That (nearly) every commenter would be illiterate to the same degree, regardless of background (just a pat generalization based on their Facebook avatars)… But, based on what Henebry says, it sounds like it’s not. I believe the lack of understanding; it’s just that, with few exceptions, the comments seemed very homogeneous somehow. So be it, though…
    My mother could weigh in very heavily here. She’s almost always the most computer-literate person she comes into contact with anymore, so she’s always the one helping other people figure out their computers. Their approach to the learning process is sometimes one of total bewilderment at the positive end and terror at the negative end. It seems like, in our culture, computers (and math and science and…) are not considered something anybody could learn but, instead, something for lunatics and geniuses, and you’re just lucky if it doesn’t explode in your face every time you touch one.

    1. Andrew says:

      Hivemind effect. Which could also explain why so few people were able to make the connection that, if it doesn’t look like facebook, act like facebook, or call itself facebook, it probably isn’t facebook. They were confused, looked at the comments, saw the multitude of people under the impression that this was in fact the new facebook page, and leapt on the bandwagon. It’s fascinating, in a slightly horrifying way, to see so many people go with the popular opinion instead of stopping to think for a moment.

  12. TehShrike says:

    The iPhone/iPad isn’t a solution to this problem – though I think browsers could take a lesson from their UI.

    The iPhone is noob-friendly in part because it has a screen full of inviting icons that launch your Facebook app, your banking app, whatever. There’s no typing, no Googling for your app.

    Chrome takes a step in this direction – open a new tab, and you’ll see a short list of your most-visited sites.

    1. Mari says:

      That is, for me, a horrifying yet perceptive insight.

      Horrifying because if you look at my desktop you see: the recycle bin and the wallpaper. Everything else is in the Windows menu because that is, to me, where you go to launch things. It gives me a headache to see these endless screens of icons.

      Perceptive because I deal with the less-computer-savvy on a fairly regular basis. More often than not the less savvy a person is the more desktop shortcuts he/she has. I thought for a long time that this was just the result of every installer defaulting to “add a desktop shortcut” and people not knowing to deselect it. But I realized some time ago that these people are perfectly capable of dragging unwanted shortcuts to their recycle bin and I’ve seen them do it. Additionally they obviously deliberately added shortcuts to often visited websites. So having a desktop with every square inch littered with shortcuts and webpages is apparently something they do by choice.

      I’ve never quite “gotten” it but I think you’re right. For these users, double-clicking an icon is the ultimate in “ease of use.” Anything more complicated is not good for them.

      1. AGrey says:

        My desktop is:

        My last computer got the desktop plague really bad, I’ve had this one three years now and have thus far managed to avoid it.

      2. Zaxares says:

        I navigate my computer much the same way. My desktop has a small number of icons (like My Computer and the Recycle Bin) that are NEVER used; all of my navigation is done entirely through the menu structure. That said, it might be because I have a strong preference for hierarchical organisation structures. A LOT of other people at my workplace, including at least 50% of our IT developer staff, prefer to use icons on their desktop.

      3. Blackbird71 says:

        Even worse: files actually saved to the desktop! *shudder*

        1. Felblood says:

          You know, I keep a copy of my resume, and any files I’m presently working with on my desktop.

          It’s really handy to be able to drag them onto the shortcut for the program I want, which is the only real use I have for the start menu, as if there isn’t a desktop shortcut, I get to it but going to the file location.

          This is probably a combination of growing up with DOS, and having brothers who fill the Start Menu with dozens of folders I don’t care about.

          You want to talk about desktop clutter? That’s nothing compared to my start menu clutter. Sometimes, I take half an hour to clean out all the shortcuts in there, that point to files that no longer exist.

          Since we each put shortcuts in a different corner of the screen, and we delete old ones regularly, the game of the week and the utilities we use for work will always be easy to find. That’s all that you need to find fast, right?

  13. Christopher Stogdill says:

    Trying to decide if this is funny, pathetic, or both….. thinking both.

  14. Galad says:

    Chances are some of those people simply posted a comment before looking at the address bar..unlikely..

    Chances are those people usually have someone more knowledgeable about computers around them to explain them something they need to find out.

    Ack, I can’t play devil’s advocate this time, it’s just not working. Move along, nothing to see here..

    1. Robyrt says:

      This is actually rational behavior.

      Everyday Users:
      1. Wait for IE to load Google as your homepage
      2. Type “facebook”
      3. Click “I’m feeling lucky”

      1. Wait for Firefox to load your geeky homepage
      2. Click on the address bar
      3. Type “”, Enter

      The everyday users are actually going to be at Facebook faster. And if they misspell it, Google is probably still going to get you there, where the address bar will throw a scary error.

      1. Galad says:

        uh, I always start with a blank page. I decide where I want to go, why let the computer decide? What kind of user shall I be classified as? =P

        1. Felblood says:

          Your geeky homepage is just more geeky.

          I bet it does load faster, though.

          If I didn’t need google to get anywhere, I might try it.

      2. How about, “type ‘fa’ in your address bar and click the Facebook Login dropdown link”, which, for me at least, comes in at #1?

        It seems to me that the computer-savvy will have an easier time of it – less typing, less chance of misspelling, guaranteed never to end up on some blog talking about Facebook.

        1. Duffy says:

          That would work…if they didn’t entirely ignore the address bar. It doesn’t help that these are also the same type of user that ends up with a dozen search bars installed that hide the address bar.

          I’m not saying it to be argumentative, it happens, I have to constantly try to explain how browsers work to my mother and she still uses google to get to all her favorite sites.

        2. Robyrt says:

          This super-useful AutoComplete function is actually rather new. A non-techie probably has no idea that they can just type “fa” and click on the link, or has trouble clicking on tiny drop-down boxes without making them go away (common with older arthritis-prone users).

          Fast keyboard users have an even faster method: type “f,a,down,enter”.

          1. Yes, but you used the term “techie” as your opposite number of the “everyday user”. I was arguing that the techie will be able to navigate faster than the “everyday user” because (s)he will know about this feature.

            (This reply also goes for Duffy, who similarly seemed to have missed the fact that I was aiming to rebut the “everyday user navigates faster than a computer tech” part.)

      3. scragar says:

        Obscene Techie(from start):

        1. Press Alt and Space(or whatever your run dialog is set to).
        2. Type “fx fb” press enter
        3. Log in.

        (fx is of course your own custom launcher that reads the firefox bookmarks list to pick the best choice of what url to pass to firefox).

        No-one who’s that geeky needs to launch their browser without it either (A) having no home page, or (B) specifying the page to load up at the start.

        Also, ctrl+enter = .com
        shift+enter = .net
        ctrl+shift+enter = .org

        Very useful.

      4. Shamus says:

        I have Apache set up on my machine so I can mirror projects like this site locally. Been doing this for over a decade. Among the pages I serve to myself is one that’s just a big page of links. It’s basically my bookmarks / favorites. When I want to add a new bookmark, I open up a text file full of HTML snippets and add the URL and name of the site, which is fed into a PHP script I wrote, which is then used to generate my homepage.

        It wasn’t until I wrote this article that I even thought about how crazy complex this was. It’s “simple” to do, once you’ve accumulated years of experience in the various disciplines involved.

        1. Matt K says:

          Oddly, Firefox sort of has this feature. If you export your bookmarks, it exports as a .html and all of your bookmarks are there as links sorted by whatever folders or what not you have them organized into.

          1. David V.S. says:

            What Firefox could do, but does not, is create a “home page” automatically.

            It already monitors which bookmarked sites you visit most frequently and puts those in a folder.

            It also monitors which sites (in general) you visit most frequently.

            It should generate a “fake” web page as the default home page that lists the sites you visit most: a page of url-icons with names underneath that looks like an application loader.

            Then I could set my home page to something else (which happens anyway) while my grandmother could leave it that way.

      5. Susie Day says:

        If your home page is blank, Firefox automatically makes the blank address bar the focus, making it very easy to just type and press enter. Even if that wasn’t the case, you could just use alt+d to focus the address bar, and then type in your destination. Add to that the fact that most everyday users are puttering along at about 10 wpm, I’d bet you that the actual techie user would run circles around the everyday user in practice. Using the mouse and clicking is slow.

        1. Blackbird71 says:

          Wait a minute, I thought we were discussing the non computer-savvy? Does anyone actually expect them to be using Firefox, or Opera, or anything other than the default browser that came with their OS?

          1. Felblood says:

            I expect them to be using whatever open source alternative their overzealous friend installed, thinking that they’d be able to tell the difference.

            If they knew how to unhide the IE shortcut, they would, since they hate how Firefox’s tab interface is different from the IE they’re used to.

            Too many technical people are doing this to their friends, and it’s another part of the same problem. They don’t care if it’s objectively better, once you get used to it, to the non-technical person, this is just one more thing they have to learn to do normal people stuff.

            I used to do it, and I have forsaken that path for a better way.

      6. midget0nstilts says:

        1. Wait for Opera to load my last session.
        2. Use the “close tab” mouse gesture to close the tabs I probably forgot to close last time.
        3. (The focus automatically changes to the address bar.) Type “sh”.
        4. Select Twenty-Sided Tale, which appears because of my 400+ (Opera Link synchronized) bookmarks.


        1. midget0nstilts says:


      7. Nick says:

        I’ve always wondered why (and always been annoyed at when) Firefox didn’t move the focus to the address bar when you open a new tab. Opera has been doing this for years.

        Opera also auto prepends and appends words in the address bar to try and find the site you are looking for, ie it adds .com on the end.

        1. krellen says:

          Firefox does move the focus to the address bar when you open a new tab.

          1. Nick says:

            Must be a recent addition.

            1. d7 says:

              Depends on how many years of development qualifies as “recent.”

              More topically, this is a good example of the same principle at work: even the tech-savvy among us don’t like to mess with a good thing and often stop learning about a particular aspect of computers once we can do all we need to do with that part.

  15. Factoid says:

    We’re struggling with Phishing at work. It’s a university setting, so we have a huge mix of machines and accounts on our network. Students, faculty, staff, guests, you name it we’ve got it.

    In the last month we’ve probably been Phished about 10 times. Some email gets through our filters, some idiot gives out their username and password and then the botnet attacks our email servers and starts sending out tens of thousands of spam messages using that person’s email account.

    It clogs up our mail queues for hours, takes hours of peoples’ time to fix and in the meantime we’ve probably ended up blacklisted from some major domain’s email servers because their spam filters tell them anything from our .edu is probably spam. We’ve been blacklisted by gmail, aol, yahoo and a few other big ones, and it’s taken days to get re-instated.

    Our bosses are all pissed because everyone expects there to be a technical solution to this. But there aren’t any. It’s a people problem. It requires training and consequences. Give out your password? You’re fired/suspended/fined or whatever punishment is deemed appropriate.

    Instead we’re now looking at more ridiculous software involved in an already complicated email system to monitor outbound messages to look scan for accounts that may be sending stuff too frequently. It might work, but it’s going to slow our outbound mail processing and add another level of complexity to a mail system that already involved 3 different operating systems, a dozen different servers, an outside spam service and a handful of different mailbox exchanges.

    All because users can’t be bothered to learn to never ever email your password to anyone or to enter it into a website just because some email you weren’t expecting asked you to. Sigh.

    1. nilus says:

      Actually I can help you. I have a technical solution to your problem, please email me you password and I will implement it right away.

      1. Yar Kramer says:

        That’s not authentic enough, it needs to be riddled with misspellings to get through spamfilters. ;)

        1. Mari says:

          And don’t forget the random nonsense phrases like “beautiful sunset on lovly sex day hott lezzy nurses care 4 U like water.” I don’t know what that means but it’s the sort of thing that shows up from time to time in the spam I open for kicks and giggles. I’ve started thinking of my spam as pornographic fortune cookies.

          1. Zaxares says:

            One time I had a spam e-mail that had a section from The Two Towers pasted into it. That gave me a good laugh. :D

            1. Yar Kramer says:

              I once found an item in my spam folder that was something like “micr0sft off1ce word $75 abode ph0t0shop enterprise $120 m!cros0ft 0ffice excel $100 lauiwthg”

              My immediate thought was “Spamfilter: priceless.”

      2. midget0nstilts says:


        This is midget0nstilts from the IT department. I’ve just been recently hired by Shamus.

        As you may have noticed, Twenty Sided Tale has been having some issues with the commenting system. We believe your account is one of several that is causing issues for the system. If you could email me your password, I’ll be able to troubleshoot the problems you’ve been having.

        Twenty Sided Tale Data Center
        P.S.: I could totally do this at work IRL and actually get passwords.

  16. Predarek says:

    Hmm Robyrt a real techie is gonna do:

    1. Open Chrome which open faster than IE or firefox
    2. Do alt-d
    3. Type fac+enter because they know by heart the order of the content of their address bar and the bare minimum to type to get there.

    So they get there way faster than any everyday user :P

    1. Blue_Painted says:

      Exactly my thought!

    2. Meredith says:

      If you go there often enough, you can just click the thumbnail in the Chrome homepage. :D

      Funny, people are mentioning Chrome as the more user-friendly brower, but I can’t get my non-techie friends to switch over to it. People really are afraid of new tech, which I guess explains this whole thing.

      1. AGrey says:

        1: Install Chrome
        2: Create desktop shortcut to chrome, and delete the old shortcut to IE
        3: Change the Chrome shortcut’s name and icon to mirror the old IE shortcut.

        1. Shamus says:

          I do love this one.

          If someone is able to notice and care about the difference, then they probably also have the savvy to use IE without putting themselves in danger.

          It pretty much only “tricks” people who don’t care anyway.

        2. Somebody once told me this is how a friend of theirs switched their mom over to using Linux. they just sneakily installed Linux on the machine, changed it over to a Windows95 type skin/interface and left it without telling her. Apparently the only change she noticed was that it stopped crashing (she wasn’t a power user, so I presume the only thing she really did was do internet and word processing). Of course I don’t really believe this goes by unnoticed – but it does make a funny story.

    3. Robyrt says:

      That is indeed quite fast, for the real techie.

      A quick test of this method on my slightly older work PC indicates that it takes 2 seconds to run the search for “fac”, which swamps the performance gains from typing fewer letters. That’s pretty weird.

  17. Segev says:

    I’ll open this by saying, “I am not sure this would be ethical, and am actually fairly sure it wouldn’t be, however…”

    The problem, as Shamus expressed it, is that people act like people, and we’re not going to easily find solutions that work while people do that. The internet is too alien a place to the real world, and will likely not be fully integrated with it enough that it’s “just part of growing up” the way the real world dangers are for at least another couple generations.

    However, the dangers arise from, effectively, people developing viruses, spamware, malware, etc. with the intent of subverting machines. Some hackers do this for fun, others profit, many both. The “criminal botnets” that Shamus referenced are particularly problematic.

    The most straight-forward solution would be to start a hacking fad. “Superheroes” to go out and “fight” the “villains.” Develop hacking programs, worms, and viruses that act as benign (or at least semi-benign) anti-virus viruses. They don’t do anything overtly hostile, and they look for ways other viruses exploit computers and seal them up. Alternatively, they root out other viruses.

    Compromised computers are sought out by these “superhero” bugs and are infected with them, too, and the malicious behavior is combated by these “vigilante botnets.”

    In the most extreme, vicious cases, there might be “tough love” viruses whose sole job is to shut down a computer’s internet access when it detects malware that makes its host part of a botnet, and pops a message up telling the user to reformat because they’re hopelessly infected.

    Again, I’m not saying this is good or even desirable, but it’s something I could see happening. Especially if a large, questionably ethical but not outright evil organization had problems with criminal botnets.

    1. Yes, and then you can have “anti-hero” programs that spread to infected computers and delete the viruses, with massive collateral damage to the computer, and “anti-villains”, which send out spam telling people to be more environmentally conscious.

      [Note: This is a joke, not an argument.]

    2. Zaxares says:

      I like this idea in theory, but it would open up a HUGE can of worms as far as privacy rights are concerned. What happens if law enforcement or governments latch onto this and want to write programs that monitors a person’s online communications or scans their hard drive for ‘subversive material’? Certainly some would be done with the best of intentions, and I might even laud some efforts (to stop terrorism or child pornography, for example), but what’s to stop them from searching for people critical of the current government administration, who are against abortion, for gay rights etc. etc.?

      Don’t believe that it could never happen in your country. Even the US had Watergate and the Red Scares.

      1. Segev says:

        Oh, absolutely. Part of the “trick” here is that it can’t be legal or sanctioned, generally. If the “vigilantes” are caught, they’d likely be treated just like the “criminal botnet operators” for much the same reasons. At least for the cyber-crimes, if not for the larger-scale physical crimes.

        It already has privacy be terribly destroyed criminal-side. I’m sure governments, if they want to, can do what I’ve proposed already. The “trick” in US-like nations would be that they can’t do it legally. So, if they do gather private information, they’re not “allowed” to use it. It won’t stop them, of course; governments are even less trustworthy than private individuals. But it might at least prevent open and overt legal action against “subversives” who are “discovered” by these extra-legal means.

        In short, it would have to be entirely a shadow-war. Not something where the “superheroes” are given public sanction. This is why it’s still unethical, even with the best of intentions. I certainly wouldn’t do it. But it would make for exciting fiction, and is somewhat fascinatingly close to doable, I think, in reality.

  18. Tizzy says:

    In my view, the problem is information illiteracy. People pull up the page, and they cannot recognize it for what it is: a news report. This is a very troubling issue, of course; since information is so ubiquitous in the internet age, being able to assess its nature quickly has become essential. And I can tell you that universities are very concerned about teaching this, but it is an uphill battle.

    And, perhaps surprisingly, the 20-somethings of today who supposedly live and breathe the stuff are surprisingly inefficient at data literacy. You can tell kids “go look up X”, they’ll have a hard time coming up with usable info.

  19. Andrew says:

    So How do I get to FaceBook :)

    /me smirks

  20. SatansBestBuddy says:


    Just… wow.

    Okay, I get that a lot of people have a deep aversion to learning; we don’t care how a microwave works, we just know that if we put cold stuff in and set the timer, hot stuff comes out.

    But this… this is unreal…

    Why does somebody even bother buying a computer if the services it provides are so abstract that you don’t bother with 99% of it?

    It’s as if millions of people the world over are buying $699 computers and using them as if they were just phones.

    It’s like buying a DS for the chat function alone.

    Maybe it’s just that these people don’t want to ask for help for somethign so simple; hooking up a camera and sending pictures over the net, hell, I’d ask people for help on how to do that, but loging into facebook is something people somehow understand is very simple, so those that have problems with it don’t ask for help because it’s embaressing, hell, they probably don’t even realize they’re having problems because they’re still able to get onto facebook, but when something like this happens they wonder what went wrong instead of trying to learn what went wrong…

    God, this and the new GameOverthinker has reset my faith in humanity meter to zero.

    1. Blackbird71 says:

      “It's as if millions of people the world over are buying $699 computers and using them as if they were just phones.”

      That’s exactly what’s going on for a lot of people, their computer is just one big expensive communication device.

      Then there’s the oddballs like me with $1300+ computers who still use a phone as their primary means of communication (I use email as little as possible and detest “social networking” sites).

  21. Cogfizzle says:

    I like to think of the internet as our generation’s printing press.

    The printing press was great! Previously, books had to be transcribed by hand or other manual means. The printing press set the stage for incremental improvements making books easier, cheaper to mass produce – to the point that they became available to practically anyone! This all took time, of course, but fairly suddenly, the knowledge stored in books moved away from being the sole domain of the rich, the powerful or educated academics and became democratized – the accumulated wealth of knowledge of humanity was available to the common man!

    This was, of course, great news, and we’ve come so far since then. Not too long ago, half the stuff we learn in high school (or even elementary school) probably wasn’t common knowledge. The wealth of information available to any one person is immense.

    BUT. Here’s the kicker – people had to learn to read before they could take advantage of this. Basic literacy is practically taken for granted nowadays, and for good reason. Cheap books and the ability to read changed the very nature of how we learn things and how information is stored and passed on.

    Now, the Internet is our printing press. Information and knowledge (also: comics, porn, videos, porn, games, porn, porn, baked beans and porn) are available more easily to anyone than ever before. If I want to know more about Carthaginian culture (Carthago delenda est!) for whatever reason, I can get that information in a matter of seconds. It’s revolution, it’s crazy useful. But people have to be literate.

    I, of course, mean computer literate. I don’t claim everyone has to be an alpha geek who compiles the bleeding edge linux kernel releases by hand on his own custom distro or anything. Being a regular user is cool – but you absolutely have to know the very basics. Let’s face it, computers aren’t going away. They’re used for more and more tasks every day. Computer use is constantly growing, not shrinking. We’re still largely in a transition period, but in the not-too-distant future, choosing to remain ignorant of the most basic principles of computing is going to be something like choosing not to learn how to read.

    And what we have isn’t too bad, all things considered. Assuming the immutable truth that resources on a network are going to absolutely need a unique identifier if we’re to be able to ask the network to give us those resources, the domain name system isn’t too shabby. Instead of obscure numerical references, we get human readable words and site names. Instead of having to type in and remember “”, all I have to remember is “”. Human-readable words that represent the human-readable name of the resource you’re trying to access. That’s not too bad for a system designed back in 1983, before anyone had any idea what this crazy thing would eventually turn into. I’m sure if it were designed with today’s knowledge and experience in mind, it might be made easier – but it would still ultimately have to provide unique human-friendly names directly mapped to network resources.

    But that doesn’t entirely excuse the user. Education is necessary. Just like children are taught to read, we absolutely have to teach people how to use the very basic concepts of computers. Not complex geekery – just the absolute fundamentals they absolutely need. Taught in a way that’s real and usable for the average user (not the “Introduction to C” or “touch typing” you get in high school).

    1. Yar Kramer says:

      Problem is, the “literacy” metaphor breaks down: if you’re text-illiterate, it’s hard to mistake yourself for literate when the entire page is a completely incomprehensible bunch of symbols. However, even if you’re computer-illiterate, enough of the internet is comprehensible (“Hey, I can go Google and click on links!”) that it is easy for people to mistakenly think they ARE computer-literate enough to use the internet.

      I was going to come up with an analogy about a book that’s half simplified-English and half Japanese, and the important parts were in Japanese, but we’re talking about people who don’t even know the Japanese part exists.

    2. krellen says:

      Just to correct the historical record: It took centuries for the literacy rate to reach a point, even after the printing press, that the average citizen could pick up a book and find information for themselves. The “explosion” of literacy after Gutenberg was more of a slow boil than an explosion.

  22. Flakey says:

    Regarding the car test people bring up in the article that started this off though, is a false way to go about trying to prove your point though. When motor cars were first produced, all you needed was money and off you go. Only when there was so much death on the roads, when they become popular, was a required minimum standard of driving was required.

    In fact more I think of it, it is a more a direct comparison with what is happening with net use in today’s times. Lesson to be learnt from history, is that this mess of the uneducated will only be stopped when it is causing so much havoc something will be done to mandate compulsory training in net use.

    1. Falke says:

      Unfortuantely I do not think this is what is going to happen.The safety madness instead leads to more and more regulations.It’s happening in Germany right now. Or at least the conservatives try. The end of the story (if they get their way) will be a completl regulated internent in which you can only access whitelisted sites (probabnly decides by the ministieis of love and trught)…

  23. As someone who has basically worked tech support for 2 and a half years (one year doing face-to-face support at a college computer lab, and a year and a half doing support for HP), I’d just like to say what I agree with everything you say here, and it needs to be said by more people, more often. These are also things I tried to keep in mind while I was doing tech support.

  24. Emkinator says:

    I personally think that this problem will go away with time. The Internet is still young. Most people that grew alongside it are well versed in it. I think that after a couple of decades when the generation changes most people will know how to properly use it.

    1. krellen says:

      I work with a lot of students and young graduates at my work. Trust me, the “people that grew alongside it” are as likely to be complete ignoramuses when it comes to internet-savvy as any other demographic.

      Perhaps even moreso, because the simple lesson of “knowing what you don’t know” seems to be more common among older users; the younger ones just assume they’ll figure it out or that what they’re doing is okay.

    2. Mari says:

      Then why were a solid third of the people who commented that they weren’t able to “log in” on that blog article people who graduated from high school in 1999 or later? No, the young are not exempt from being computer ignorant.

      My kids are 10 and 12. They’ve had a class at school since kindergarten labeled “computers” on their schedule. But believe me, they learned next to nothing computer-related in that class. It was assumed that they went into kindy with the basic knowledge of how to push buttons on a keyboard and use a mouse. The class was actually scheduled time for playing edutainment games early on. Later it became unsupervised websurfing time or putz around with MS Office time. There was no curriculum involved whatsoever. What my kids know about how to use a computer they’ve either learned from me/my husband or they figured out on their own.

  25. Gobo says:

    When I installed Jolicloud on my netbook a few months ago, I smirked at the notion that the web-service is an application, but kinda saw it’s usefulness. (Jolicloud installs twitter, facebook, gmail, etc. as applications, that really are just a full screened browser without any address bar).

    This case however demonstrates quite clearly why users SHOULD be taught to create desktop shortcuts to their favorite websites rather than navigating to them. (New users don’t grasp bookmarks, and all applications live on the desktop as icons). With a shortcut created the first time you register on a site, you know you will be going back to the same site when clicking that icon.

    This is even more important for new users these days where the URL input field doubles as the search field in most browsers. 5 years ago googling “facebook login” required going to google first, now you do that by simply typing “facebook login” into the address field. It is actually understandable that new users do that instead of learning the weird wizardry incarnations of URLs, with all their hacks and slashes.

  26. Bureaucromancer says:

    “Trust me, the “people that grew alongside it” are as likely to be complete ignoramuses when it comes to internet-savvy as any other demographic.”

    Completely true.

    Aside from the licensing talk, it all makes me wonder if maybe there is a place for the iPad and it’s ilk; it does seem that these closed systems get as close to idiot proof as can be. Although it still doesn’t address the phishing and a lot of other social engineering.

  27. Tyler Harvey says:

    While I’m sure that complexity of the computer is responsible for some of the misunderstanding, I’m sure you could get a similar effect if an onboard GPS navigation system was updated to direct people to the wrong location for a popular restaurant (minus the not knowing you’d ended up in the wrong spot when you got there). Even people that had been there before and should really know better than to trust the new directions would be fooled, simply because they rely on the GPS navigation system in an unthinking manner.

    I also see plenty of people driving in a way that reflects very little awareness of their surroundings – they simply do not think ahead or anticipate in a way that a thoughtful, aware driver does. Lots of folks couldn’t figure out how to program a VCR, even with a manual – and now can’t manage to set up a manual program on a DVR. People do lots of things that, with a little bit of thought and/or effort, would obviously be better done a different way. I imagine the increasing complexity of modern life encourages people to focus only on what is important to them and go on autopilot for the rest, but sometimes it just seems like people don’t want to use their brains any more than they have to.

  28. Oleyo says:

    I consider myself quite computer savvy and I often use Google instead of the address bar. Since Google is my home page it is very fast and I have learned the shortest terms to find all of my favorite sites.

    I also like getting the subset of links that come with many Google “hits” so that I can even skip the main page and go straight to where I need to on the site, without knowing the potentially lengthy URL.

    Of course, I can quickly glance at the actual URL of the results to be sure of where I am going, which less experienced users are unlikely to do. Also, I understand that anything I type into Google is no longer private and will be stored by Google.

  29. KremlinLaptop says:

    Shamus, have you seen some of the people who drive– actually no, rather have you seen HOW some of these people drive? I live in a fairly sane country with somewhat high standards for driver competence – well when compared with some others – but I am continually amazed by how oblivious people are controlling several tons of steel at speed.

    I’m in danger of suddenly exposing the cranky-old-man that lives within. He’s out of his rocking chair, the cane is clenched firmly in one arthritic hand and those nostril hairs are bristling with barely contained indignation.

    I blame a culture that has gotten tired of being curious. People have over the years created this, the demand in the market has pushed it, we do not want complicated things we want things where we have the least amount of buttons possible for maximum results. Instant gratification. We don’t need to know anything about our device to operate it except that the button gives us what we want from the device.

    If the button breaks, there is no reason to open the device up and inspect what has broken because that’s too hard to open and we don’t know what’s behind the button anyway. It’s easier to buy a new one, perhaps with a shinier button and a bigger result.

    So we happily mash away at the button. And we expect the single button design in everything; we’ve begun demanding simplification beyond the justifiable usefulness of simplifying.

    We now have solid plastic with no easy access to the internals, where as at one point everything had screws so you could open it up, tinker with the insides, fix broken parts and keep it running for longer or make it better. Now you’re the end user, you have no business opening up the device and actually seeing how it works, because you’re expected to only be interested in pressing the single button. Till it breaks and you buy a new one.

    The device is not simple, it will probably never be simple, but because we’ve somehow become so afraid of learning and investigating the complex things within we’ve started to demand that it should at least appear simple for our sakes.

    No, no, I don’t want the version with the twenty knobs, ten slider and three buttons which offers the same results but with far wider variety. I want the sleek looking one with the single button. That’s what consumers have been saying for a long time, the market has listened and now we’re left in a situation where the device with the options on it costs exorbitant amounts and the one-button-wonder is the market standard.

    It’s been demanded of the car, the vacuum cleaner and the computer. Make it easier, make it simpler, give me one pedal, one switch, one button instead of three.

    So when people are surrounded by technology like this their natural response to something that shows more complexity is abject all consuming confusion. They’re so used to pressing one button and receiving their big result that when they do it and get an UNEXPECTED result it’s not curiosity over why this happened, because they have no idea of what mechanisms are at work behind the button, instead it’s a response ranging from bemusement to berserk rage.

    I used “we” at the start there because I’m guilty as sin of this. There are things where I’ve gone with the simpler option because I’ve been complacent, it’s been easier to just not spend a bit more time learning to use the more complicated thing. I’ve let lazy win over curious a lot of times and it’s a damn shame because I’m sure it means I’ve missed opportunities to make things better, produce better things and probably educate myself a bit on the way.

    So these people type ‘facebook login’ into ‘the google’ and then they get a result they weren’t expecting, it angers and confuses them because they never spent the time learning how this device works so they don’t know HOW it could be possible to get a different result than usual — naturally after a bit of searching and trying again a few times they come to the conclusion the device must be working fine, but the maker of the device have changed the result of button pressing to something that pleases them less, never considering that the device has more than one button they could be pressing.

    Cue the further enraged chimp mashing out a comment. Probably using his butt to type.

    So why? Why simplification beyond reason and the loss of curiosity? Well I’ll try and bring this winding, badly thought out and overly verbose diatribe of modern consumer products to the angry-man-with-pants-waistband-at-armpit-height end that it deserves, attempting to tie in some cultural commentary.

    In the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘The Sentinel’ (oh god you didn’t even need to look that up you nerd) there are these people who live in big advanced cities defended from the Goa’uld system lords by a planetary defensive system. Over countless centuries everything has been simplified so much that the defence shield practically runs itself, no one needs to know how it works… because it just works and it’s the same apparently with all the tech they have, none of them need to know how it works because it just does. They reached this level of technological advancement and decided to go no further, everything worked and now they could spend less time inventing and more time considering deeper things; what does it mean to be, etc.

    I think that might be what it is, partially at least. We wanted the one button device because we wanted to spend less time reading the manual and more time for considering the deeper philosophical questions relating to the meaning of life, the universe and everything else or watching Jersey Shore. It probably Jersey Shore, isn’t it? Dammit.

    THE TL;DR VERSION OF THIS: Grumpy old man annoyed by modern design in technology, exalts the virtues of being curious, owning stuff you can fix yourself and doing that, goes out to fire up his Model T Ford automobile and rides around town in it being a grumpy bastard. Attempts to explain why his gramophone is so much better than that iPod to some rapscallions.

    1. Robyrt says:

      A lot of people do not think in the exploratory, trial-and-error mindset that a computer demands. It’s not intuitive at all: If I don’t know how to engage my car’s parking brake, I’m not gonna try pushing every button on the dashboard because it’s likely to break some default setting I wanted. If I don’t know how to mail merge, I’m probably gonna try 5 different menu options with my finger hovering over the Undo key.

      1. KremlinLaptop says:

        Exploration and trial-by-error are more suited for computer environments but that’ll only get you so far on a computer too. You can learn a lot by doing it, but I don’t think anyone has ever configured a home network, router, etc by random clicking trial and error alone. There’s a certain ceiling of effectiveness for that form of curiosity.

        Eventually you need to go to other sources, figure out the relations between functions, the reasons for them and then apply the knowledge you’ve gained through your curiosity to what you’re doing now. Research, understand and apply knowledge. The same thing you would do with the car, dig out the owner’s manual, go look it up on the internet, find other owners of the same make of car and ask them, etc etc.

        It’s still all curiosity though and that’s what people seem to have less and less time for. So now for them stuff just works, till it breaks and then you buy a new one. Being curious isn’t good, it’s nerdy, it’s time consuming and it takes effort. To some extent it seems like ignorance is even celebrated among certain people, not knowing means you must be too cool, too busy and too important to bother with knowing.

        So… the idea of someone being out there and not knowing where the parking brake on their car is, well I’ve gotta say it scares me far more than knowing there’s some million doofuses (doofi? No?) who don’t know what the address bar is. One is likely to make silly comments when they end up on the wrong site, the other is… controlling over a ton of freely moving metal without a knowledge of all the basic control devices.

        Plus e-brake slides through tight turns on windy gravel roads in an old front wheel drive car? Fun.

        Edit: I do feel the need to point out I have learned a lot by trial and error. Welding, soldering. valve adjustment, etc. Very much with the roughest idea of what was to be done, some knowledge of the equipment I was using and a whole lot of “Hmm, let’s try what this will– that’s gone badly wrong.”

        1. Yar Kramer says:

          I’m fond of this quote, ambiguiously by Bruce Ediger: “The only intuitive interface is the nipple. After that it’s all learned.”

          1. Mari says:

            Presumably the nipple isn’t all that intuitive either. There are entire organizations and careers centered around teaching mothers and newborns how to do it right.

            1. d7 says:

              To be more accurate, those organisations are centered on teaching the mothers to get over the societally-ingrained aversion to their own bodies to pay enough attention to what their newborn is doing to meet them half-way.

              To a newborn, the nipple is intuitive. The lack of muscle strength and immature nervous system means that most just can’t make it work by themselves, let alone when the mother is all mixed up and feeling shameful about the process.

              (Stay-at-home dad here, and husband to an aspiring lactation consultant.)

  30. Andy_Panthro says:

    For me, the perfect analogy is the car.

    When I was a teenager, and was building my own PC, my Dad explained to my Mum that it was just the equivalent of people who tinker with cars.

    These days, the majority of people don’t have a clue what goes on under the hood of a car, yet they learn to drive in their millions. This will happen to computers, and this is the audience companies like Apple look at with hungry eyes.

    It is very easy for people like us (experienced users) to think that everyone who uses the internet regularly has a certain amount of basic knowledge, but if you do any sort of troubleshooting (as those above have testified) you will see that a rather large majority of people only have far less than adequate knowledge about using a computer or similar device.

    I am worried about too much streamlining or closed-systems, since it can result in monopoly (MS Windows, Google search, Facebook, Steam etc.). On the flip side, the current Facebook majority could switch to another service at some point, or perhaps it goes bust. What happens to those users with no experience of such things? This has happened many times before, and those of us who are tech savvy just move along to the next thing. (various search engines before Google, the well documented MySpace migration towards other services, notably Facebook)

  31. Kirin says:

    I’m not sure how to feel that after reading and commenting that I looked to see if you had a “Publish to Facebook” type button :x. Regardless this is a very interesting article. It’s easy to forget that not everyone loves to code and build levels and stay up all night chatting on IRC or whatever. And I think I’ll post this to my wall the old-fashioned way of copy-paste, now I just have to Google my Facebook login and I’ll be good…

  32. Kdansky says:

    I think the problem is quite different from what you describe. Basically, your point comes down to: “The interwebs are difficult, so people have trouble adapting to it.”

    My counter-point is: “People have always been bloody stupid, but we have not realized this until they started using the internet (too).” Seriously: Today a cleaning lady/guy threw out a whole box of fresh prints, assuming they were garbage because they were stacked near the garbage can in our office. Clearly, we always neatly sort and bundle our prints if we want to throw them away and put a sign reading “Not Garbage” on top of it.

    Most of humanity is incredibly dumb. They do not think, they just follow orders, like robots. That is why their jobs are taken over by robots, because those are cheaper and about as bright. One can get through live with astonishingly low amounts of thinking (and effort, which can compensate for lacking intellect). You need to be able to shovel food into your mouth and breathe, one of which the subconscious does for you if you do not pay attention. You can take the driving test as often as you like, until you pass by pure luck.

    Sometimes, I feel like I’m the one that is twenty years older than the other of us, Shamus. Cynicism comes with age, does it not?

    1. Yar Kramer says:

      Cynicism can come from wherever it damn well pleases, apparently. ;)

  33. Donovan Unum says:

    Those comments are seriously funny. It would be like someone seeing an article in the newspaper that says “local bank goes bust” and yelling at it to cash a check.

  34. silver Harloe says:

    “So why? Why simplification beyond reason and the loss of curiosity? ”

    Good question, but I don’t believe your answer. Your answer does bear out your grumpy, old man disclaimer though in one important aspect, that being “the past is always the golden age.”

    However, I think if you look really critically at the past, you’ll not find this wonderful panacea of curiosity and willingness to learn complex systems in everyone. You’ll find it in a certain percentage of the population. My wildly uneducated, pulled completely out of my posterior, guess would be that that percentage has not significantly varied since there were humans we would call human in existence at all.

    My only slightly more educated explanation for my guess is this: a certain degree of satisfaction with the status quo, a certain degree of wanting anything you aren’t actively invested in to just be simple, and a certain degree of acceptance of “specialization” in human tasks… these things are necessary, either evolutionarily or just to keep people from committing suicide in droves when they realize they’re going to be doing something menial forever.

    Why is my cat content? She doesn’t do anything except sleep, eat, poop, and occasionally interact with me (mostly to further her ‘eating’ agenda). Why were 10s of millions of sustenance farmers over the last several thousand years content, even happy, proud to have contributed nothing to the world except maybe some offspring? I think to some extent, mental laziness is a necessary default, and curiosity and willingness to learn complex systems is a luxury item.

  35. wtrmute says:

    It’s considered rude to watch someone else using the computer?

    1. Mari says:

      Yes. And it’s rude to read over other people’s shoulders.

      1. wtrmute says:

        Why is it, I wonder? I mean, 95% of the time you’re not doing something you should be ashamed of on the computer (or reading something incriminating). If they’re not blocking your reading/computer using experience, why should you even care?

        This is a stupid cultural norm that needs to be done away with; all it manages to do is stunt reading habits. Consider that if someone is watching a TV you’re watching, you don’t think it’s rude at all!

        (Also, please understand that here “you” is generic, and not meant to refer specifically to Mari) ;)

        1. Felblood says:

          It doesn’t bother you, so you should be allowed to do it to other people? Not hardly.

          It’s because you’re standing behind them, and it’s distracting on an instinctive level. Nobody likes to have someone they can’t see breathing in their ear (with certain exceptions).

          Plus, there’s the awkwardness that comes from changing pages, be they in a book or on the internet. Suddenly you have to be considerate to this person who has imposed on your experience, in which you were previously free to choose your own pace.

          A less active experience, like watching television, does not carry these problems, and if the player is amenable to a little advice, a more active experience(like a video game) can become a social event.

          It’s the middle ground where things get ugly.

  36. Curt says:

    did you ever think that these Google users might own Google stock and are benefitting from the many Google hits.

  37. Katesickle says:

    From what I’ve seen helping coworkers use their computers, a big part of the problem appears to be an inability or unwillingness to simply read what is on the page. They can’t find a particular file, but never try using the big button labeled “search”. They see an alert and freak out, without pausing to check what it actually says. They’ll ask twenty different people for help, but they won’t even know that there’s a “help” option on the toolbar. They can’t understand why facebook looks wrong because they don’t read the top of the page.

    I can understand why they do this, though, because I’ve done the same thing in different situations. Show me a math problem more involved than 2+2=4 and my first instinct is to just ignore it. I can understand most algebra if I can just make myself read the problem, but it takes deliberate effort on my part. It’s not effortless the way reading a sentence is.

    I imagine that’s how computers are for many people. If they read everything on the page they’d be fine, but something about how the information is presented makes assimilating it difficult for them. We need to teach them how to process what they see.

  38. Rob says:

    There’s one thing that puzzles me about this… I checked it out and the results do not support your suggestions.

    If you type “facebook” into the URL bar, after a few seconds, FaceBook loads. If you type “facebook login”, you get the FaceBook login page.

    I also tried straight up Google searches and the number 1 results were FaceBook and FaceBook login respectively.

    How were people finding this page? Did it really replace FaceBook as the #1 result for a few days?

    1. Shamus says:

      They might have been using Bing. And page ranks are ever-shifting.

  39. David V.S. says:

    When I taught preschool and elementary school, the Macs had some software whose name I cannot remember that, upon booting, replaced the OS interface with an icon-based application loader and documents folder.

    Now what was that called…?

    Anyway, I’m surprised a modern OS does not ship with a similar “View” as the default. Computer-literate folk could turn it off as one more tweak we do when customizing the interface. Folk like my grandmother could leave it as is.

    1. kharon says:

      It was called “At Ease” and it was remarkably similar to the direction Apple appears to be moving in with the iPhone OS. This Desktop Alternative was, in fact, a great way to make the computer simple to use, to make it easy to know exactly what program you were getting, and to keep track of documents without needing to muck about in the file system.

      I actually somewhat expect Apple to release a future desktop OS that is basically the iPhone OS — hopefully not killing off the somewhat power-user friendly OSX in the process, but making an OS that just works, and (for the casual user) does so more easily than the modern desktop metaphor.

  40. Nick says:

    We need an award like the Darwin Award for people who are swindled out of all their money through Internet scams. The 419 Award? The Madoff Award?

    1. Avilan the Grey says:

      That is a great idea.
      Incidentally, I am a daughter to an african millionaire and I need to use your bank account to get me smuggled out of the country. I can also inform you that you are the winner of the Portugese National Lottery and all you have to do is to send me your credit card number for verification and you will soon be very very rich!


    2. Mari says:

      I used to think only the elderly and the mentally challenged fell for those kinds of things. A while back though I was listening to a popular financial radio call-in show. Some guy called the host wanting advice on how to come up with the money to claim his fortune in a Nigerian import deal. This guy sounded perfectly normal. He was just stupid. Obviously the host of the show disillusioned him but I found myself thinking, “Please let this call be a joke/hoax. Please let this normal-sounding guy not really be that stupid.”

  41. David V.S. says:

    Changing the topic slightly, has anyone else noticed how the definition of “Computer Literate” has changed over the years?

    When I first soldered together something that used a cassette player as a drive, “Computer Literate” meant “can do anything at all”. I was computer literate simply for being able to turn it on and make it do something. But that era did not last long.

    During long period of Apple II and DOS years, “Computer Literate” meant “can learn from the manual”. I was computer literate not because I knew how to make any certain software program to do any specific behavior, but because when asked I could make sense of the manual and learn how to do what was needed (in a matter of minutes, or less).

    Since the dawn of Windows XP, manuals have left the scene and help files have degenerated to become nearly useless. Now “Computer Literate” means having a huge body of background knowledge that allows you to make many certain software programs do many specific behaviors.

    Oddly, the evolution from DOS to XP in the workforce led to the situation where becoming “Computer Literate” is now much more difficult, with a larger and steeper learning curve!

    1. Avilan the Grey says:

      I don’t really agree; “Computer literate” to me still means “someone who has a basic knowledge of the basic functions”.

      In Windows that usually means things like “Understands difference between Right- Left- and Double-click”, “Can uninstall programs using the Uninstall icon and not just drag the whole program folder to the trash bin” and “Can surf for 10 days without getting a virus”.

      Now as I have said before, statistics indicate that there is about 10% of the computer-using public that do not qualify as computer literate and still uses them. These are the ones that fuel things like viruses and phishing sites as well as certain kinds of spam, because as Shamus says they think viruses is a force of nature that just happens; they do not have enough interest in computers to actually even want to know how to not get viruses.

  42. I think a large reason behind this sort of inability to use computers lies within the way all programs and operating systems themselves are designed. OSs use concepts from before the 90s to still describe themselves and the objects they contain.

    Files? Folders? Younger users of today most likely have never actually seen a folder (the physical type). Designers of these systems aren’t trying to make simpler (to use) interfaces for users new to computers, they are merely refining old ideas for the people who already know how to use them. The Start menu, the Apple menu – both of these things are pretty empty of description as to what the heck they do.

    The address bar in browsers really is a garbled mess of characters like people above and the article have mentioned. To non-savvy users it’s a pointless attachment to the interface. it’s something that should be completely hidden away except from users who know what to do with it.

    I think systems (operating systems and apps) need to be completely rethought in terms of todays’ and tomorrows’ users. Of course, you can’t ignore current users, but I think computers could be far more simple to manipulate if they were redesigned for the modern user.

    1. Andy_Panthro says:

      It took me a long time to get used to Windows over MS-DOS, which was the last big shift in interfaces for the majority of PC users.

      Microsoft seems to redesigning Windows with each version towards the simplified usage that modern users perhaps want, but each time I upgrade there’s always something in a different place, called something different, or whatever.

      I’d be far happier if MS made completely different versions for different types of user. Of course they’d prefer we all use the same thing, and so make a “one size fits none” approach. Thankfully there’s a certain amount of customisation available.

    2. Avilan the Grey says:

      I don’t really see a problem with calling folders folders; I assume most young people actually rather think of Folders as “the thing files goes into in my hard drive” rather than the “folders in an IRL filing cabinet”.

      1. krellen says:

        Frankly, what you refer to as “folders” on your machine I still call “directories”.

  43. confanity says:

    Great hopping Cheesemonkeys, am I the only one here who noticed “serch” and “handreds”? And am I the only one here who feels the irony? I mean, yes, typos happen and that’s life (“indifferent attitude toward knowledge”). And English spelling is often not phonetic (“user unaware of knowledge deficiency”). And the internet are loaded with terrible spelig punkshuasun and, gramer (“lack of demonstration”). But can we get a copy edit please? As an English teacher, I imagine that my feelings on the matter are equivalent to yours on the post topic.

    I have to say, Shamus, your prose is usually more than satisfactory, but in this case the irony, the two eye-catching errors in the first paragraph, and the vast number of posters who didn’t seem to notice compel me to comment.

    1. Shamus says:

      Yeah, why did it take 149 comments for someone to point that out? That sort of thing is usually in the first five.

      I’m disappointed in you, internet.

  44. HeadHunter says:

    You can say these people aren’t “stupid”, but that’s being unnecessarily kind.
    These people ARE stupid – though they may be literate, they don’t read. They don’t apply common sense, and their behavior shows both ignorance and a lack of education (insofar as it pertains to using this particular device).

    I’d blame AOL, but I’m not sure if it’s the cause or just the symptom. Making the Internet accessible to stupid people by dumbing it down, holding their hand all the way and spoon-feeding them… that’s why we have so many people online who don’t know what they are doing.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people proudly announce their lack of computer literacy, as if it’s a badge of honor or something commendable.

    I don’t consider my attitude “elitist” – I taught myself most of what I know about computing, by seeking out the information, applying common sense and sometimes, good old trial-and-error. Using the Internet is not neurosurgery.

  45. Vegedus says:

    The first thing that came to my head was that google’s search/sorting algorithm have become so good that it’s making people complacent about it’s results. I vaguely remember, way back when, google was far less dependable. It was still the primary way of finding stuff and such, but you couldn’t just take it results for granted, and what you wanted wasn’t necessarily on the first page. You couldn’t really find “real” porn with it at all, for instance.

  46. Amarsir says:

    Very very interesting. As a designer I have to agree that this shows how we can’t take anything for granted.

    But looking from a societal view, let’s not ourselves take for granted that this is something which needs to be universally solved. Personal responsibility is not a bad thing, and I don’t believe that “choose blindly and expect it to work” is an attitude that should be encouraged.

    The Quiet Babylonian article related this to government-mandated seat belts. But intelligent, compassionate Libertarians would take opposition to that. They use seat belts and encourage everyone else to use them, but stop short of forcing it. Are we to start mandating certain tech interfaces as well because some don’t make the effort to understand? Can we pause for a little while and shout “hey, you have a responsibility to understand what you’re doing?”

    But that just means we can’t shrug this off and demand someone else fix it. It’s our responsibility to educate and clarify wherever possible, especially if it’s our site we want people to be using.

  47. Zak McKracken says:

    One more aspect to consider:
    If the google ranking sent a million people or so to that blog post, and 1000 left commentaries thinking they were at the facebook login, that means that still a very low percentage actually didn’t notice what the problem was.

    If you filter hard enough and you have enough samples, there is nothing you won’t find. Law of large numbers. Statistically, in a large enough amount of people, for every imaginable state of mind (and some you probably don’t imagine …) you’ll find someone who is in that state.

    I’d like to know how many prople of those who mistakenly arrived at that page actually thought they were at the facebook login. Probably a quite low number, and that’s only out of those who used google to try and get to that page, so that’s already a non-representative subset of all users.

    My hypothesis: The average internet user is pretty ok, it’s just the extremes that are easily visible and thus overrepresented. Can’t prove this, but I worth considering, I think.

    1. Felblood says:


      Moreover, most people who know what they’re doing wouldn’t click the link in the first place, because they can see it isn’t what they’re looking for.

      Only the most lazy/hasty/stupid/uneducated of the people who were stupid/lazy/uneducated/hasty enough to click the wrong link posted the comments, but suddenly everyone has to harp on how stupid the whole human race is.

      This all reminds me of my high-school aged self. Living by a creed of continuous self-improvement, I hate all reminders of my past selves. There’s nothing so disheartening than to hear people spout a lazy, ignorant, and hasty sophistry you once relied on yourself.

  48. Kibrika says:

    What about school? Can’t it be taught in school?

    1. Mari says:

      OK, this is going to sound snarky and my snark is not directed at you or anyone else who feels this way. The snark is directed at a failing educational and social system. Just want that disclaimer right up front.

      Seriously, my school can’t even manage to teach my kids about the Texas War for Independence in the class about Texas history. I do somewhere around 85% of the teaching on the things my kids are supposed to learn at school anyway. Now you want the school to assume yet another responsibility they can’t live up to? No, it’s time to stop relying on the schools to teach kids everything. That just creates a mindset where everybody shifts blame for failure plus an even longer school day/year filled with less teaching of the things schools are actually good at teaching.

      1. Zak McKracken says:

        I honor your frustration with the educational system (I’m not happy with ours…)
        But I think if a school is failing in its task then “scrap it, I’m doing this myself) is a valid short-term solution, but in the long term the only useful thing is to improve the school, because otherwise eductaion depends only on your immediate surroundings (do I know someone able and willing to teach me?), and the reason for the existence of schools is to give everyone a common knowledge base.
        The whole problem at hand is because some are neither able to aquire necessary knowledge themselves nor get told by someone around them, so how do you reach those people if not through school?

    2. Zak McKracken says:

      I think first you’d need to teach it to teachers, and that’s one problem …

      I had an informatics teacher at school who needed to be told by his students how stuff works.

      That’s not to say it can’t be done (in Germany, it is done to some degree), but usually the kids learn it much faster than the teachers, and the Internet is changing quicker than many teachers can follow, so at some point the flow of information is going to reverse.

      But apart from being told by someone you know (if you’re lucky to know someone who knows and cares enough to explain, and you’re willing to listen), school is probably the only place where some of the basics about how stuff works is communicated to everyone, so that’s where it belongs.

      1. Kibrika says:

        I guess it’s true about teaching the teachers. I just kind of wandered if some things, like url structure, are established enough and might be a thing that could be told to teachers to tell to students.

        Still, I guess I feel much like Mari. Yet I recognize the problem that Zak is talking about. Not near enough people are educated enough to teach their own kids, so some kind of system for giving a common knowledge base is required.

        So what I was groping for was this – if mostly methods of thinking and acquiring knowledge were thought at schools [by some superb method that made all teachers willing to learn all the time and as quick as their students], would dealing with Internet be a thing to be taught.

  49. Felblood says:

    Is this new comment system eating up a lot more of anyone else’s time?

    Not only are the various conversations easier to track, and thus more inviting to read, but with the knowledge that my statements might actually be understood, I’m compelled to comment in each of the little threads.

    This is horrible! Make it stop!

  50. AshyRaccoon says:

    Amazingly, this sort of thing has also happened with, and a NetworkWorld writer’s column:
    According to that, some people had been doing Google searches for “”, going to one of his column entries as it was the first result, and have then left comments which should be going to Snopes.
    It’s not the first result now, it seems.

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