11 March 2007

Is the Internet Getting Dumber? Provocative Letter From A Reader

Dear Al Fin,

When I started on the internet in Jan 1992, its average IQ in my
estimation was at least 130.

I arrive at this estimate by noting that 130 is the average IQ
among computer programmers. Programmers and system
administrators, a job that is approximately as intellectually
demanding as programmer, probably contributed >40% of the
content (mainly Usenet and ftp documents; the web was not an
important source of content for me till late 1993) I consumed
during those early years. College professors and grad students
contributed much of the rest.

Moreover, The content authored by people of diverse occupations
who were neither academics or IT professionals seemed to me at
least as intelligent as that from the IT pros and academics.

Undergrads were a big part of the internet in 1992, but I tended
to avoid forums, .e.g., IRC and MUDs, populated mostly by

The IQ of the author of the average piece of content picked at
random from the net in 2007 is still above the average worldwide
IQ because smart people spend more time on the net than dumber
people, but the mere size of the net ensures its average IQ is
significantly lower than in 1992.

The difference between 1992 and 2007 has provided me a very vivid
and detailed illustration of your point about the importance of
keeping the IQ of a population high. If the evolution of the net
is any illustration, a community with high IQ functions much more
efficiently than one of lower IQ.

On the mailing lists (and newsgroups, which are very similar) I
read in 1992, when someone asked a question he often would
instruct his reader to reply to him personally. He would
summarize the replies he received and post the summary to the
list (or newsgroup).

The purpose of asking a question this way, for those who cannot
guess, is to keep the volume of traffic as low as possible while
exchanging as much useful information as possible.

In the lingo of the net of 1992, this was referred to as keeping
the list's "signal-to-noise ratio" high.

In the net of 2007, most participants of mailing lists do not
show any signs of being aware that keeping the signal-to-noise
ratio high might be a desirable thing.

And many list owners and moderators speak of their list as if
more traffic is always a good thing, with no sign that they are
aware that traffic imposes a cost on the reader (namely, it
consumes the reader's time and attention).

It has been at least five years if I recall correctly since
I saw a question-asker offer to summarize the responses
he receives to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high.

Moreover, regularly I see evidence that a participant cannot
figure out how to send a personal email to the author of a post:

"Please excuse me for posting this to the entire list but I'm not
very computer sauve. I would like to contact Isis back-channel
but don't know how to do this. When I hit reply button it seems
to go to entire list. If Isis would be so kind as to send me a
personal message with her email address I would much appreciate
it. Thank You."

Think about this for a second: all the person needed to do is to
find the email address of "Isis" (copying the address to paper if
she cannot figure out cut and paste) then to send an email to
that email address.

On the group in question the email address is almost always
valid and not mangled against spammers (because Yahoo Groups
verifies address validity when you subscribe) and is always to be
found in the From: field of the header.

And what sort of internet user cannot send an email to
an address written down on paper in front of her?

Actually, the person quoted above is a better mailing-list
participant than many in 2007 in that she articulates her
inability, apologizes for it and is aware that it is less than

I could go on with this comparison for a long time, but it is
probably more illuminating for the reader whose interest has been
piqued to sample a newsgroup thread from 1992 for himself.
For example, one might read the famous "LINUX is obsolete"


Now since Google Groups' web site might contain a lot of code to
clean up the messages and thereby show the messages posted to
1992 Usenet newsgroups in an unfairly positive light relative to
2007 newsgroups and 2007 mailing lists, it behooves the reader to
view the original versions of the messages, which (on Google
Groups) are available at the top of every message via a link
titled "Show original" though one has to click "More options" to
reveal that link. Here for example is the original version of
the first message in the thread:


Al Fin Note: I feel that the reader is quite correct--the internet has not only gotten less intelligent over the past 15 years, it has gotten much ruder. Rather than using the remarkable resources of the internet to enlarge their horizons, more people seem to be using it as a gossip forum, or a political (even terrorist) attack platform.

Fortunately the internet allows for "enclaves" of intelligent discourse and instruction. Those who wish to use the internet for personal growth and learning are completely free to do so. You could look at the divergent uses of the Internet as a form of "Balkanization." But that is the nature of any enabling technology. It can only enable us to do what we are predisposed to do.


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