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Americans Flunk Internet History

Pew Research finds gaps in what people understand about the technology they use daily.

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Most Americans don't know that the Internet and the Web are not the same thing.

The Pew Research Center has released results from a survey of 1,066 Internet users that asked 17 questions about the Internet, how it works, and important technology leaders.

The survey found Americans well-informed on some topics but not on others. Most of those surveyed (83%) could identify Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, could tell you that hashtags are associated with Twitter (82%), and could confirm that PDFs can be sent via email (77%).

Most respondents could also tell you that a megabyte is bigger than a kilobyte (74%) and that "URL" stands for uniform resource locator (69%).

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But beyond that, many people were unaware of things people in the technology industry take for granted. For example, just 61% of respondents understand that net neutrality refers to the equal treatment of digital data, while only 44% of people realize that a privacy policy does not a guarantee a company will keep information private. And only 23% recognize that the Internet is different from the Web.

The survey found that younger Internet users are more knowledgeable in some aspects of technology, like Twitter terminology, but have comparable levels of ignorance about the fact that the Web represents one Internet network among many. It also found that education matters, with college graduates outscoring those with fewer years of education in every area but one -- understanding the difference between the Web and the Internet.

(Source: geralt)
(Source: geralt)

None of this is particularly surprising. In 2009, a Google employee asked a handful of people in New York's Times Square "What is a browser?" Almost no one answered correctly, surely a humbling experience for the Google engineers who were working feverishly to improve Chrome.

Pew's study doesn't attempt to assess the impact of scant technical knowledge. While it may be dispiriting to those who live and breathe technology that large numbers of people appear to lack understanding about important concepts like privacy policies and net neutrality, such gaps exist throughout civic and political life, all the way up to regulators who see the Internet as a series of tubes.

The study also doesn't consider the distinction between historical facts, many of which can be revealed on-demand by using a search engine, and concepts like net neutrality that shape policy decisions and affect people's lives.

The fact that only 21% of people could identify Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg from a photograph may be disappointing to Sandberg herself and to anyone who sees her as a future political candidate, but it's not a particularly meaningful measurement.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
12/1/2014 | 7:43:24 AM
Re: Americans Flunk Internet History
I don't think this is all that bad, and there are two reasons why. First of all, as plenty of others have pointed out already, a misunderstanding of internet technologies (or, anything) is often seen as par for the course for the average american. I suppose it's worth noting that this is basically a survery of Americans who use the internet and would bother to take a survey about the internet (like Michelle), which would seem to skew toward a certain demographic rather than just the general public. Still, many people probably couldn't even name all 50 states on the spot, or more than the first couple of presidents. It's not really that big an indication of anything in and of itself.

That leads into my next point - I don't really think these results are even all that negative. Am I the only one that was actually surprised at the number of correct responses on some of these? That many people really know what URL stands for (remember, these are ostensibly the same people who don't know what a browser is)? It's hard to tell for sure, but the wording of the questions leads me to think the survey was something along the lines of multiple choice, which may explain some results (net neutrality), but others remain mystifying (privacy policy). The questions seem a little all over the place, but overrall these results are no worse than I would have expected. They might actually be a little better.
User Rank: Ninja
11/29/2014 | 6:24:11 PM
I took the Pew Internet quiz. I was one of those who woks online and still chose the answer of Internet and web being the same thing. I selected the wrong answer and immediately regretted it, thinking back to the olden days...
User Rank: Ninja
11/27/2014 | 10:35:52 PM
The interwebs
In other news, most Congressional representatives as well as the nine slugs on the Supreme Court don't even know how to use email, but this doesn't stop them from passing/interpreting digital communication laws cough CFAA cough. 
User Rank: Ninja
11/27/2014 | 4:35:18 PM
Re: Deeper problem
The answer to your querry has been the basis of some really great SciFi, such as the "1632" series. If I had a magnet, copper wire, and help from a clockmaker and a blacksmith, I think it would be possible to reconstruct a lot of the progess made up to vacuum tubes. The problem would be how to not get burned at the stake as a witch!
User Rank: Ninja
11/27/2014 | 10:15:12 AM
How you word it
I think some of the responses from people would have been a litle different if the questions were worded differently. A lot of people would use "the internet" and "web" interchangeably, so perhaps the definition, while technically incorrect is changing? 

It is a bit embarassing that nobody knew what a browser is. Then again, I've had a lot of relatives ask me about the "internet button," on their desktop.
User Rank: Ninja
11/26/2014 | 2:11:55 PM
Re: Deeper problem
I Agree.  While many users use these services day to day, they aren't necessarily concerned with how it all works.  This can be a good or bad thing when it comes to things like data privacy or understanding the effects of how information being posted on the Internet can be accessed by multiple sources.  The reality is that many users are happy to not know these details, as long as they can use the Internet and applications they are content.
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
11/26/2014 | 10:56:21 AM
Deeper problem
"large numbers of people appear to lack understanding about important concepts like privacy policies and net neutrality, such gaps exist throughout civic and political life, all the way up to regulators who see the Internet as a series of tubes."

This isn't a problem unique to the internet. Say you fell down a black hole and emerged in 1780 or so. Could you explain to the engineers of the day how to generate electricity, how an internal combustion engine works, or how to set up a telephone link? How about plumbing or radio waves?

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