In 2008 Nicholas Carr wrote an article in The Atlantic, titled Is Google Making Us Stupid. Very shortly, he argued that the way we engage with content online is ultimately having a detrimental effect on our ability to engage with longer, printed texts. Because we can open an article and search instantly for the exact piece of the text we need, we are slowly losing the ability to search for relevant information in textbooks and printed articles. (Hey! Perhaps that’s why my studies are such an uphill battle for me. It’s all Google’s fault.)
Carr’s article sparked numerous responses and studies into this topic, and we’ve yet to see whether he was right or not, but I believe that there’s another part of the internet that’s making us dumber. Or rather, lazier (though some might argue that’s the same thing).
I’m speaking of social media, and in particular, the sharing culture.
Take this post which showed up in my Facebook feed today after being shared by several people I know. It claims that, rather than paying for helium for your kid’s birthday party balloons, mix some bicarbonate of soda and vinegar in a bottle, place the balloon over the bottle’s mouth, and inflate the balloon with the carbon-dioxide gas that’s produced. Then there’s a picture of a bunch of happily floating balloons, supposedly inflated with this method.
Now, anyone who’d managed to pass primary school science should know that carbon dioxide is a heavy gas, heavier even that air, which consists of mostly nitrogen and oxygen. Sure, you can use this method to inflate balloons, but they won’t float. Quite the opposite, in fact, as they’ll be even heavier than if you inflated them by blowing into them the old-fashioned way.
A little digging (i.e. twenty-three seconds doing a Google search and scanning through the results) told me this post originated on Pinterest as a cool science project to explain to children how gases work, which someone then edited to become a helium substitute tutorial. Several blog posts already exist to explain why it’s nonsense. And to their credit, the page that posted this on Facebook, after trying it out, admitted their mistake in the comments, and the vast majority of commenters have pointed out the same facts as I do above. Yet people keep sharing this.
My theory? We’ve become conditioned to only absorb up to 140 characters. We see a cool photo and a clickbait heading, and we retweet, pin or share without reading any further. We have become too lazy to make sure of the facts of what we’re posting (or even what we’re posting, period) before we post.
A ton of pseudo-science (which is just a polite word for total nonsense that sounds smart) gets spread this way. The helium substitute is but one example. What about the guy with the solar-powered glass roads (which is a very, very bad idea), or the hydrogen converter you connect to your car’s engine that will save you thousands in fuel costs (but which will actually cause your car to consume more fuel and can actually damage your engine in the long term), not to mention the inaccurate, and at times plain dangerous health advice.
Very common in South Africa, are the security warnings. Currently there’s one circulating again about how criminals supposedly mark properties to alert other criminals if the property is worth robbing. Now, anything’s possible when it comes to crime in over here, but why mark a property for another criminal? Why not just rob it yourself and be done with it?
Oh, and the Facebook hacking posts are doing the rounds once again. And that message that WhatsApp is going to cancel your account or start charging you money if you don’t immediately forward that message to at least eleven people in your address book, and then sacrifice a squirrel under a harvest moon. (I don’t know why a squirrel – that’s just what the message says, okay?)
And all this because we can’t be bothered to read past the headline and make sure of the facts.
So what, you might say. What’s the big deal? The big deal is you’re spreading a lie, whether you know it or not. You’re harming your integrity. If that’s not a big deal, I don’t know what is.
I’m not saying I always have my facts straight, and I have my share of confirmation biases I fall prey to from time to time. But for goodness sake, reading the entire post before sharing and taking a minute or two to think about it can’t be that hard, can it?