Many Questions on “Web IQ” Quiz Test Knowledge of Useless Information

A new study from Pew Research purports to test the “Web IQ” of Internet users. I took this quiz myself, although I admit my knowledge of some of the questions may have been spoiled because I first found out about the quiz from an article that launched straight into a discussion of the questions (and answers) without warning. To prevent this from happening here, you may want to take the quiz yourself before clicking “Continue Reading.”

Now that you’ve had a chance to take the quiz or have decided not to take it, I just wanted to say that I took this quiz only for fun, and didn’t actually consider the quiz important enough to merit extensive discussion. Unfortunately, the media seems to disagree. A quick Google search for “web iq” will return no shortage of articles, including ones from the USA Today and CBS News.

I hope the title of this post wasn’t too much of a spoiler, but I honestly feel that many of the questions tested completely useless knowledge. For example, one question asked the year the iPhone was first released. It’s precisely the type of question that explains why my post’s title is what it is. Why is it important that I know the exact year the iPhone was released when I can simply look up that fact on Wikipedia?

Two other examples of questions that tested knowledge of useless information were the ones that asked participants to identify the pictures of Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. I’m not denying that these individuals were both highly influential, but I’m not sure knowing their exact physical appearance is as important is understanding what they did. As it turns out, the question most users answered correctly was the one asking them to identify the picture of Bill Gates; 83% of users answered this question correctly. I could go on about the other questions that test a user’s ability to rote memorize useless trivia, but to be fair, some of the questions do test for information that is important.

For example, the results of the study show that only 61% of participants knew what net neutrality was. On the one hand, this is an arguably respectable number, but considering the serious implications the outcome of the net neutrality fight will have on the Internet as we know it, I was hoping this number would be much higher.

Another important question is whether a privacy policy means a company keeps its users’ information confidential. It doesn’t. It only tells you what the company plans to do with your information. Depending on which company wrote the document, a privacy policy may take away as much of your privacy as possible while cloaking the company’s true actions in impenetrable legalese.

Overall, despite the presence of a handful of questions that relate to important discussions or otherwise tested for useful knowledge, I found that for far too many questions on this quiz, I share Kevin Fogarty’s view that “Pew researchers got confused about the difference between information and understanding.” The definition of a wiki, for example, doesn’t require much understanding, even though the researchers described in the full report how likely young Internet users were to “understand” the definition of a wiki. It’s something you either know or don’t. Did I know that Facebook first started at Harvard? Yes I did, but whether I know the answer because I read about Facebook’s history or watched The Social Network is not terribly important. Nor do I think I would be worse off if I had thought it was MIT instead.

I would suggest treating this quiz as nothing more than an amusing diversion. Have fun with it if you can, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you didn’t know some of the answers. Mosaic may have been the browser that popularized the Web, but it was also discontinued 17 years ago. Does anyone still use it to surf the Web? I didn’t think so.

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