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The Internet Explorer IQ Hoax and the State of Tech Blogging

Last Friday, the tech blogosphere was enamored by a study that claimed that Internet Explorer users had a lower IQ than users of other browsers. The study by AptiQuant found that the average IE6 user only scored just over 80 on its IQ test – a test score that is, in terms of real-life accomplishments, generally associated with elementary school dropouts and unskilled workers. The study was a hoax.

The Hoax

A hoax like this one obviously capitalizes on the inherent anxiety we all feel about our own intelligence and the prejudice that nobody in their right mind would ever use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. It also allowed those who use fringe browsers like Opera and Camino to feel especially smug, as the average score of their cohort was supposedly around 125 (that’s close to the level of most neurosurgeons). Safari users (who are most likely to use Apple products) were also supposedly among the most “intelligent.”

Overall then, this was a well thought out hoax, though there were tons of red flags, as Wired’s Tim Carmody points out. The huge difference in scores, for example, doesn’t really make sense and the average Opera user – while making a fine browser choice – isn’t likely to be a genius either. A quick Google search would have shown that AptiQuant never really existed before it released this report (even though it claimed to have data from 2006). The data itself also isn’t exactly trustworthy, as it relies on online IQ test – likely delivered through spammy pop-ups – and carries little to no scientific relevance.

Why?

If this was so obviously a hoax then, why did virtually everybody in the tech world run with this story?

Here are a few reasons why I think this story was able to get so much play:

Pressure to be fast, write more stories and get more pageviews: This “report” was published on a Friday and while most people associate that day with fun, fun, fun, fun, writers still have to pump out a few stories and news is generally slow on that day (and that Friday was indeed a very slow news day). (That pressure, by the way, is even stronger for writers who are paid by story.)

Stories about statistics can be written quickly and get pageviews: Indeed, the constant pressure to write more stories that get as many pageviews as possible is one of the reasons why we writers love stories about statistics: they are easy and fast to write, generally come with some pretty graphics we can use and do well in terms of pageviews. I’ve written my fair share of those and there is a legitimate role for those stories that boil down lots of data into an interesting story. What often happens, though, is that writers will just believe anything they see in these studies and run with it, without ever questioning the study’s methodology.

Indeed, there is very little reward for those writers who spend a lot of time going through the methodology section of a report and then find that their time was wasted because the report turned out to be untrustworthy. Writing a story about how IE users are dumb makes for a good headline and lots of pageviewsafter all. A subtler story just wouldn’t get the kind of pageviews and rewards that “IE users are dumb as a bag of hammers” can get.

Microsoft sucks, doesn’t it?: There is also a general undercurrent of anti-Microsoft sentiment on most blogs that makes it even easier for a story like this to get through without even an ounce of fact checking (something most blogs don’t do anyway: you publish first, edit later and then update the story as necessary). If the story had claimed that Safari users were significantly dumber than Chrome users, chances are we would have seen a bit more pushback and less glee.

It’s worth noting that quite a few of the companies that create these studies also face a lot of pressure to get publicity and acquire new customers. Why they often risk their credibility by putting out statistics that are obviously wrong is beyond me, though. It’s up to the press, though, to examine this data and decide whether to trust it or not.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting post, Frederic! I think you probably could have been even harsher than you were :) I sure am glad RWW didn’t buckle to this pressure and post on that story!

  2. When you are a pro-Microsoft writer, you tend to make sure the anti-Microsoft reports are accurate. :) It sounded fishy from the start.

  3. @marshallk Very true. I guess I could have been much harder but I think the story makes the point as is. I’m very glad you guys didn’t run with it :)

  4. @FredericL@marshallk Honestly guys, I think people have taken this way too seriously. We posted it to our Shareables channel where we post a lot of random and amusings stuff. We expected people to take it with a pinch of salt…so I’d add “because it’s funny” to the list of reasons you’ve mentioned there.

  5. @zee fair point. I consciously didn’t point to any specific blogs or writers here (and as you knnow, I’m a big fan of what you guys are doing over at The Next Web). I’m more interested in what it means in the context of the whole blog ecosystem than anything else and I do think that it shows some of the pressures we all face (myself included).

  6. @FredericL There is a lot of pressure to get the news published ASAP, and accurately. I’ve posted rumors or hoaxes in the past and had to post an update or a correction. Some of it sounds very true and plausible. Depending on your viewpoint, it can sound even better. With minutes between a study being published and blog writers wanting the “scoop”, it can mean some hoaxes are released as real news. There is pretty much nothing that can be done to correct that with the seconds-count schedule we face. Intuition and “gut feelings” can help. Being the last to release the news and fact checking every news post can work, it just won’t be successful. You’ll miss the hoaxes, but also the real news.

  7. The kinds of anti or even pro corporate biases like the one you mention impacting Microsoft in this case are a major factor in tech blogging lately. Very little fact-checking is done on stories by “media” when the story reflects their inherent bias.

  8. Like most tabloid newspapers, you shouldn’t believe everything you read. I’m sure a similar amount of hysteria could be created if a dog food company posted some statistics on the internet claiming their rivals product contained moon dust, and this was responsible for 80% of dogs floating off into space! People believe anything if it’s backed up by colourful pie graphs and charts! LOL

  9. ‘get as many pageviews as possible’ – the one point you are missing here is greed (or maybe just feed the family), which you are also involved in – ‘Advertise on this Site’ – come on. Of course, the more hits – the more income.

    Most of us out here are really too busy trying to make an honest living, you know ‘a days work for a days pay’, to do our own research into so called news articles. If they are supposed to be funny – put them on the funny page – not commentary. And while your’re at it stop the Microsoft bashing – my research says 95% of us geeks would be out of a job, or slinging hamburgers, if it wasn’t for Microsoft’s success!

    In addition to Frederic’s issue about trying to stick to the truth – I’m also tired of Tech Blogs publishing the ‘SOLUTION’ to some cryptic web problem only to find out the SOLUTION won’t work – or is terribly outdated. It’s like reading ’20,000 Leagues…’ as the users guide to a ‘Trident II’ submarine. How about a website that checks the accuracy and currency of code examples, a lot of the work could be automated, just match the syntax and run it thru current translators to see what comes out for errors…

  10. pfft, it doesn’t even take a study to know that anyone using ie6 is a complete moron, it’s common sense as long as your smart enough to think it through.

  11. @sombrestyles, Do we know how many corporations are still running with antiquated tools? According to w3schools.com almost 29% of the IE users are STILL on versions older than IE8. Does that make them ALL morons?

    @tuseroni, what is the pleasure in misleading – no lying to – others? Like the pleaseure some get in creating viruses? I say throw them all in jail!

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