Viral hit: we all suffer from an inbuilt psychological bug, exacerbated by the internet. Photo: Marcelo Graciolli on Flickr, via Creative Commons
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Omniscience bias: how the internet makes us think we already know everything

The internet is an answer machine, it doesn’t help us ask better questions. It feeds the illusion that we already know everything we need to know to be well-informed.

Last week, Washington DC was hit by an earthquake. The Republican congressional leader Eric Cantor lost his seat to a Tea Party upstart with the suggestive name of David Brat. This wasn’t just a surprise: it was a shock. Nobody saw it coming – not even Nate Silver.

The political press quickly concluded that Cantor had committed the ultimate political sin of losing touch with the voters. Spending his days and nights in the unreal world of the nation’s capital, absorbed in the high politics of the Capitol, Cantor had forgotten about the people who put him there.

No doubt this is true. But as David Carr, the media correspondent of the New York Times, suggests, certain members of the press might want to get an appointment with an optician to see about that log in their eye.

Carr points out that the only journalists who got even a sniff of the trouble that Cantor was in were from local newspapers. Jim McConnell is a staff reporter at the Chesterfield Reporter, which serves the district in question. He didn’t call Brat’s victory, but he did predict it was going to be very close at a time when everyone assumed Cantor was a shoo-in.

He was able to do this by employing the sophisticated journalistic technique of leaving the office and talking to people. “You could tell wherever you went that Cantor was incredibly unpopular, that people saw him as arrogant,” he told Carr. Meanwhile, members of more prestigious and well-funded national newspapers completely missed the big story about to explode in a district less than two hours drive from Capitol Hill.

Carr blames the internet, at least in part. The web is a tremendous boon to reporters: the world’s information is now accessible from a desk or smartphone. But it can also seduce journalists into thinking that they know everything worth knowing. As Carr puts it, “the always-on data stream is hypnotic, giving us the illusion of omniscience.”

Take another story that seemed to come out of the blue: the current violence in Iraq. There’s no shortage of pundits pronouncing with impressive confidence on its causes and ramifications. The real experts tend to be more cautious; they know how little we know about ISIS and its aims. They may have also have been left wondering why editors only got interested in this story once pictures started to show up in their Twitter streams.

Actually, I think Carr puts his finger on something with implications far beyond the media. We all suffer from an inbuilt psychological bug, which is exacerbated by the internet. Call it “omniscience bias”: the illusion that we know everything we need to.

In 1987, researchers at the University of Oklahoma ran an experiment in which they gave students a series of problems to solve, and asked them to generate as many solutions as they could. The researchers deliberately gave their subjects a very limited amount of information on each problem. One problem was how to provide enough parking spaces on the university campus, given the limited space available. The students came up with different solutions, including reducing demand for parking space by raising fees or using the space more efficiently.

After the students had generated their answers they were asked to estimate what percentage of possible good solutions they thought they had come up with, while, separately, a panel of experts were asked to compile a database of the possible solutions. It turned out that the average participant generated only about one in three of the best solutions – yet when asked, participants guessed that they had landed on three out of four possible solutions. Not only had they missed most of the best ideas, but they found it hard to imagine there were many alternatives they hadn’t covered.

Psychologists have replicated this or similar effects in different ways: we tend to be over-confident that we have the right information we need to form opinions or make judgements. The modern internet feeds this tendency by persuading you that everything you need to know is a click away or coming soon from a feed near you. Google never says, “I don’t know.” It is an answer machine, but it doesn’t help us ask better questions.

Even those paid to be intellectual explorers are can be stymied by the apparent certainties of the web. James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, assembled a database of 34 million scholarly articles published between 1945 and 2005. He analysed the citations included in the articles to see if patterns of research have changed as journals shifted from print to online.

His working assumption was that he would find a more diverse set of citations, as scholars used the web to broaden the scope of their research. Instead, he found that as journals moved online, scholars actually cited fewer articles than they had before. A broadening of available information had led to “a narrowing of science and scholarship”.

Explaining his finding, Evans noted that Google has a ratchet effect, making popular articles even more popular, thus quickly establishing and reinforcing a consensus about what’s important and what isn’t. Furthermore, the efficiency of hyperlinks means researchers bypass many of the “marginally related articles” print researchers would routinely stumble upon as they flipped the pages of a printed journal or book. Online research is faster and more predictable than library research, but precisely because of this it can have the effect of shrinking the scope of investigation.

According to the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, “our comforting conviction the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” It’s never been easier to go through life assuming you know everything you need to know. But that leaves you more vulnerable to information earthquakes. Just ask Eric Cantor.

Ian Leslie is the author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (Quercus, £10.99)

 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

Photo: Getty/New Statesman
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The mother lode: how mums became the ultimate viral fodder

The internet’s favourite joke used to be "your mum". Now it's "my mum".

“I was like: oh my.”

Terri Squires is describing her reaction to the news that she had gone viral. Last month, more than 213,000 people shared a tweet about Terri – but it wasn’t sent from her account. The 50-year-old Ohioan was propelled to internet stardom by her son, Jeff, who had tweeted about his mother.

“I didn’t really realise what it meant at first until he was like: ‘Mum, you do realise that millions of people have looked at this?’ … When I started seeing those numbers I was like: ‘Oh boy’.”

It’s a funny story – and Terri laughs heartily all she tells it. After coming out of a meeting, she checked her phone and noticed a picture of a missing – white – dog on Facebook. She quickly texted 17-year-old Jeff to check that the family dog, Duey, was safe. “That’s not Duey… Duey’s face is brown,” replied her son. “OK – just checking,” replied Terri.

More than 600,000 people “liked” Terri’s mistake after Jeff shared screenshots of the text message exchange on Twitter. But Terri is just one of hundreds of mums who have gone viral via their sons and daughters. Texts mums send, mistakes they make, things they fail to notice – these have all become the ultimate viral fodder.

In the last three months alone, Gerald’s mum went viral for a microphone mishap, Adam’s mum shot to Twitter fame for failing to understand WhatsApp, Lois’ mum got tricked by her daughter, Harry’s mum was hit in the head with a football, Hanna’s mum misunderstood a hairstyle, and Jake’s mum failed to notice her son had swapped a photo in her home for a portrait of Kim Jong-un.

But how do the mothers behind these viral tweets feel?

“I'm pretty much a mum that everybody wants to talk to these days,” says Terri, with another warm laugh. The mum of three says going viral “is not that big of a deal” to her, but she is happy that her son can enjoy being a “local superstar”. But is she embarrassed at being the punchline of Jeff’s joke?

“Believe me, I have thick skin,” she says. “I kinda look at what it is, and it’s actually him and his fame. I’m just the mum behind it, the butt of the joke, but I don't mind.”

Not all mums feel the same. A handful of similar viral tweets have since been deleted, indicating the mothers featured in them weren’t best pleased. A few people I reach out to haven’t actually told their mums that they’re the subject of viral tweets, and other mums simply don’t want any more attention.

“I think I’ve put my mum through enough with that tweet already,” says Jacko, when I ask if his mum would be willing to be interviewed. In 2014, Jacko tweeted out a picture of his family writing the word “cock” in the air with sparklers. “This is still my favourite ever family photo,” he captioned the tweet, “My mum did the ‘O’. We told her we were going to write ‘Love’.”

“No one ever expects to call home and say ‘Mum, have you heard of something called LADbible? No, you shouldn’t have, it’s just that a quarter of a million of its fans have just liked a photo of you writing the word ‘cock’ with a sparkler’,” Jacko explains.

Although Jacko feels his mum’s been through enough with the tweet, he does say she was “ace” about her new found fame. “She’s probably cooler about it all than I am”. Apart from the odd deletion, then, it seems most mums are happy to become viral Twitter stars.

Yet why are mums so mocked and maligned in this way? Although dads are often the subject of viral tweets, this is usually because of jokes the dads themselves make (here’s the most notable example from this week). Mums, on the other hand, tend to be mocked for doing something “wrong” (though there are obviously a few examples of them going viral for their clever and cunning). On the whole: dads make jokes, mums are the butt of them.

“We all think our mums are so clueless, you know. They don’t know what’s going on. And the fun thing is, one day we come to realise that they knew way more of what was going on than we thought,” says Patricia Wood, a 56-year-old mum from Texas. “People always kind of make fun of their mums, but love them.”

Last year, Patricia went viral when her daughter Christina tweeted out screenshots of her mum’s Facebook posts. In them, Patricia had forgotten the names of Christina’s friends and had candidly written Facebook captions like: “My gorgeous daughter and her date for formal, sorry I forgot his name”. Christina captioned her tweet “I really can't with my mom” and went on to get more than 1,000 likes.

“I felt, like, wow, it was like we’re famous, you know. I thought it was really cool,” says Patricia, of going viral. Her experiences have been largely positive, and as a part-time Uber driver she enjoys telling her customers about the tweet. “But I did have one bad experience,” she explains. A drunken passenger in her car saw the tweet and called Patricia an “asshole”.

Another aspect of viral fame also worried Patricia. She and her daughter were invited on a reality show, TD Jakes, with the production company offering to pay for flights and hotels for the pair. “I have too many skeletons in my closet and I didn't want them to come dancing out,” says Patricia, of her decision not to go. “By the time I got off it, it would be the Jerry Springer show, you know. I’m kind of a strange bird.”

On the whole, then, mothers are often amused by going viral via their offspring – and perhaps this is the real beauty of tweeting about our mums. Since the moment they earn the title, mums can’t afford to be fragile. There is a joy and relatability in “my mum” tweets – because really, the mum in question could be anyone’s. Still, from now on, mums might be more careful about what they tell their sons and daughters.

“When I send Jeff a text now I make sure I’m like: ‘Is my spelling correct? Is what I’m saying grammatically correct?’,” says Terri, “Because who knows where the words are gonna end up?”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.