Facebook Doesn’t Make You Smarter, Rigorous Research Does.

Yesterday Mashable.com posted an article titled “Psychologist: Facebook Makes You Smarter, Twitter Makes You Dumber.” It was originally from an article in the Telegraph titled “Facebook ‘enhances intelligence’ but Twitter ‘diminishes it’, claims psychologist.” This morning I heard the story referenced on a couple morning news programs and I’ve seen it picked up on other news sites and blogs. It was also Mashable’s most re-tweeted article yesterday.

The psychologist, Dr. Tracy Alloway from the University of Stirling in Scotland, studies working memory, one aspect of IQ tests. She developed a working memory training program to increase the performance of “slow-learning” 11-14 year old children. Her program increased IQ, literacy and numeracy tests by about 10 points after eight weeks.

None of the articles say that her training program used Facebook. The closest thing to a quote making this assertion from the Telegraph article says that Dr. Alloway believes that strategy video games may train working memory:

“Video games that involve planning and strategy, such as those from the Total War series, may also train working memory, Dr Alloway believes.”

None of the quotes in the article, or on the other articles across the web, or in any of the news stories I can find actually have her say that Facebook makes you smarter or that Twitter makes you dumber.

Her argument against twitter, from the Telegraph article:

But the ”instant” nature of texting, Twitter and YouTube was not healthy for working memory. ”On Twitter you receive an endless stream of information, but it’s also very succinct,” said Dr Alloway. ”You don’t have to process that information. Your attention span is being reduced and you’re not engaging your brain and improving nerve connections.”

Again, this isn’t cited as part of a study or her program. While that doesn’t mean she isn’t right, if it’s not from a study then it doesn’t have the rigorous scientific method behind it to validate it. A correspondent from Times Online was at the British Science Festival where Dr. Alloway reported on her program. He provided the following transcript from a recording he made as part of the article, Does Twitter really damage your memory?:

Journalist: Has anybody actually studied whether Facebook or Twitter affects memory?
Alloway: Not that I know of.
Journalist: So there’s no published evidence?
Alloway: There’s no published evidence, it’s just a hypothesis, I’ll be starting a research project in January.

Her assertions don’t take into account how everyone uses those outlets. Do you spend your time on YouTube watching College Humor pranks, or perhaps watching the Sixty Symbols channel? When you are using Twitter, are you just passing by, or engaging in a dialog with friends, or perhaps using it just as a broadcast information resource, perhaps by following JPL’s Asteroid Watch? I would argue that those are resources that might, just might, help make you smarter, or at least hold off the dumb tide.

I believe students at the age she is studying are very tied up in the social aspects of their lives — who likes them, what clothes to wear, where is everyone going, etc, even if it’s not a conscious decision. They have a drive to learn and discover that information and Facebook is that vehicle. Years of research point to passion being the driving force behind developing expertise in something and I suspect that the passion for the social outlet is enough for the children to gravitate to, and perfect the art of, using Facebook. Video games have a similar draw for children. If people are doing something about which they are passionate, and they develop that expertise, doesn’t it stand to reason that as part of that process they develop their working memory?

I use the article “The Expert Mind” from Scientific American (August 2006) as the buttress for my argument. It doesn’t make me right, but at least I’m not buying into the headline that everyone else has. If I am wrong, perhaps my Facebook use and my Twitter use will cancel each other out.

Additional: One example of how Facebook may actually make you dumber: Trapped Girls Updated Facebook Status Instead of Calling For Help. Srsly?

12 Comments

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To further underscore your assertion that social networks/media can improve the intellectual "grade" of just look at http://www.khanacademy.org/, it's pretty hard to argue that "YouTube makes you dumber".

Sal Kahn's posted some of the YouTube's most viewed videos, which are almost entirely educational tutorials. (They're interesting and well done, to boot.)

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That is an awesome example. I'm going to look for a lesson on the Scientific Method now.

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I think one of the most interesting points here is the fact most people are taken in by the headline, regardless of the content.

This could be an indicator of people habitually taking from headlines without gleaning information from the body. Similar to reading updates on Twitter or Facebook without reading or interacting.

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Seems to me that the entire argument is made by someone who doesn't have practical experience with the medium, or who's experience is extremely limited. The big misconception for most folks is that "Facebook is two way communication while Twitter is one way". It's always mentioned that people 'interact' with Facebook as opposed to people 'posting' to Twitter.

I mean, based on the argument, I wouldn't have even found this post… I would have seen a link and said 'oh, look. Adrian posted'. Just because a summary of the content is not shoved down my throat by Facebook this link is somehow less likely to be processed by my brain?

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Sorry this is too long I can't read it.

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You're killing me.

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now for my real thoughts:
You could propose that with it's limitations Twitter actually makes you smarter, you need to be creative to get your point, thoughts whatever across. With Facebook you can throw up all over everything and not have to think about what you're doing (as we've all seen many people do).

In any case they are both open systems and can be used in a myriad of different ways, mainly up to the individual.

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There are many writers out there who have posted their own anecdotal experience with composing compelling tweets. Many of them think it strengthens their writing skills.

But then there's Jakob Nielsen's 5-step iteration testing to make your tweets more boring (but marketable): http://www.useit.com/alertbox/twitter-iterations.html

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This post has also been picked up over at evolt.org: http://evolt.org/Facebook-Doesnt-Make-You-Smarter-Rigorous-Research-Does

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I believe that twitter is actually helping my memory. I often check into twitter from my iphone when I'm out running around in the streets of NYC. Often a twitter with a link will catch my eye but I don't necessarily want to read the content of the link on my iphone. Instead I'll "remember" to go back and check the timeline of the person who sent it so I can read it in a more relaxed way on the bigger screen of my computer.

Francine; . Permalink
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I suspect this person was an idiot even before Facebook, but still…
http://www.journal-news.net/page/content.detail/id/525232.html
A burglar left himself logged in after checking his Facebook page at a victim's house. So they caught him, of course.

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Another criminal burns himself with Facebook:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/oct/14/mexico-fugitive-facebook-arrest

He had fled to Mexico but updated his status regularly to talk about his new life in Cancun. He might have been free and clear but one of his FB friends works for the justice department.

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