Making Sense of the Stupidity Myth

Rather than "dumb down" the Internet, we need to educate users so that they're Internet savvy

By Sky Dayton

(Originally published November, 1999)

I've got a beef with the technology industry, and I'm going to rant about it. I'm sick of industry executives who think their customers are somehow inherently stupid.

I'm tired of that trite industry refrain, "If only a PC was as easy to use as a TV, we'd have more people using it." Let me point out that a TV is the most brain-dead device ever invented and that it is commonly referred to as the "idiot box." TV is not a model the technology industry should emulate, ever!

No, we don't need to make PCs dumber. Of course, we need to continue to make using them more intuitive. But instead of trying to make PCs and the Internet stupid, the industry should be investing in the people who use our products and services, educating them so they can be savvy users.

Dumb Is Dumber
Through EarthLink, I have had the honor of helping over 1.3 million people connect to the Internet. In the process, I've learned two major things:

  1. Big surprise, people aren't stupid!
  2. Being there to help people is really important; you can even build a business around it.
People do want an easy experience, but they don't want the experience dumbed down. They want to learn, to understand how to get the most out of a technology, and if you give them a chance, they'll really get it.

Not everyone agrees. AOL's approach is to dumb down the online experience to the lowest common denominator. In the process, they diminish the value of their service. AOL is an amusement park on the Internet: The rides are mediocre, the lines are long, everything is sterilized and safe, and the place is surrounded by a high fence.

The EarthLink PURE Internet experience is completely different. Instead of dumbing down the service, we work to bring our members up to the level of the Internet. We send them bLink and other helpful guides, such as the EarthLink Guide for AOL Graduates.

So, instead of assuming people are dumb, we assume they're smart! Just not yet Internet savvy.

Everyone Can Learn this Stuff, Even My Mom!
Some people think that either they or others they know can never be good with technology. This is a fallacy.

Take my own mother: a poet and, until recently, one of the most technologically averse people I've ever met. To try to make her car more human, my mom put a carpeted slipcover over the steering wheel!

I sent my mom an EarthLink disk way back in 1995. She called me when she got it and asked me what she should do. She had just recently bought a computer. As a test of how easy EarthLink's service was, I told her to follow the instructions and call me if she had any trouble. Instead of a call, an hour later, I got an email from her. Not only was she able to figure it out, the Internet changed her life. She now spends 3–4 hours a day on the Internet emailing other poets and arranging readings. My mom, a Luddite, is now Internet savvy.

Contrary to industry belief, people aren't inherently stupid or technology-disabled. They actually desire knowledge, they want to understand how to use technology to better their lives, and then they want to get on their way.

The Human Touch
But no matter how streamlined and intuitive we make the interface, and no matter how much we invest in educating the people who use our service, when someone enters this amazing new medium, they inevitably have questions, and automated answers won't do. They need a human to help them.

Instead of seeing this as a cost, like many other companies, at EarthLink we saw it as an opportunity to get really close to our members. So today, 1,600 of our 2,300 employees just answer calls from EarthLink members who have questions.

Interestingly, as we've made our service better and more intuitive to use, the types of questions we receive have shifted. We get more and more non-technical questions, like, "OK, I'm on the Internet now. What do I do?" So we tell them.

There's a huge value in being the place people can call 24 hours a day to answer any sort of question they might have about the Internet. There's also huge value in helping people become Internet savvy. At EarthLink, we've built a business around it.