posted by Thom Holwerda on Wed 17th Feb 2010 12:29 UTC
IconRecently, a story about people mistaking a news story for the Facebook login page has received considerable media attention. It's currently being seen by many as justification for the recent trend in locking people out of their computers for their own protection - but anyone with even basic mathematical skills and a calculator should come to the conclusion that this story has been blown way out of proportion.

The story goes like this. ReadWriteWeb published a news story February 10 about a partnership between Facebook and AOL wherein users' Facebook friends can be integrated into AOL Messenger. The story itself isn't relevant here - what is relevant is what happened to this story's comment section: it was soon flooded with people in a confused state, believing this was the new Facebook login page. They were displeased by the "new design", and wanted the old Facebook back.

What happened here is that the news story in question became the top hit for the Google query "Facebook login". It's no secret that many people treat the Google search field as if it were their browser's location field; this may seem stupid, but it's actually quite clever, since Google is far more forgiving when it comes to for example spelling mistakes than the real location field.

So, people querying Google for "Facebook login", hoping to end up on the correct page, were now redirected towards the ReadWriteWeb story, and they were displeased. The comments section soon started to fill up with people complaining that they couldn't get on Facebook, that they disliked the new login page, that they wanted the old Facebook back, and so on.

The internet soon jumped on this: "users are stupid, and they need to be protected from themselves", or "developers are not catering to these users who shouldn't have to deal with these confusing text fields", and so on, and so forth. A lot of people are also using this story as justification for the recent trend in computing to lock people out of their own computers, because they are incapable of handling them.

Many took it even further, rambling on with starry eyes about how metaphors in computing today are too complicated for "normal" people. You could fill at least twenty swimming pools with the amount of arrogance dribbling out of the corners of the collective blogosphere's mouth.

Generally weary of internet fads, I decided to perform some simple calculations. Bear in mind that these are not about the specific numbers themselves - I am forced to make a number of assumptions - but more about illustrating how this whole thing has been blown way out of proportion.

As of writing, there are 1631 comments on the ReadWriteWeb story, and Facebook has "more than" 400 million users. Even if we were to assume that each and every one of those comments represents a single Facebook user complaining about the login thing, we're only talking about 0.0004% of Facebook users. That's negligible.

Of course, you have to take into account that not everyone who ended up on the ReadWriteWeb story hoping to find Facebook will actually leave a comment, so you have to take that into account. If you take a very, very conservative estimate, i.e., only 1% of people expecting to see Facebook left a comment, then we are talking about 163100 confused users, or 0.04% of Facebook's total user base.

That's obviously a lot more than 0.04%, but it's still not a whole lot, and certainly not worth the incredible amount of attention it received - especially taking into account the rather generous assumptions made (each comment represented an individual confused user, only 1% left a comment).

The reason I'm trying to point this out is that I see a lot of people using this story as justification for the dumbing down of computers, that people are incapable of using computers. These people argue that computers need to be dumbed down, that users need to be locked out of their machines (by law if necessary) to protect them from their own stupidity.

I'm from a different mindset. I'm from the mindset that computers are not too complicated, but that geeks simply dislike seeing people use computers differently from how they do it, or from how they are "supposed to be used". Take the desktop icon thing: I've heard many a geek proclaim his disdain for users storing loads of crap on their desktops. I'm always left wondering - why do you care? If people get around in that disorganised mess, then what's it to you? It's not your computer, is it?

A good computer is a computer built to degrade gracefully, and is built to mitigate. With "degrade gracefully" I mean that both advanced and experienced users as well as novice users should be able to find their way around a system without one hindering the other. Advanced functionality should not get in the way of novice users, and provisions for novice users should not hinder advanced users. With mitigation I mean that users' actions - advanced or no - should never damage, harm, or in any other way negatively affect the system, the user, or his data.

Of course, that's hard, but hey, that's the challenge! Aren't we geeks supposed to be the smart ones?

Removing advanced functionality or dumbing systems down is not proper usability - it's a cop-out. It's the easy way out. It doesn't take an IQ of 180 to find out that removing functionality makes a system easier to use. Proper usability is about presenting functionality in such a way that people can get to the functionality they want with as little effort as possible; it's easy to present 10 functions in a usable way - at least, when compared to presenting 100 functions in a usable way.

Again - that's hard, but hey, that's the challenge! Aren't we geeks supposed to be the smart ones?

People are perfectly well capable of handling today's computers. Sure, they may not always go about it the same way we geeks do, or they might do it in ways that seem cumbersome to us - but who are we to judge? Is it up to us to tell people how they are supposed to use their computers? Are we really that full of ourselves? Just let people use computers in whatever way they damn well please, and give them some credit for once.

Those few people confused by the ReadWriteWeb page? Heck, no amount of dumbing down is going to help them. They are a very small minority, and claiming that the bulk of non-geeks are like that is arrogant, at best.

One final note: your personal anecdotes about the people you help with their computers are irrelevant. A doctor only sees sick people, but that doesn't mean everybody in the world is sick. I wish geeks would stop using these stupid anecdotes as proof that non-geeks are stupid.

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