We’re losing grasp of how the internet works

This sounds crazy.

You have to think a good bit to even entertain this idea.

But I have a theory. I think most Americans today understand LESS about how the internet works than Americans did 10 years ago.

Of course, internet use is way up. We're online all day. Like 100X more than we were 10 years ago.

But social media and accessing networks (Facebook, in particular) mostly through an app—not a browser—has changed things, I think, more than we realize. It's thrown off our collective movement toward a better understanding of how the internet works. Of how, and what it means when, we connect with other people "online."


This is an old-ish piece—published at Quartz in February 2015. But I've thought about it a lot since I first read it back then.

The short version: In 2015 Indonesia, more people reported using Facebook than reported using the internet. This, of course, doesn't make sense.

But the study's methodology was consistent. The simple fact is, many Indonesians were introduced to the Facebook app before they ever used a "browser." They didn't understand which came first—which one gave rise to the other.

I think if we conducted this study today in the United States, worded slightly differently, we'd see similar results. Especially among kids.

I first used the internet in my pre-teens. I remember the phones lines not working as AOL "dialed up." I got my Facebook account in 2007, and watched it (and other networks) grow and evolve over time. I watched apps being developed, and saw users migrate from browser- to app-based network access. The evolution was fast, but it was sensible and fit in line with my very simplistic understanding of how the internet worked.

I remember reading about packets and protocol stacks and routers. I didn't quite know what they were, but I knew the general idea. And that's really all that matters for the average person.

But think about kids today. Young adults today. Do they know which came first? Do they know what "internet" really means?

This isn't just an interesting anecdote. I think there are some serious implications here. I wonder about how this affects the average American's understanding of how to work "with" the internet. What's possible. How to cross the divides between apps. How to understand, fundamentally, the way content spreads online.

For American kids today, the internet is just there. A given. Ubiquitous. That's why they're called "digital natives." But what is lost when an entire generation doesn't really understand how this all works in the first place?

I'm talking about the average user. Non-super-technical. Are kids set up to successfully work in a digital world when they really have no clue what the internet is or how it works?

Generally, I think an "app-first" understanding of internet access confuses new users. Apps are more siloed. Browser-based access is more flexible and fluid, and leaves the "pipes" exposed, showing the universe of what's possible to accomplish on the internet.

Here's a concrete example…

I run a market research firm. Most of what we do are online surveys. We design, program, field and analyze surveys in order to gather valuable consumer perception data for our clients.

To maximize the value of this data, we often append survey datasets with data our clients already possess about the survey respondents. Behavioral or transactional data gathered from, say, the order form they filled out when purchasing a client's product or service.

This can be done after survey data has been collected, given we know the identities of the respondents. But even better is to do it beforehand, such that the survey itself is customized to the respondent, based on what we know about them already.

We do this most often with URL tags. We'll assign "hidden values" to each respondent, based on some unique ID, and we'll tag their unique survey URL with information about them, such that the survey instrument itself can reference those tags as the respondent proceeds through the survey.

Now, respondents sometimes pick up on this. They see their name or email address or some other characteristic about them (gender, ethnicity, etc.) in the URL bar, and they'll delete it. Sometimes a clever respondent might even tweak the URL so that the survey instrument changes, or so they can proceed to pages they know might earn them some reward.

But in an app, this is almost impossible. There is no URL bar exposing the way we are connecting with respondents. That said, if someone who's not super-technical gets a survey in an app, and that survey appears to "know" something about them, they're just going to believe that, somehow, this app knows this or that about them. Perhaps it's pulling this data from elsewhere in their phone (possible). Perhaps it's pulling this data from a form they filled out on Yahoo! Answers 10 years ago (possible).

The bottom line is there's no "seeing" how this all works. There's no understanding what's going on. Further, there's no forthcoming way for curious minds to see "what's possible," such that they might see ways to make things better.

I remember the first time I saw my email address in a URL. I understood, immediately, that the link I'd just clicked was somehow unique to me, and that whatever I did using that URL was going to be tied back to my email address later on (I spent the next several days looking at the URL of every webpage I visited, just to make sure it wasn't "spying" on me).

But kids today don't have this experience as often. Especially if they're accessing networks mostly through a siloed app. The apps works more or less the same way—not with custom URLs, per se, but by "tagging" users to customize their experience.

Don't let my example throw this post off track. I'm writing here about how the average American's understanding of how the internet works has, I think, lagged behind growth in rates of internet use.

Maybe this is just a harmless observation. Maybe all of this just doesn't matter. But I think there's more to consider here—things that we could, for example, think more deeply about in order to build a wholesome, effective curriculum for teaching kids about the internet. Right now, I don't think we have a very intentional way of doing that.

If you're still not convinced there's anything here, then just ask yourself: Do I understand how the internet works? Am I familiar with the words packet, protocol stack, router? If not, start here (thanks Mozilla!). Take 15 minutes to quadruple your knowledge in this area.

I'm going to follow this up later with some thoughts on how I think a failure to comprehend how the internet really works affects the way we consume information on the web. Please message me with any thoughts on this topic, of what I've written above. Thanks!