Is the internet making you more knowledgeable?

A few months back, a friend of mine from France was visiting me in North Carolina. We organized a visit to the state fair, which is an “interesting” experience in its own right. While there, we conjured up a little spur of the moment fun poll and decided to ask the local population some trivia about France.

We contemplated asking different types of questions – such as what countries border France and when did the French revolution begin – but then opted to keep things as basic as possible. We asked the following questions: what is capital of France and what is its official language. We asked 10 random people and only five could answer both questions correctly. Interestingly, it was the older population that fared better.

Now of course I realize this isn’t the most academic and thorough study – at some point I would like to do a more comprehensive analysis of this. But I think this fun little poll begs an interesting question: why is that the older generation seems to be more versed on basic global facts than the younger generation, even though it is the younger generation which is more comfortable using technology and thus can more easily access information from around the world?

The reality is that the internet has opened up the world to us. We can read newspapers from all corners of the planet, watch newscasts from different countries, look up any random fact on Wikipedia and broaden our knowledge of particular subjects by asking Google, among other ways of discovering the world. Yet National Geographic global literacy survey results from a few years back reveal disconcerting findings, particularly in the United States.

Unfortunately, while I think the internet – and social media particularly – offer us so much opportunity to learn, it also can trap us into wasting our time.

Twitter is a wealth of knowledge, but looking at the top 10 people with the most followers offers some insights on where people are spending their time. The top 10 are :

1.       Lady Gaga – 22,142,257 followers
2.       Justin Bieber – 19,437,920 followers
3.       Katy Perry – 17,124,595 followers
4.       Rihanna – 16,179,072 followers
5.       Shakira – 15,268,581 followers
6.       Britney Spears – 15,051,576 followers
7.       Kim Kardashian – 14,299,423 followers
8.       Barack Obama – 13,701,521 followers
9.       Taylor Swift – 12,373,202 followers
10.     Selena Gomez – 11,234,956 followers

How much positive and beneficial learning is really gleaned from this group above? The only figure you could relatively consider as a thought leader from this list would be Barack Obama, and that in itself is debatable to many.

Facebook doesn’t offer much of a better representation of the public’s interest beyond the superficial based on the individuals / brands with the most fans.

Consider the amount of time people are wasting on porn. According to Tech Addiction, 12% of the web sites on the internet are pornographic, while 40 million Americans are regular visitors to porn sites. Among other troubling aspects of these figures, it is safe to say that not much learning takes place on these sites.

In addition to how people use the internet to focus on the trivial, there are also numerous studies out there that talk about how the internet affects individuals negatively – basically turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.

Yet for all of these studies, and despite the ways people can waste time online, I believe that the internet can make us smarter – if we are deliberate about it. Instead of getting caught in the Facebook quagmire of stalking out others’ photos, think about how much potential there is for further knowledge and growth if that time is spent looking at sites such as Academic Earth, iTunes U, Fora TV and Ted Talks.

Rather than filling their minds with the latest gossip from celebrity lane on Twitter, what if students instead followed successful thought leaders like Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus and other of the same ilk? Surely these types of individuals provide more positive inspiration and creativity than discovering more about Kim Kardashian’s dating life.

For working professionals, industry insights rest at your fingertips, as does a plethora of information about your competitors. Time is precious for most everyone. The competition is fierce. What better way to surge ahead of competitors than by re-evaluating time spent online.

For students, professionals and those in between, a personal online learning plan can go a long way towards re-aligning priorities. Here are some questions to think about in coming up with this plan:

– What are my personal development goals for the near future?
– How much time am I spending online and how aligned is this activity to my personal goal mentioned above? You may want to keep a diary and log your time on different types of sites.
– What sites could I be tapping into as sources of learning and knowledge which I am not doing already?
– What sites could I eliminate as part of my regular online activity?
– What thought leaders could I be following who would provide me with new perspectives? What individuals should I unfollow / unfriend as they are wasting my time?

We have strategies and plans for many aspects of our lives. A personal online learning strategy is one of the most efficient and effective ways of getting ahead.

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About Kevin Anselmo

Kevin Anselmo is the Founder and Principal of Experiential Communications, a consultancy focused on education. He helps brands within academia - whether individual or corporate - communicate with stakeholders. He also teaches communications and public relations workshops to different individuals and groups and just launched an online media training program for academics. Previously, Kevin was Director of Public Relations for Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and prior to that managed the media relations for IMD Business School in Switzerland. In addition, he was an adjunct communications professor at Nyack College in New York. Currently based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Kevin lived and worked in Switzerland for eight years and in Germany for two years. He has led public relations initiatives in various countries around the world.
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