No one likes being called stupid, particularly by hoaxers masquerading as a Canadian psychometric testing company. Users of Internet Explorer (IE) were up in arms this week over the contents of a widely reported study which indicated that they performed worse in IQ tests than users of other web browsers.
Doing such a study would be simple enough; offer website visitors a free test, note the results along with the browser being used, then release the results to allow those with higher IQs to revel in their smugness.
And revel they did, as users of niche browsers such as Opera and Camino celebrated their average score of over 120, while IE users said "hang on a minute" as they saw themselves languish below the 100 mark. Those battling with IE6 scored a shade over 80, which would have failed them entry to the US Military if the results were real. But they weren't.
The story throws up a couple of issues: firstly our collective gullibility in accepting interesting but fictitious data, but also the reasons why the hoax was perpetrated in the first place. There's no love lost between the tech-savvy public and Microsoft's market-leading web browser, which continues to suffer from negative publicity – this story being the latest example.
Microsoft has urged the public to upgrade if they're still using the elderly, insecure IE6, but there are still 190 million users in China, many of whom are using computers running pirated software that they're worried about auto-updating or unable to.
And in the West, thousands of people work for organisations whose systems depend entirely on IE6, with hopes of an upgrade hamstrung by the overwhelming cost of doing so. (Take a bow the NHS, still the most notable offender in the UK.) So using an obsolete and laughably insecure browser doesn't necessarily make you stupid. It might not be your fault. Over recent years, Microsoft has seen its browser market share slowly deflate, to a point where it's only slightly ahead of its competitors. To be fair, the newest incarnation of Internet Explorer – version 9 – is a decent bit of software that's been adjudged the best at blocking malicious URLs. But Google Chrome, thanks to a huge advertising splurge, is now the second most popular browser in the UK, and the idea of switching browsers because that's what smart people do may be an attractive one. But don't download Opera or Camino purely because you fancy yourself as a Mensa candidate. The study was a hoax, remember.
Some rather more serious research has emerged from the Mitre Corporation, which was presented last week at the Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing in Scotland.
Computers were demonstrated to be able to make excellent guesses as to the gender of the author of a set of tweets, based entirely on the words and punctuation within them. Sociolinguistic studies have established in the past that women laugh more than men, and so it is online; emoticons, exclamation marks, hahas, yays and omgs have been established as indicative of female authorship, while maleness is revealed by more humdrum words like "http" and "google".
The new social network Google+ was hammered at launch for forcing its users to reveal their gender – information which many people felt unwilling to reveal for many reasons, including that ever-hovering nuisance of targeted marketing. But if Mitre's study is correct, social media channels soon won't need to ask, as they'll be able to correctly guess your gender 75 per cent of the time in any case. May as well sit back and await the arrival of all those advertisements for floral cushion covers. Or tungsten drill bits, depending.Reuse content