Prove How Smart You Are: Or, Are You Dumb Enough to Play?

There are a number of short mental exercises or games on Facebook which ask the casual smartphone user to pause in their scrolling through hundreds of posts about their friends in order to prove something about their intellect to the world. The games entrap their victim by suggesting we try to find a word that few others can guess, or to calculate the answer to a rather straightforward math problem. Some of these on-the-spot quizzes, like the newspaper crossword puzzles and Sudoku that they resemble, exist for reasons which are both easy to describe and obscure in purpose.

The games and quizzes vary greatly in difficulty, but generally don’t strain the intellect of those who click onward with a satisfying feeling of points earned and time well spent. Instead, they indicate a disturbing and weak-minded human predilection to self-aggrandizement and mistaken competitiveness. Rather than prove something about our ability to reason, the games, or rather our attraction to them, shows just how much we deny about how the mercantile interests behind the internet work. In fact, whether we play those games is the true intelligence test, and in those very real terms our IQ is dropping precipitously.

Like the number and word games they resemble, Facebook games and IQ tests draw many thousands of people who are interested in matching their wits against their peers. Likely this type of age-old muscle flexing lies deep in the human mind, for most people find such offers irresistible. Part of this no doubt lies in the teasing nature of the invitation and how the venue of Facebook allows the user to triumphantly declare their score after they’ve played. “Are you smart enough to see the word in this list?” Facebook asks us, even while it suggests that “most people can’t guess this number.” Not only can we prove our intellectual capacity in mere moments, we can also instantly compare our score with that of a hundred others. The chance to nudge our fragile ego—at the expense of our friends—a few undeserved notches higher, proves irresistible.

Of course, as most people suspect, these games are not what they appear. Even as we sniff the bait, we likely realize that intelligence is not so easily measured and, if it were, Facebook would hardly be the platform for the exercise. The tests are silly, our scores are meaningless, and as good postmodern netcitizens we tell ourselves we are engaging in the practice semi-ironically. Even while we squeal in delight at how quickly we found the hidden message in the game, we pay lip service to the meaningless nature of the measurement. We rarely step beyond the doorstep of that reasoning, however, and instead linger on the porch with our hands in our pockets waiting to be either praised for our astuteness or condemned for how we waste our time.

Most of us seem blissfully unaware that the game is not just corrupted by its facile nature, but it is also rigged. We momentarily forget that behind Facebook’s façade of social contribution is an entire mercantile enterprise for whom our traffic, our clicks and our views, are the new currency in an online economy. Traffic will never be diverted from other sites and games unless they can ensure viewer satisfaction and repeat business. If the games were too difficult for their target demographic, Facebook would lose players, and worse, a disgruntled few might even quit the site. Rather than being a measurement of our worth against some obscure crowdfunded yardstick, the games indicate, at best, our boredom, and at worst, our naivety. That we have clicked through windows and answered trite questions which imply their answer, means that the games and quizzes have already achieved their goal. Diverting our minds from exercises that might actually improve our standing in the world, the games are the alert spider watching for the bumbling fly. Their monetizable moments are worth more than our well-being, the sites proclaim, and we willingly, and in some cases, eagerly agree.

Interestingly, even if most Facebook users are aware of the paucity of content in the games—which they suspect by how easily they achieve their goal—the games still prove to be seductive. They answer some compelling urge that has as little to do with achievement as it does with intelligence. Like my sister who is a poor loser at board games, the true test lies in whether you can resist measuring your ego against that of another. The internet, like the coffee shops and canteens of Richard Linklater’s independent film Slacker is a venue for the casually occupied. The demographic the games is seeking is made up of those people whose jobs are so undemanding that they can spend all day playing games and judging their abilities in reference to those of their equally desultory peers. Caught by the many millions in the tuna nets of dead-end jobs, many of us need an affirmation that we hope the internet can supply even if it proves to be as fraudulent as the canning factory of a tuna boat.

For me the abstract nature of the numbers and high scores is too similar to my sister’s preoccupation with winning at board games to merely ignore. All of us were aware, even when we were young, that the monopoly money wasn’t real, but for her, faced with the very real shame of another person bettering her, even if it were at a game of chance, she would throw a tantrum. In her mind, perhaps, she was winning against the very solid enemy of her own insecurities, and maybe that inspired her to not only try her best, but also to reject the game that judged her so harshly.

This same mentality inspires the many respondents to teasing clickbait titles which invite the user to take an IQ test. Although such tests have been deeply problematized for their cultural bias, and that they merely measure how well someone performs on IQ tests, there is still a certain attraction to a numerical value for something we cannot accept as unmeasurable. Nestled deep in the brainstem of our self-esteem, we reserve a private place for tests which promise us a yardstick by which we may measure our worth. We neglect that we are surrounded by such yardsticks already, by how we treat our fellow human beings, how good a worker we are at our job, by our creative output, and our life’s accomplishments, and suddenly pin all of our hopes, ironically of course, on a number which will finally indicate our real standing in human society.

Like the quizzes and games we have already finished, the IQ tests provide click-throughs and page traffic for the people who have posted the tests, as well as quite lucrative market research. Every question we answer swells the huge databases which improve the corporate notion of our demographic. By contrast, for those of us who are tempted to take ten minutes to prove how much smarter we are than our friends on social media, we are actually making a decision that undermines that very goal. By being enticed by a claim that online tests can measure our IQ in ten minutes, we disprove every attempt to codify intelligence.

We flock to these proofs of our intelligence in the tens of thousands, and complete the rather silly tests and then post our IQ for our social media connections to validate. Sadly, this changes nothing about how intelligent we are. If taking a test could raise my intelligence, I would be first in line, but if all it promises is I can lord my ill-gotten number over my friends, and my intelligence, such as it is, remains the same, then I have no interest.

My time is no more valuable than that of anyone else, but I want an internet where sites entice me by their offerings rather than my insecurities, and where market research is paid for as a product rather than harvested like the shared inheritance of our forests. I want time to further my own intellectual goals rather than be tricked into giving it to modern carpetbaggers so that they may become wealthy as a result of my gullibility and self-doubt.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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