Fact checker wanted!

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POSTED: February 29, 2012

The RSA2012 conference has just been held in San Francisco. Enrique Salem, the CEO of Symantec, gave a keynote speech. If we are to believe The Register he said

the average US 21-year-old has sent over 250,000 emails, text messages, and IM sessions, has spent over 14,000 hours online, and doesn’t accept information from a single source, but checks with his or her network instead. They use email rarely and have never known life without the internet. They even think differently, multitasking constantly in what he called “continuous partial attention.”

The fact that he appears to say that these 21-year-olds have sent over 250,000 emails, while also asserting that they “use email rarely” suggests that the journalist, Iain Thompson, may not be quoting him entirely accurately. Or that Enrique Salem is simply operating on too high a level to be worried about contradictions. Perhaps he is the Walt Whitman of technology.

Even allowing for the possibility that this contradiction may be the result of a misquote, or bad sub-editing, there are still serious problems with what Salem said. And these are more important. I shall now make an assumption: that even if this apparent contradiction results from a mistake in the hearing, writing or editing, then Iain Thompson still heard the numbers he quotes correctly. He did not mishear “about 374” as “over 250,000”, for example.

These are impressive figures, and the kind of numbers that can be used to advance the hypothesis that “digital natives”, a term Salem apparently used, have grown into beings we cannot imagine. These figures, and others like them, tend to sail past the listener, sounding alarming or exhilarating according to your position on these issues, but sounding like evidence.

Let’s look at them. Twenty-one years olds were born in 1990 or 1991. Whatever might be the case now it is unlikely that babies and toddler had internet access in 1990. The very first incarnation of the web was proposed in 1990, and Internet Explorer was not launched until 1995. Let us therefore say (very optimistically) that all these twenty-one year olds gained full internet access at the age of seven. There are approximately 5,110 days, or 122,640 hours, in fourteen years (not allowing for leap years). If these junior net users were online every day during this period for a total of 14,000 hours then they were online for an average of almost three hours a day. However, according to ComScore Data Mine the average American aged between 18 and 24 spent 32.2 hours online per month in 2010 – which works out at just over one hour per day. (The highest score was for 45-54 year olds who spent 39.3 hours online per month.)

Since Salem invokes a number almost three times higher than the average score in 2010, and we know that internet use has increased dramatically since 1995, we can deduce that his numbers are very likely nonsense. Impressive as they whizz by, but guaranteed to fall apart under the slightest scrutiny.

The same logic can be applied to the “250,000 emails, text messages, and IM sessions” he refers to. Here Salem has created a carefully mixed set which is almost impossible to take apart in quite the same way. “How many emails, as opposed to text messages?”, we might ask. However, lumping them all together as “online messaging”, Salem is claiming that twenty one year olds have sent an average of two online messages per hour every hour of their waking lives since the age of seven.

Think about this: Facebook launched on February 4, 2004 and Twitter launched in March, 2006. The age of social media and hourly status updates is not very old. These numbers are therefore utterly unbelievable, unless Salem can provide some kind of supporting evidence that, among other things, clearly demonstrates that most other surveys and research findings are either deeply flawed or being badly misinterpreted.

This is one way that urban myths are created, and fear and doubt is spread. Snake oil salesman makes up statistics to sell snake oil: exclusive. Or: journalist misunderstands man of integrity and probity, and mayhem ensues. Take your pick.