Is the Internet Making Us Dumber?: Prognosis Negative

I recently jumped back into wordpress after a hiatus and discovered some surprising new features. Namely, the readability analysis.  This addition to the Yoast plugin crawls your content for sentence structure and essentially prompts you, via realtime feedback in the editor panel, how to improve your post’s readability. (The current readability for this post thus far states, “needs improvement” and is ranked: frowny face): 

Suggestions offered include:

What’s Going on Here?

According to the plugin’s description page, “readability” is largely, if not entirely determined by google’s rankability. Short sentence structures, lots of headings, bullet points, top ten lists, and content snippets of 160 characters or less are it seems, the new Hemingway.

Google has become much better at predicting what people want to read. The algorithm of Google is mimicking a human. It tries to read texts like a human being. As Google becomes more capable of understanding and scanning texts in a human-like way, the demands on the readability of texts also rise.

Google will, increasingly, assess the topic of a text the way humans assess the topic of a text. People scan through texts, read subheadings and the first sentences of paragraphs. People look for transition words in order to quickly abstract what the main conclusion of an article will be. All the things humans do while reading a text, are things Google will do. That means that the structure of your text, the way you write your paragraphs, will become increasingly important. Core sentences (the first sentence of every paragraph) will gain importance.

Translation: We’re fucked.

What does this mean?

Alliteration = obliteration. Effectively, it means that writing as an art form will die online. Or at least fall subject to a sort of SEO induced darwinism.  Survival of the simplest, in this case.

What it means to me is slightly more troubling. I understand that most of us don’t go online to read Ernest Hemingway. We go online to access information. And information is best consumed when it’s quick and easy. So, it makes sense that SEO would organically select for this type of content. The problem as I see it, comes when we call and conceive of this as “good readability.”

When you rely on an algorithm to curate writing:

Case & Point:




  1. John Homs says:

    The worst is predictive typing. Now, not only do I need to articulate my thoughts into writing, I have to, at the same time, decide if I like or dislike what Google “thinks” I want to say. Twice the work, not to mention the complete disruption of my train of thought. Only in the USA where we are are a society completely obsessed with PRODUCTIVITY, could all these horrible ideas be so easily justified.

    1. Ben says:

      I have to admit, it is quite strange (and not pleasant) to have sentence structures critiqued as writing is forming on the page. Especially when those suggestions are prompting you to essentially dumb down and simplify the manner in which you choose to deliver your message.

      1. John says:

        I think you said it perfectly: Dumb Down. That’s the nagging pain point. You can’t help but keep thinking that “I am smarter than this” as you go along writing. To protect my sanity, I need to find out how to turn if off!

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