I've observed that consuming certain kinds of media make me smarter and other kinds of media makes me dumber.

Makes me dumber:

  • Videogames
  • YouTube
  • News

Makes me smarter:

  • Books
  • Audiobooks
  • Direct messaging apps

By "smarter" I mean it holistically causes me to behave in a way that increases my overall rate of learning and quality of life. By "dumber" I mean the opposite.

For a long time I rejected this conclusion. Surely playing Kerbal Space Program must be more educational than reading Yu-gi-oh! manga. Nope. Yu-gi-oh! beats it by a long shot. I ran a long series of subjective personal experiments on a variety of timescales over many years. They all confirmed this theory[1]. The medium overpowers the message.

What I am watching on TV is irrelevant compared against the fact that I am watching TV.

I can even plot different mediums on a scale from "makes me dumber" to "makes me smarter" and it use to infer why different mediums have the effect they do.

  • Makes Me Dumber
  • [BAD & DANGEROUS] Videogames
  • [BAD & DANGEROUS] Media feeds
  • [BAD & DANGEROUS] YouTube
  • [BAD & ADDICTIVE] News
  • [BAD] Stack Exchange
  • [BAD] Web surfing
  • Blogs
  • Movies
  • Webcomics
  • Comic books (fiction)
  • [OKAY] Books (fiction)
  • [OKAY] Podcasts
  • [OKAY] Direct messaging (native language)
  • [GOOD] Audiobooks (nonfiction)
  • [GOOD] Books (nonfiction)
  • [GOOD] Direct messaging (foreign language)
  • [GOOD] Blogging
  • [GOOD] Books (textbooks)
  • [GOOD] Writing software
  • [VERY GOOD] Making videos
  • [VERY GOOD] Drawing comics
  • [VERY GOOD] Spaced Repetition Software
  • Makes Me Smarter

There is a symmetry to this sorting. Playing videogames is near the top but writing software is near the bottom. Watching YouTube is near the top but making YouTube videos is near the bottom. The smarter creating a certain kind of media makes me the dumber consuming it does.

In fact, this whole list is just sorted by difficulty. The harder a medium is to consume (or create, as applicable) the smarter it makes me. The difficulty of consuming a medium is dominated by the medium itself, not its content.

That feels wrong. Intuitively, it makes sense that certain mediums should facilitate better content and that's why they're educational. Nope. For me, it's the medium itself.

  1. There are handful of exceptions. In particular, downloading certain kinds of videos from YouTube and watching them locally can make me smarter. But even this illustrates the power of the medium. Watching YouTube in a web browser has a different effect on me than downloading those exact same videos and watching them with mplayer. ↩︎

New Comment
11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:52 AM

I find myself agreeing if you replace "makes me dumber/smarter" with "shortens/lengthens my attention span".

It does that too.

This feels correct.

Years ago (before I found LW) I was reading local websites, mostly political debates. Later I switched to Reddit. There I gradually replaced less interesting groups with more interesting ones. Then I replaced the entire thing with Hacker News. -- This all felt like progress from low quality to high quality. But when I take a step back, I see that I actually keep doing the same thing: reading the web. As opposed to, you know, actually doing something.

(More sadly, I realize that reading LW and SSC is also the more of the same.)

There is a symmetry to this sorting. (...) The smarter creating a certain kind of media makes me the dumber consuming it does.

I imagine that writing textbooks or creating online courses would be a minor exception to this rule. That is, creating a good online course is probably better than creating a video game, but studying an online course is also better than playing a video game.

But the important lesson is what you want to replace the category instead of replacing your place within the category. The goal is not to find a better website to read, but to replace reading websites with something better.

Reading Less Wrong might be the same but writing LW posts isn't. On certain kinds of websites you don't have to replace the website itself as long as you flip around the direction content flows. What's SSC?

Good catch with the the online course exception. I missed it because I don't personally use online courses. I think writing any sort of book is an exception to the rule too, since both reading and writing books make you smarter.


One thing here that seems important to note is what each medium does to your attention and what sort of cognitive work it facilitates:

To borrow a few items from your list:

  • Videogames: literally a Skinner box that gives you reinforcement to keep doing the thing.
  • Web surfing / news feeds / blogs / movies: makes you a passive consumer of the content.
  • Direct messaging: requires you to spend time thinking about your response.
  • Writing software / making videos / drawing comics: puts you in a position to think about the message you want to convey, teaching to others requires you to bridge inferential gaps, look at your models.
  • Spaced repetition: literally designed to make you remember stuff.

Firstly, some topics are just easier if they can be presented the right format. Geometry will be easier in a format that allows diagrams, compared to an audiobook. Secondly, formats, like websites are often Schelling points, not many serious scientists publish their work as a series of gifs on twitter. Most scientists know this, and so don't look for a series of gifs on twitter. Then there are affordances, a video of a maths lecture on Youtube, (there are quite a few uni lectures that have been filmed and put on Youtube) might be informative, but have links to lolcats all down the side. If the medium distracts you, you will learn less.

There is also a sense of making use of the medium. Take the medium of videogame. In principle a video game can display an arbitrary pattern of pixels on a screen. However, suppose that the pattern of pixels most suited to learning some topic looks like pages of text. There is no point making a videogame, just to reimplement a document reader in it. So all the people trying to make serious learning resources use text documents. Any video game that is made is full of interactive widgets that aren't that useful for learning, and is usually targeted at those with too little attention span to read much text.

A lot of the time, I would recommend going for any format in which the information you want is explained by someone who knows the subject and is good at teaching. If the subject is obscure, go for anywhere that you can find the info at all. If distraction is a big problem for you, download the Youtube videos that you intend to watch, unplug your router and then watch them.

In my experience, the content can make a huge difference. For example videogames like Factorio or Minecraft almost feel like writing software to me. Because they require creativity and problem solving skills, just like coding.

There are also huge differences in YouTube videos. Some are very informative and thought-provoking. Watching them does certainly not make me "dumber".

I also don't understand why you distinguish between Books (fiction) and Books (nonfiction). Isn't that the same medium but with different content?

You make a good point about YouTube. In my personal experience, even educational YouTube tends to make me dumber, holistically. The reasons for this are complicated and I might write a topic on the subject specifically.

"Books (fiction)" could arguably go in the "[GOOD]" category. When I read fiction I tend to read pulp sci-fi. If I read Jane Austin then "Books (fiction)" would solidly fall into the "[GOOD]" category. Very good sci-fi like "Ready Player One" and "The Martian" easily falls into the "[GOOD]" does too, but books like this are few and far between.

Stack Exchange

Were you using it to ask questions, or answering questions on it?

[BAD] Web surfing

Is this all blog engagement aside from writing posts, or is there a difference like:

reading a blog < commenting on a blog < discussing things in the comments section < writing a blog < writing a blog and reading comments/getting feedback and improving (as opposed to just getting better with practicing writing, but without feedback)

I mostly read questions on Stack Exchange. Answering questions falls into the [OKAY] category for me and asking questions rates the [GOOD] category. In practice, the more time I spend on Stack Exchange, the more I fall into bad habits interacting with it.

I'm with you all the way on blogs. Reading blogs is neutral. Writing blogs is in the [GOOD] category. I'm not sure yet where commenting on blogs goes. That may depend on the medium.