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November 1, 2017

What Does the Digital Flynn Effect Mean for Social Media Marketers?

The Flynn effect refers to the sustained improvement in IQ among people from all over the world from the 1930s onwards. What’s the Digital Flynn effect then?

Well, it’s a pretty smart term to describe the seemingly similar sustainable improvement in digitally expressed intelligence among people.

Social Media and Language Skills – A Complex Relationship

Social media dominates the lives of both adults and children as a medium of communication.

The use of cute acronyms, emoticons and grammar-insensitive phrases is seen by some as a recipe for disaster in terms of evolution of language skills.

But a study done by an economist in Russia shows that such concerns may possibly be unwarranted. Let us look at some details of the study and what it means for you.

Length Of Messages Increases Over Time

The study has been done by Ivan Smirnov from the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow during the years 2008 through 2016.

He has studied how the complexity of messages exchanged over social media has changed over time. He reports that the complexity of messages has increased over time, with length being taken as a proxy for complexity.

How has the complexity of messages increased over time and with age?

Smirnov started with a dataset composed of messages exchanged online between 2008 and 2016 by nearly one million people in St. Petersburg. These messages had been posted to a Russian site called VK, similar to Facebook. The dataset also consists of the ages of the people who posted, along with information about the schools in which they studied.

Using average word length to be representative of message complexity, Smirnov has analyzed the variations in data and message complexity. He has also analyzed the relationship between message complexity and educational attainment, as defined by school affiliation.

Smirnov reports that messages get more complex as people age through their 20s. Message complexity is seen to be fairly stable through the 30s and again starts increasing from the early 40s.

It is also seen that more complex messages are written by people with higher levels of educational achievement. Overall Smirnov finds that post complexity is always increasing and the increase cannot be explained only by aging. He reports that 15-year olds in 2016 were seen to write more complicated posts when compared to users of all ages in the year 2008.

Digital Flynn Effect And Social Media Marketing

Consider the role social media plays in SEO; marketers have a lot of insight to take away from the study. If you are a marketer, you need to be cautious about the assumptions you make regarding the behaviour of your target audience. If there is no real demonstrated drop in IQ owing to social media usage, it would affect many aspects of your social media marketing related activities. Starting from the way you word your messages to the kind of actual content you are putting out, all aspects of social media marketing would be impacted by the Digital Flynn effect. Any kind of dumbing down or simplification of messaging may not be in order after all.

Important Takeaways

There are a few important takeaways from the Digital Flynn effect.

As a digital marketer, you need to understand that the use of social media may not be having a dumbing down effect as widely feared. Social media may be operating as a channel just like any other communication channel with increasing sophistication of messaging as time goes by.

The direct relation between message sophistication and age can mean that the learning and development process is happening unhindered. Also, given the fact that people with higher educational attainment are writing more complex messages, it could very well mean that the process of education is also happening in a manner unhindered by social media usage.

  • Don’t back down from the use of complex thoughts and verbiage in your social media posts – Gen Xers and Millennials will endorse such content.
  • Oversimplified messages don’t have any proven benefit to endow on your posts, so be expressive.
  • Go ahead; post a little snippet about Ivan Smirnov’s study on your social brand to spread some awareness.
  • Emoticons, abbreviations, experimental grammar – it’s all on, as long as you keep it easy to comprehend.

Final Thoughts

The Digital Flynn is as scientific a license as you can get for your fancy social media posts. Agreed, this effect needs to be supported by more studies and data. However, as it stands, it provides some support to the position that social media may not be hindering the development of language related skills.


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Founder and CEO of Over The Top SEO. He holds broad expertise in the areas of SEO, Social Media, Digital Marketing, B2B, B2C Brand Development and online lead generation.

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