Why Using Control+F May Be the Most Important Computing Skill

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The response to our story about how few people know how to find words in documents has touched a nerve. There have been basically three reactions: 1) Whoa! That's crazy! 2) No one knows keyboard shortcuts and it's silly of you to expect that they do. 3) Wow, I did not know about this shortcut and it is awesome. All of which make sense in their own way.

Those, like the Wall Street Journal's Chris Shea, who think I live in a web worker bubble are correct. But not just about me. We *all* live in our own web skill bubbles. Browsing is an inherently private phenomenon and so tips and tricks are not so easily shared. That, in fact, is part of the problem. I've had the opportunity to watch print designers from different publications share a room and I've noticed that they all know slightly different sets of shortcuts for Adobe InDesign. When it comes to intermediate to advanced level navigation, everyone develops his or her own style.

But that doesn't mean that some styles aren't better than others. It's like driving or videogames -- we all have our own tics, but some people are legitimately better drivers than other people (See: NASCAR guys I googled).

And just as, say, accelerating out of turns might be a sign of a good driver, using Control+F (or equivalent) is a sign of a good searcher. It's not just that you know the skill, but what the skill says about your approach to search.

Russell's research backs me up on this. "[P]eople who DO know the Control-F trick are, on average, about 12% faster in all of their search behaviors," Russell told me. "That doesn't sound like much, but it's one of the biggest improvements we've *ever* seen. It's a huge improvement over people who don't know this small trick."

In a blog post, Russell called Control+F, "the single most important thing you can teach someone about search." And because I think search is the single most important function of our networked computers today (word processing being a close second), Control+F is the most important computing skill.

To go one step further: having Find in your cognitive toolkit allows you to think differently about search. When you know you can search instantly through a lot of text within a document, what you Google changes as much as how you search. In that way, using Control+F (or Find in the menu or Command+F on a Mac) is a generative skill in a way that even copy and paste are not.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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