Considering my recent post You Won't Read This
on user reading habits online, here comes a pertinent article, How we read online.
(or, as they headline it: Lazy Bastards
Nielsen champions the idea of information foraging. Humans are informavores. On the Internet, we hunt for facts.
Which, basically means we don't stick around long if the writer can't keep your attention. They just made a cute new word, as we are wont to do, using previous, more physical science vocabulary (which could send me on a whole other question-answer discussion on where our words come from, and why - but I won't). It is not news, this inattention we have, but it is interesting. Reading on:
Also, I'm probably forcing you to scroll at this point. Losing some incredible percentage of readers. Bye. Have fun on Facebook..
.. What about the physical process of reading on a screen? How does that compare to paper?
When you look at early research, it's fascinating to see that even in the days of green phosphorus monitors, studies found that there wasn't a huge difference in speed and comprehension between reading on-screen and reading on paper. Paper was the clear winner only when test subjects were asked to skim the text.
So our content is more cluttered and busy now, with banner ads and side columns and AdWords..
Nielsen holds that on-screen reading is 25 percent slower than reading on paper.
Okay, so we get to the point. The computer screen - or at least the modern one that has a browser open with web content on it - is a worse
tool for reading. Paper is good, screens baaaad. Or, at the very least, the designs of modern webpages may just be horrible in their own right.
First, we all love paper. But, let's be honest. Modern print media is, almost by definition, cluttered and disorienting. Newspapers, magazines.. they're all filled we progressively small globs of content surrounded by more flash. Nevertheless, ads have been in newspaper probably since there were newspapers. This is nothing new.
Yes, you must scroll on a webpage and the chance of loosing a reader due to that hassle may be great. But think about how many times you've gotten to the end of a front page article, where it said "turn to page A4" and you just didn't think it was worth it. Think about flipping through a Maxim magazine (shudder).. how much attention do you have then?
So is Maxim's design a product of the burgeoning online empire of fast-fast-go-go, or is it more a result of a general trend in culture and fashion (not of the clothing variety, per se). An interesting question, for sure, but who can say one way or another? In either case, this is a form of paper
content that probably breeds poor comprehension and difficulty in securing the reader for an entire article, just like in the online world.
So what's really different here? Well, it's obvious. When you are reading the New York Times
, you're reading the New York Times
. You don't have a pile of 10 newspapers in front of you, randomly reading articles from each. When you buy the New York Times, the New York Times owns
you for the duration. If your eyes wander, if you don't finish the end of an article, that's okay.. because what you're going to next is still
the New York Times. In it's hay day, when it was the
formative technology for disseminating information, ad revenue was a boon.
In the online world of content, if someone is skipping the end of your article (and possibly skipping an ad click or two) they are leaving
and they are not
coming back. This makes generating ad revenue that much more difficult.
In the end, this is not really any different than the paper situation, if you get away from the capitalist dogma - we all know money weaves this mighty web. The practical side of things is really closer than it would appear: maxim is a real drag to read, as is the subtle tediousness of surfing the web: the constant need to skim due to the immense amount of crap
out there. The only thing different is that you know all
of maxim is crap, whereas you have a hope that you might glean a few gems off the web every day. The comprehension and readability side of things is really quite similar. I would even argue that a mouse and keyboard is more pleasant and low impact than trying to flip the pages of a newspaper.
Regardless, the studies show a difference, so there is advice for the online editor:
Here's [Nielsen's] advice in a column titled "Long vs. Short Articles as Content Strategy": "A good editor should be able to cut 40 percent of the word count while removing only 30 percent of an article's value. After all, the cuts should target the least valuable information."
Yet I can hardly imagine an editor in print media ever thinking this was a bad idea, either. Even Ben Franklin once wrote in a letter, "Sorry for the length of this letter, I didn't have time for a short one."
If you want to beat the Internet, you're not going to do it by blogging (since even OK thinkers occasionally write a great blog post) but by offering a comprehensive take on a subject (thus saving the reader time from searching many sites) and supplying original thinking (offering trusted insight that cannot be easily duplicated by the nonexpert).
I think this is great advice, and exactly my approach to this site in recent years. I may not always be comprehensive, but I try to gather related information, and sprinkle it with some original (hopefully worthwhile) commentary.
And one last point before I shut up:
We'll do more and more reading on screens, but they won't replace paper — never mind what your friend with a Kindle tells you. Rather, paper seems to be the new Prozac. A balm for the distracted mind. It's contained, offline, tactile. William Powers writes about this elegantly in his essay "Hamlet's BlackBerry: Why Paper Is Eternal." He describes the white stuff as "a still point, an anchor for the consciousness."
It's a nice thought, but this is - cue another overarching prediction - probably not true. While I don't think paper will fully disappear from society I do suspect it will dwindle and, at some point, dwindle rapidly. I make this prediction not based on environmental concerns or resource limitations, but just on the pure technology of things. Paper just won't be as convenient.
But before I get any lash-outs from you paper lovers out there, don't get me wrong. I love paper too.. but there are numerous things that I and many people love that have gone by the wayside. Such is the march of progress.On the off chance the author of "How we read online" ends up at this post some day, I'd like to assure him: I read the whole article, to the very last word.