What’s wrong with online reading (question mark or period, you decide)

This is the 500th post on this blog (for those of you who have been with me online for a while, you know I've had a few blogs and this is more like the 1500th post I've written, but it's an interesting enough milestone for this specific post, I think).

Settle in. If (big if, it turns out) you actually read this post for comprehension, it'll take a good half hour or so, starting with the 15 minutes you're about to spend clicking through this presentation from Randy Connolly at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

We've known for a while (through studies and our own behavior), that we scan, rather than really reading online. And it appears that the earliest eye-tracking studies we had are still relevant; essentially we look at the screen in an F pattern, reading the first few words of each line, and maybe the first and third or second and fourth paragraphs on a page.

So we don't read in-depth when we're looking at a screen, but isn't the web a great place for learning?

Not really, it turns out. We have such short attention spans that we just jump from hyperlink to hyperlink, scanning pages and not absorbing very much. Our retention is terrible.

With the glut of information available, you might also think that we'd get a wider diversity of viewpoints, but that's also incorrect. In social spaces, we tend to follow those who agree with us. In research, we search Google, and, if we don't like the first two results, most of us just change our search term.

This surprised me: Only one in six people can identify which search results are sponsored and which aren't, so there's a good chance that 80% of the people reading online are getting their information from advertisements.

Wow.

The other interesting thing in the presentation is the implication for newspapers (start at slide 76). People who read a hard copy (the physical newspaper) tend to read every section and read articles of all types. People who read online self-select their stories, and tend to read more entertainment and less information. Because it's entertaining, which is why we call it entertainment.

Newspaper design has changed a fair bit since the advent of the Internet, too – pages used to be full of dense, small type, with few photos and small-to-medium headlines. Now, pages feature lots of white space, huge headline type, and large, colorful images.

I can't help but think circulations are not only dipping because younger people aren't buying the paper, but also because people who have read newspapers for years are unimpressed with the website-ification of the printed product. [That's another discussion for another day.]

The biggest thing I learned from this presentation was this: We're born to scan. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are always on the lookout for danger or food. Reading requires a lot of focus, and we've only been able to spend that focus on reading since the advent of leisure time. On an evolutionary scale, that's not a very long time.

Bottom line: if you really want to comprehend something – and if you want your kids, students, friends, etc., to understand something better – give them a book, or write them a letter longhand.

Or make evolution move faster. Just sayin'.

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