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'.

[ stability ] + [ passion ]

I'm not one for resolutions. Well, I was last year and year before, but it turns out I didn't look back on them at all, make the goals and track them. So I'm looking at this young calendar year, and figuring out what it's going to be.

2010 was a year of upheaval – and let's make it clear that upheaval isn't all bad. I have found a life partner with whom I share a mutual love, support and respect I've never known. For the first time in my life, I've landed in a job I love at a company whose product I am 100% behind. And for the first time since I moved from my parents' house, I'm in a residence I'm not likely to be leaving anytime soon. So 2011 is going to be a year of stability.

It's also going to be a year of passions renewed.

Baseball memorabilia

Roger Clemens rookie cardMy dad and I were voracious baseball memorabilia collectors when I was a kid. We would go to card shows at least monthly, I would trade cards with the neighborhood kids, and we were involved in a Strat-O-Matic league.

My parents have started their transition to retirement (it'll be a several-year process, likely), and that includes leaving behind my childhood home. I'm inheriting the collection of cards and publications, and I've started doing some inventory. The publications start in the 1950s (with a couple sporadically before then) and continue into the 2000s; while I haven't seen all the cards yet, they appear to end right around 1990, which is when I entered high school.

So I'm figuring out what's what, and I'm picking that collection back up. I'll fill any holes in the sets, and start looking at what's up in the community these days (I see Donruss has been bought and Fleer is out of business, but that was a quick couple of minutes of not-quite-research).

Reading

I've always been a reader, but here it is January 5, and I've started my third book of the year. I've finished Kaaron Warren's Slights and read Elmore Leonard's Riding the Rap, and I've started Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!

I think there will be some re-reading this year, too – Carlos Ruis Zafon's Shadow of the Wind is on my read-again-soon list, and since I'm already reading a dystopic novel (the Harrison), I'm likely to want to re-read any or all of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.

Exercise

I know exercise, fitness and weight loss are on a lot of people's lists. But I'm working at a gym (which means I really have no excuse not to go), I'm already in the midst of some personal training, and on Saturday, I start an intensive weight loss competition.

I'll still be playing tennis and, as spring and summer approach, softball; I'm just hoping to be in better shape.

I'm also planning to do more volunteer work, more fundraising, and continue to be active in the community. By the way, in case you were wondering, these are the organizations I supported in 2010, in case you're looking for causes this year:

Central New York Community Foundation
WRVO
40 Below
Syracuse First
Alchemical Nursery
St. Baldrick's
St. Jude

Photo Credits:
• 1985 Topps Roger Clemens baseball card by Tommy Duchniki on Flickr
• Books by Phing on Flickr
• Weights by rick on Flickr