Read, Don’t Run

Read dont scan

Read don't scan

When Jakob Nielsen, a Web researcher, tested 232 people for how they read pages on screens, a curious disposition emerged. (…) It looks like a capital letter F. At the top, users read all the way across, but as they proceed their descent quickens and horizontal sight contracts, with a slowdown around the middle of the page. Near the bottom, eyes move almost vertically, the lower-right corner of the page largely ignored. It happens quickly, too. “F for fast,” Nielsen wrote in a column. “That’s how users read your precious content.”

We’ve suspected it for some time now. Scientific study only confirms the truth that every blogger has known for some time. Web content does not sell the same way as printed content does. Net “readers” (the term itself is ill-fitting since they browse or scan) do not have time for bulk prose. “Online literacy” turns out to be an oxymoron and this article also shows that US schools are reporting no literacy progress thanks to the introduction of IT. People scan, they don’t read, they look for kernels of information and form their own ideas of what they read. The ripple effect in education is as ginormous as a Tsunami and a Hurricane rolled into one. New technologies are challenging certain standards of education and cultural paradigms. The text message threatens the foundations of spelling, the net page shakes the very basis of what reading is about.

What we are seeing is a strange flattening of the act of reading. It equates handheld screens with Madame Bovary, as if they made the same cognitive demands and inculcated the same habits of attention. It casts peeking at a text message and plowing through Middlemarch as subsets of one general activity. And it treats those quick bursts of words and icons as fully sufficient to sustain the reading culture. The long book may go, Price concluded, but reading will carry on just as it did before: “The file, the list, the label, the memo: These are the genres that will keep reading alive.”

 It’s all worth registering. That, and the dilution of reliable research as represented by the Wikipedia Question: is it safe? Just as Tim Berners Lee starts a workgroup that analyses the usefulness of his baby (the internet) this introspective study by the net for the net might produce some interesting conclusions.

Meanwhile a Stephen Fry question to ponder upon… why do English speakers pronounce WWW as Double-you, double-you, double-you (9 syllables) instead of saying World Wide Web (three syllables) when dictating a web address? Even those sly Italians call it voo-voo-voo and get by without saying the word “doppia” three times.

In any case… what’s the rush… read, don’t run!

Music Video for the Occasion (The Ventures – Walk, Don’t Run)


8 responses to “Read, Don’t Run

  1. why do English speakers pronounce WWW as Double-you, double-you, double-you (9 syllables) instead of saying World Wide Web (three syllables) when dictating a web address?

    Possibly because d is soft and W is hard…soft is much more agreeable on pronounciation and easily compensates for more syllables.

  2. So how about the Maltese way of saying www? Every Maltese person I know says “double u double u double u”, nine syllables, strictly and rigorously in English, of course, when they could so easily say it in three straight simple syllables, in pure and unadulterated Maltese: “wewewe”, ejja ħa mmorru, and we’re there.

  3. I’m not too sure about the reported conclusions of this research. It ignores what seems to me to be obvious: that the internet attracts large numbers of people who are impatient with the printed word. It isn’t the internet that’s making them impatient with the printed word. They were impatient with it already, and that’s why they find the internet more attractive. Those who scan the written word on the internet are likely to be the sort who scan newspapers and rarely bother with books because there’s too much scanning involved, but the research does not compare the on-line reading patterns of those surveyed with how they read a newspaper, magazine article or book. This comparison is crucial if any reliable conclusions are to be drawn. I don’t think the internet causes people to scan instead of read properly. I think it attracts people who are unable, because of attention difficulties, or unwilling to read line by line and who prefer to scan instead. I’ve noticed lots of people reading newspapers like this. Their eyes don’t really focus until they alight on a sentence that really catches their attention. Then they focus for half a second and are off again, flicking to the next page. Take my example: I’m one of those pedantic line-by-line readers, who just stops short of mouthing each word and running my index finger beneath each line. If I think I’ve skipped a paragraph by mistake, I’ll go back and make sure I read it properly. And that’s how I read things on the internet, including the newspapers, ploughing systematically through each article. My observation – not research, of course – is that people’s internet reading habits exactly mimic their printed-paper reading habits.

  4. I can see where you are coming from Daphne and the doubts that you raise are legitimate. I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject but this is not the first article I come across regarding the effect of the internet on reading habits.

    People like you and me who finished most of their education in the pre-internet age (internet “research” was still unheard of in my last years of uni or even in my post-grad) are probably the last generations who were brought up by and with the book so to speak. Books were for us the main source of reference and entertainment and our way of reading (the systematic ploughing) is ingrained in our system.

    There is no denying that this is changing for the new generations. Some of us might resist the switch but that does not mean that the new generations even need to consider resisting. The internet generation depends more and more on the browser layout to obtain information. The hyperlink is drastically different from turning a page – just to give a small example.

    Just google “internet reading habits” and you will start a voyage of discovery on how the internet is really changing how we gather information – whether we like it or not.

    One little example is how my brain has become lazy when it comes to keeping the little bits of information I used to be so happy to flaunt at quiz sessions. Now that info is a google away it is much more difficult to retain it. Our reliance on technology for information makes inroads in many areas – take driving… over the last 4 years in Luxembourg I have become stupidly reliant on GPS. Trust me you feel so stupid the moment you land in Malta and try to put Ghaxaq into the GPS because you can’t be bothered to try to remember how to get there. Sounds spoilt… but it is a tic formed by habit.

    Here’s a couple of links I found by quickly searching.. there’s more where they came from but it’s 01.30 am and I’m supposed to work tomorrow … at a computer desk, retrieving files from databases of jurisprudence to draft another decision!

    Good night, and good luck.

  5. I think there’s no doubt that the Internet is changing our reading habits, and much more besides. As Jacques said, it is making us lazy, or lazier. There is also another point to consider, which I think is the most important. Because Internet reading almost invites scanning, and rapid restless clicking of hyperlinks, we are not allowing ourselves to chew carefully on the information we consume. The same like TV zapping, which I am convinced has eroded our attention span, especially in children where that particular character trait is already a problem. Let’s just say that in the era where the soundbite is king, you can’t expect much from an audience that accepts this sad state of affairs. What this all means is that people are easily manipulated, easily convinced, easily led away from information that may be altogether more enlightening than the usual crap they scan through. This is serious stuff, and in my opinion spells doom for us all.

  6. Great article in American Monthly a few months ago called Is Google Making us Stoopid? The author claimed that he had noticed that his own reading habits and techniques had changed dramatically. He was not impatient or lazy at all but had become increasingly so. He also made the interesting point that with every technological advance in reading tools, there were doomdsay critics along the way. The printing press, for instance, was condemned by some as a barbaric threat to the monastic tradition.

  7. Mah, still; would you prefer an e-book to a printed book?

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