How has reading changed?

by Fran Collins

Posted on 02 July 2017

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On April fools day a couple of years ago National Public Radio news (NPR) decided to run an experiment. They had begun to suspect a large proportion of their social media followers were commenting and sharing posts they hadn’t actually read.

They decided to test the theory! NPR posted an article titled ‘Why doesn’t America read anymore’ - the article contained only instructions - asking the readers to refrain from commenting on the articles, ensuring the majority of the comments gathered were from non readers. 

A recent study from computer scientists at Columbia University found that 59% of all links shared on social networks aren’t clicked at all

When links are clicked, and the articles read, we now read them differently. Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University reviewed the differences between how we read online compared to print and I recognised the results from my own behaviour! 

Screen reading is full of browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one‐time reading, non‐linear reading, and reading more selectively, while less time is spent on in‐depth reading, and concentrated reading. 

So how do we write for this new digital era?

It needs to be scan-able. 

We make decisions quickly. Rarely do we take in all available information and come to a logical, thorough conclusion - as much as we like to think we do! Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow talks of two modes of thought - system 1 and system 2. Where system 1 operates automatically and quickly with very little effort and system 2 involves complex computations and mental efforts. Increasingly we are wanting to glean information as fast as possible, using all the traits of system 1. 

Structuring your content is therefore just as important as the words you choose. 

We skim paragraphs, select keywords and ‘tweetable’ truths, spending less time grappling with the text itself. Delving into problems and exposing deeper revelations are now even less likely to happen in front of a screen. 

This isn’t necessarily a problem. But we do have to be aware of context. If you want people to read what you’ve got to say online, learn the art of the short sentence, bold headlines and diagrams - or write a book!