The Internet may be changing how we read and think, according to a five-year study by scholars at the University College London.
The scholars documented the behaviour of visitors to two popular research sites that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” springing from one source to another. Moreover, visitors rarely returned to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would visit another site.
The authors of the study note: “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”
Patrick Kingsley of the Guardian wrote an article about this phenomenon: “…because of the Internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual tidbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other.”
When I am using the Internet, I typically skim content and often feel rushed. Most of the time, I’m researching content with a definite goal in mind—such as drafting an article like this one!
How does this change affect our writing? Usability guru Jakob Nielsen found that most readers’ eyes focus on the action-oriented content, such as product features and bulleted lists. If readers encounter introductory text on web pages, users often skip it. Nielsen calls introductory paragraphs “blah-blah text.”
But introductory text does have a role. He writes: “A brief introduction can help users better understand the rest of the page. Even if they skip it initially, they might return later if it doesn’t look intimidatingly long and dense.”
He recommends writers include the following content:
1) What’s the page about? A brief introduction can help users better understand the rest of the page.
2) Why should readers care? What’s in it for them?
In this age of hurried reading, Nielsen’s research makes sense to me. Still with me?