It is an issue for our modern digital lives: How much “serious reading” do readers actually perform online.
A story appearing in the Washington Post — an article about reading, no less — had 31 percent of readers making it throughout the entire piece while another 25 percent left before reaching the article text.
The article, by Washington Post reporter Michael Rosenwald, offered an intriguing premise — skimming and skipping through Internet articles is creating a “commitment problem” with deeper, longer and more detailed works in print.
“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words, but you’re not taking in what they say,” says American University graduate student Claire Handscombe. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”
Even more troubling was that time spent in front of a computer screen seems to be “rewiring” reading habits so that we have “trouble reading long sentences with multiple, winding clauses full of background information.”
Sentences online tend to be simpler and shorter, and ones with complex data often use hyperlinks to relevant supporting evidence. Our brains create shortcuts to deal with the mass of information. Printed books, particularly intricately novels (such as classics by George Eliot and Marcel Proust), simply do not work that way.
Rosenwald decided put his theory to the test.
Along with the folks at Chartbeat, a company that specializes in tracking how people consume online content, Rosenwald performed an analysis of his piece, and found that one-quarter of readers stopped reading the article before reaching the main text. Thirty-one percent read the entire article.
As a writer, Rosenwald was not sure if he should be happy with those numbers — or extremely depressed.
According to Chartbeat’s chief data scientist Josh Schwartz, those numbers were “very good.”
On average, one-third of online readers never read the article after opening the page. And for some, the “worst-of-the-worst” items, those numbers shoot up to 90 percent.
“The fact that the numbers on this story are so good,” Schwartz added, “show that most people don’t read the article they land on.”
That means the readers of the original article did exactly what the report said they would do; they bounce around, picking and choosing keywords that interest them, only reading further when they hit upon something “exciting.”
Cognitive scientists see it as a disturbing trend, and Rosenwald believes they may be on to something.