Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fast forward

Day 90 - Couch Potato by DaGoaty, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by DaGoaty

How often do you read an article on a web site to the end? Not often I suspect and my fears are confirmed in a fascinating article by Farhad Manjoo, You Won’t Finish This Article. He cites traffic statistics from the web site Slate showing readers' habits and how long they spend on articles. According to the stats we very seldom read whole articles any more and many people seldom get past the first two paragraphs. A staggering 38% hardly read more than the first sentence. Many more show a great reluctance to scroll so anything you write below the horizon of the browser window may only be read by less than half of your "readers".

"Schwartz’s data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. Schwartz’s data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing."

So even if lots of people seem to have landed on this blog there's no guarantee that any of them have actually read my posts. Getting loads of retweets doesn't mean that any of them have read anything either, they're just sharing. So technically a blog post could get enormous coverage in social media without anyone actually reading it to the end. If you write something outrageous in the last paragraph the chances are you'll get away with it. It's the literary equivalent of TV zapping where we give a programme about 10 seconds to grab our attention before zapping onward.

It's easy for stats like this to prompt outraged end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it responses. But the sheer volume of information we are subjected to every day makes it hard to focus on anything for long in case we miss the next big story. We've never been better at skim reading but at the cost of forgetting the art of deep reading, following an in-depth discussion, listening to a long piece of music etc. I'm as guilty as anyone and confess to often reading half an article or less and have indeed tweeted about them. I save them however and try to read them later when I have more time. Sometimes I succeed.

I'll end this by quoting Manjoo's closing remarks:

"Maybe this is just our cultural lot: We live in the age of skimming. I want to finish the whole thing, I really do. I wish you would, too. Really—stop quitting! But who am I kidding. I’m busy. You’re busy. There’s always something else to read, watch, play, or eat."

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