Online Reading is Changing How . . . Excuse Me, What Were You Saying?

A pair of interesting articles by Nicholas Carr and Michael Agger have been getting a lot of online press (to the extent you count Delicious tags, etc.). I find the discussion of how reading is changing because of, or on the, Internet to be fascinating. For centuries people have been reading dense physical texts and now there appears to be a breakdown in attention spans. Authors and publishers are being encouraged to provide smaller information chunks, readers are scanning information and leaving if they’re not instantly satisfied, and Google gets blamed for the impact of its search results on reading. I like to think I’ve noticed the shift in legal research as well, but it’s hard to know how much is anecdotal and how much is self-inflicted.

Michael Agger’s Lazy Eyes:  How We Read Online appeared online at earlier this month.  It’s a great article for how it is written as much as for what it says.  It emphasizes short bits of information, talks about usability commentary from Jakob Nielsen, eye tracking research, and the need for brevity and concise writing.  It’s a great gathering together of resources on this topic, something I’ve only come across in dribs and drabs otherwise.  One survey I liked in particular came from the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, which discusses “information skimming” and that the so-called Google Generation being analyzed in the survey was engaged in “power browsing” rather than more traditional reading.

Nicholas Carr’s article in this month’s Atlantic Monthly asks Is Google Making Us Stupid?  Carr bemoans his shortened attention span, how he gets “fidgety, lose[s] the thread, begin[s] looking for something else to do” when he’s reading a book or lengthy article.  In Carr’s world, Google is the enabler, the resource that has made the access to so much information so easy.  He references the same BL/JISC survey on the Google Generation.  He goes on, though, to track the impact of this power browsing and information skimming to changes in the New York Times‘ print edition.

I have noticed that legal publishers are increasingly providing smaller information chunks, and the average database search on Westlaw or LexisNexis, if it retrieves analytical information or even a statute, is likely to show part of a chapter, out of context with the content around it.  Alternatively, where they don’t do this, the content arrangement can look poorly thought out and more unwieldy.  This can make it harder for a researcher to understand what the context is, because most of the information was authored for a print product and was uploaded as an electronic one.  Rarely does the content actually appear to be reworked to enable hyperlinking or other connectivity between parts of the online text.  So a quick read of a paragraph or two in a chapter may not actually give you any useful information, or alert you to the fact that on the next digital page is the answer you seek.  You must continue to return to the search utility, which may or may not provide you with the information you need, because the browsing features are not strong and the content is not enriched to make them better.

I can’t say I entirely agree with Carr’s assessment of attention spans.  I find a multi-hundred page book to be just as gripping now as it would have been pre-Internet and Google.  But I can see his point, and notice that my own online behaviour and research is more likely to emphasize efficiency and speed than taking time to read long pieces of content.  I split the difference, using tabs in my browser to open up links of possible additional interest (right click on the link and select open in new tab in either Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7 or 8 or Mozilla’s Firefox 2 or 3) or downloading a PDF or other file, and read it or skim it later to see if it has anything useful.