How we read online

Certainly, as we turn to online reading, the physiology of the reading process itself shifts; we don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, in Norway, points out that reading is always an interaction between a person and a technology, be it a computer or an e-reader or even a bound book. Reading “involves factors not usually acknowledged,” she told me. “The ergonomics, the haptics of the device itself. The tangibility of paper versus the intangibility of something digital.” The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.

The screen, for one, seems to encourage more skimming behavior: when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page. Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information. There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate. When Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University whose research centers on digital reading and the use of e-books, conducted a review of studies that compared print and digital reading experiences, supplementing their conclusions with his own research, he found that several things had changed. On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.

Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker on the ways we read differently online than we do words on a physical page. Interesting throughout.

This piece echoes concerns raised in the results of a study published earlier this year that those taking notes on a computer remembered far less than those taking notes with pen and paper.

The common thread seems to be one of mental focus. If you're reading online but distracted constantly by all the other sites you could be visiting, the ads all along the margin, the multitude of hyperlinks, your email, the whole Pandora's Box of digital age distractions, your mind isn't going to process as much. Similarly, if you're taking notes on a laptop and not mentally trying to comprehend what you're jotting down but instead just mindlessly transcribing in a half zoned out state, your mind may not absorb much of the material.

I'm as guilty of falling victim to mental distraction in this age as anyone (I'm embarrassed to share how many browser windows and tabs I have open on my computer right now), and I think with nostalgia back to my childhood, pre-Internet, when my favorite pastime was finding some nook to deep dive into a novel for hours on end.