Reading more, remembering less: is the internet making us stupid? Or just more selective?

One fact that has stuck with me over the years—and flashes up in front of me occasionally when I’m deep in a time-sucking online/social media rabbit hole—is that the same part of the brain that responds so favourably to pokie machines is the same part of the brain that responds so favourably to the constant arrival of notifications on your phone, in your inbox or on social networks. So, like digital meerkats, many of us are constantly popping our heads up and looking for the next information fix. And, as a recent Victoria University study has shown, the online realm is having an impact on our reading behaviour. 

As Wired wrote: “Smartphones keep users distracted, exploiting the same psychological vulnerability as slot machines: predictable input and random payouts. They feed a sense that any pull of the lever, or Facebook refresh, could result in an information jackpot.” And as a result, we seem to be looking around for more of it. Or, as David Carr put it in a great piece about the proposed Time Warner/21st Century Fox deal and the problems with print in a digital age, “we know a little about everything and nothing about anything, really”.

The Victoria study, Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Impact of the Internet on Reading Behaviour’, was conducted Dr Val Hooper, an associate professor in Victoria’s School of Information Management and master’s student Channa Herath, and it seems to back Carr’s quote up. It explored the online and offline reading behaviour of individuals and found that people are reading more text than ever. And while that may seem like a good thing, they’re recalling less of it. 

Google has done an amazing job of, as its mission statement goes, organising the world’s information and some believe it has become a sort of substitute brain (Google engineer and renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil believes it won’t be long until our brains will be augmented by Google’s brain). But the study found online reading had a negative impact on people’s cognition, with concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall rates when engaging with online material all much lower. 

“Multitasking when reading online was common, with activities such as reading emails, checking news, exploring hyperlinks and viewing video clips providing distractions, which could have something to do with it,” says Dr Hooper. “People almost expect to be interrupted when they’re on their computers.”

As Carr wrote: “Online, we are always beckoned forward to the next great thing, often right in the middle of what we thought we wanted to read about. Consider how many times you have clicked a link early in an article and never returned to what brought you there in the first place.” 

In another great New York Times column about reclaiming our lives from social media, Nick Bilton blamed the internet “for sucking people into a cacophony of links, videos and pictures that are constantly being dangled in their faces like some sort of demented digital carrot on a stick” (The Atlantic’s Dougie Howser-esque resident doctor has proposed a solution to this constant interruption: Tabless Thursdays). And according to a recent TNS study, screen-stacking is also on the rise here and around the world, which seems to show that full attention isn’t being paid to anything at all. That’s part of the appeal of print, whether books, magazines or, to a lesser degree, newspapers. They are finite and they require more focus, something which seems to be becoming increasingly rare. 

“Many respondents said they had learnt to read faster and more selectively, which is positive, but also said they were more likely to remember material they had read offline. It was still common practice for many people to print out material they considered most important.” 

The study showed the three main reasons for reading included information seeking, commitments—either for work or study—and pleasure, with people preferring to read books, magazines or e-readers for pleasure. 

“The research indicates that we still read in a linear, print-based fashion. However, the structure of much of what we are reading is inappropriate for the way in which we’re receiving information now. We need to learn how to read and write ‘digitally’, as well as how to effectively interpret and retain information we read online.”

Spritz is a company aiming to change the way we read with its impressive technology, something that Sky and DDB have put to use for a recent promotion. It claims to let you read up to 60 percent faster than the average and, as the video below shows, it does it by taking away the time-consuming part of reading: the actual eye movements from word to word and sentence to sentence.

“If you think about how we’re training our children to read, they’re being trained by those who were trained in the linear fashion. So it will take at least a generation for significant change to happen. As educators I think it makes sense to look at getting messages across in ways in which readers expect to receive it now, rather than how it was given in the past. Long chunks of text aren’t exactly going to appeal to today’s students.”

But do long chunks of text appeal to other groups online? Business news site Quartz and many other publishers certainly think so. 

As The Media Briefing wrote about ‘The Quartz Curve‘: 

The standard news article that’s been around for more than a century, a concise but comprehensive roundup of facts, still dominates news publishing. But those articles were designed for a specific distribution model, the printed newspaper, which was determined by physical and industrial processes and constraints. But business news website Quartz has found that its readers are avoiding this sort of middle ground online. As editor-in-chief Kevin Delany told the Digital Editors Network, that Quartz readers like:

— Short, sharp creative takes on news stories that are creative and say something new, or

— Long, in-depth articles providing strong detailed narrative or insightful analysis

What they don’t like is the stuff in the middle – 500 to 800 word articles that provide exhaustive detail but no insight. 

​​… It only took Quartz a year to go from an audience of nothing to around 3.5 million readers, largely through social sharing, and the business is aiming for profitability in 2015. It’s obviously doing something right. ​


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