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Burn the book! Or not?

Annie Wakefield
Digital Marketing Manager
31 October 2008

Former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, Nicholas Carr, wrote an article called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" for The Atlantic’s 2008 Ideas issue and this article obviously stirred up some controversy.  I only read it recently, and have been thinking a lot about it since then. I have been wondering how computers in general are making us “stupid”, but more importantly: how computers are affecting our reading patterns and how this impacts on the publishing industry, and the form which content will take, and the effect of all of this on search. For now, my thoughts on publishing:

“In the past the man has been first, in the future the system must be first” declared Frederick Winslow Taylor, the man who developed the principles of Scientific Management, and to me this, indeed, seems to becoming a reality. Provided you consider Microsoft, Google, the WWW and the internet as the “system”.

In 1967 Ray Bradbury wrote that the Nazi book burnings drove him to write the short story ‘The Fireman’.  "It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh” he wrote. I understand this sentiment, because I still believe in books: in the physical, written word. Online literature carries very little weight with me.

Not very long ago, journalists wrote out their reports by hand or typed them out on a typewriter. Information was looked for in a library and footnotes referred to books which had to be sought out in the library all over again. A time consuming process…

Now we complain if the internet is “slow”, find useless or vital information in seconds online and hop from link to link without a thought. Research has shown that internet users wait a maximum of eight seconds for a website to load; if it takes longer they move on. Try that with your local librarian!

Online readers skim the text for the information they want and discard the rest: a new reading pattern is developing – with so much online content this makes sense, but is this affecting our overall reading patterns, and in turn, book sales?

According to a UCL paper discussing research on Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, published on 11 January 2008, the main characteristics of digital information seeking behaviour in virtual libraries are:

Horizontal information seeking

A form of skimming activity where people view just one or two pages from an academic site and then `bounce’ out perhaps never to return. The figures are instructive: around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never return.

Navigation

People in virtual libraries spend a lot of time simply finding their way around: in fact they spend as much time finding their bearings as actually viewing what they find.

Viewers

The average times that users spend on e-book and ejournal sites are very short: typically four and eight minutes respectively. It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense, indeed there are signs that new forms of `reading’ are emerging as users `power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Squirreling behaviour

Academic users have strong consumer instincts and research shows that they will squirrel away content in the form of downloads, especially when there are free offers. In spite of this behaviour and the very short session times that are witnessed, there is no evidence as to the extent to which these downloads are actually read.

Diverse information seekers

Log analysis reveals that user behaviour is very diverse: geographical location, gender, type of university and status are all powerful consumer demographics. One size does not fit all.

Checking information seekers

Users assess authority and trust for themselves in a matter of seconds by dipping and cross-checking across different sites and by relying on favoured brands (e.g. Google).

Nicholas Carr refers to online media blogger Scott Karp who confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be a voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

If our way of reading, and thinking, is changing then what does this mean for the communication industry? Copywriters, content writers, advertisers, marketers, bloggers, writers and everyone who communicates in written form online must adjust their way of writing to appeal to the ‘new’ way of reading. Will this new form of reading affect the printed word? Will printers run cold? Will books become quaint antiques?

It’s possible, but won’t happen overnight.  Books still have their place in the home and office, even if they leave the bookshelf less and less often. The main difference between to two forms – online vs. print media – is that online media cannot be destroyed, at least not with ease. Interesting fact: book burnings were recorded as early as 605 BC, when King Jehoiakim of Judah burned a scroll he considered to express opposition to his policies, and as late as May 2008, when a number of New Testaments were mysteriously burned in Israel.

Whatever happens to the book, the publishing industry will not cease to exist, but will adapt, and in fact has adapted to the online world. Most newspapers are now online, from the largest to the smallest news source,Google books has just signed a huge deal with the US book industry to make more books available on Google Book search and so on…

Books are now more easily available to those with internet access, and can be bought online and downloaded, or delivered within days. This is one major positive for the book industry, but I still wonder what the publishing industry will look like in a few years time…

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