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Has the internet changed how we read?

Sarah Graveling
Sarah Graveling
Creative Director
26 August 2011

I’m sure you’ve heard the stories in the press this year, about how 1 in 3 children doesn’t own a book of their own; when one teacher asked his pupils to bring in a book from home, one 9 year old brought the Argos catalogue, saying: ‘It’s the only one we’ve got.’

Obvious accusations of blame have been made to parenting, TV and games consoles, but nobody seems to mention the internet. Surprising really, as I freely acknowledge that my own reading habits have changed over the last 5 years – as our desire for content to “get the point across as quickly as possible” increases and we bow to our short attention spans.

I read a stat a few years ago that I’ve frequently quoted to clients and copywriters; namely that less than 16% of users read word-for-word online, so we must keep content as punchy as possible, use bullet points, bold keywords, use short paragraphs, sentences and visual aids to help them.

As we’ve catered for these needs, it has enabled us to read differently online. Indulging our impatience with the full story – if you don’t adhere to the scan reading rules, the consequence is that lengthy articles simply won’t be finished.

I started “reading” FFFFound! many years ago and as this set the trend, I noticed how many of the visual blogs I subscribed to I ACTUALLY read – the more wordy ones remained untouched over the years. I may be a designer but there are still many good content-driven design blogs, but most of my favourites don’t include much written content. And this looks set to increase as new platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram have been added to my popular list.

Additionally, the huge trend toward infographics displaying information in such a way that doesn’t require any reading means we can apparently absorb information more easily. Of course, we have to mention Twitter, with the whole point being that it’s 140 character content – but even on Facebook (which allows for larger status updates), users rarely do make use of the expanded character limit, and keep to quick bursts of unassuming content for their friends.

Obviously I spend a lot of time online, but so do “the kids”, so it does make me ponder that in making general internet usage more “readable” we have created an easy read lifestyle – one that makes reading a whole book less normal or seem like hard work to the younger generation.

You may be thinking “I read online ALL THE TIME!” – but then I ask you, when was the last time you read a long full article online, and I mean REALLY read it and didn’t just “scan read”…?

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