follow the eyes: screenreading reconsidered (again) 04.03.2007, 9:53 AM
posted by ben vershbow
From Editor&Publisher (via Print is Dead): The Poynter Institute just released findings from a study in which eye-tracking sensors were used to analyze the behavior of 600 readers across print and online news sources. The resulting data clashes with the usual assumptions:
When readers chose to read an online story, they usually read an average of 77% of the story, compared to 62% in broadsheets and 57% in tabloids...
The study looked at two tabloids, the Rocky Mountain News and Philadelphia Daily News; two broadsheets, the St. Petersburg Times and The Star-Tribune of Minneapolis; and two newspaper Web sites, at the Times and Star-Tribune.
Considering the increasingly disaggregated nature of people's news-sifting, is "two newspaper websites" really the right test bed for gauging online reading habits? Still, this is a pretty interesting, myth-busting find, though in a way not at all surprising.
This takes us back to the discussion around Cory Doctorow's recent piece betting on the long-term persistence of print for certain kinds of reading. Print reading, he says, tends toward the sustained and immersive, the long-form linear narrative. Computer reading, on the other hand, is multi-tasky -- distracted, social, bite-sized, multidirectional. One could poke a lot of holes in these characterizations, but generally speaking, they do sum up the way in which many of us divide our reading labor (and leisure) across "platforms." Contrary to popular belief, Doctorow argues, people do like reading on screens. But they also like reading from printed pages. It's not either/or -- the different modes of reading reinforce the different modes of conveyance, paper and PC.
I've tended to agree, but many of the folks in the comments here didn't. They insisted that it's only a matter of time before we'll be doing the vast majority of our reading on screens -- even the linear, immersive reading that seems most resistant to digital migration. Getting past my own deep attachment to print, and reckoning with how far into daily practice electronic reading has already penetrated in so little time, I have to admit that this is probably true, though I imagine print will likely persist for at least a few more generations, and will always have its uses (and will hopefully be kept as a contingency reserve in case the lights go out).
Ultimately, this is a boring game, betting on which technology will win out. But it's interesting sometimes to analyze what motivates certain big cultural actors to wager the way they do.
If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense that Doctorow, generally an advocate for new technologies, wants to see print survive, and why despite his progressive edge, he's a bit of a traditionalist. As a novelist, Doctorow is deeply invested in the economic model of print. That's the way he actually sells books (and probably the way he likes to read them). And yet he grasps the Internet's potential to leverage print -- his career as a writer took off at precisely the moment when these two worlds entered into a complex symbiosis. As such, he has long been evangelizing the practice of giving away e-books to sell more print books, pointing to his own great success as proof of the hybrid concept.
At the surreal Google conference I attended at the New York Public Library in January, Doctorow took the stage as mollifier-in-chief, soothing the gathered representatives of the publishing industry with assurances that print is here to stay, is in fact reinforced by new online discovery tools like Google Book Search and free e-versions (which he suggests are used primarily for browsing or "market research"). All of this is right and true -- for now -- and Doctorow's advice to publishers to loosen up and embrace the Web as a gateway toward offline reading experiences, and as a way to socially situate their texts on the network is good advice, but it doesn't necessarily shed light on the longer term. The Poynter study, in its crude way, does.
Net-native writing will always be for a distracted audience, print for a captivated one, says Doctorow. He's comfortable with that split. And I guess I've been too, suggesting as it does two sorts of knowledge, neither of which we'd want to lose. But the gap will almost certainly narrow, and figuring out the consequences of that is certainly one of our biggest challenges.
Eli James on April 3, 2007 10:58 AM:
Alright - since most of the comments were negative in your last post I'd try and help out.
Recently there was a furore about newspapers as a dying medium - and we can't deny that, since more and more people are getting their news online. News fits Doctorow's description of ideal online content - splintered, short and sweet. Not anything remotely novel-like.
I'd like to make a huge argument that off screen reading will succeed eventually, just that the writing consumed on it would be different from that of a novel. Example? I stubled across UndeadFlowers once - he writes long form fiction in short, 300 word episodes, each with a hook.
*This is show, not tell. I was definitely addicted, but I must wonder how it would look and read in book (blook?) form.
ben vershbow on April 3, 2007 11:30 AM:
True, the Poynter study doesn't exactly contradict the Doctorow thesis. Rather it challenges the myth that print news reading is somehow deeper than online news reading, which, admittedly, is a slightly different issue. But it does make me wonder whether the elemental divide that Doctorow upholds between long-form offline reading and splintered online reading is similarly a myth, one that in time will be dispelled.
bowerbird on April 3, 2007 4:17 PM:
news-reading became splintered a long time ago
-- way before the emergence of cyberspace --
due to t.v., and first exemplified by usa today.
it has very little to do with cyberspace per se.
cyberspace _allows_ you to be interrupted often,
but if/when people want to do extended reading,
they quickly learn to shut out the distractions...
and as screen typography improves, it'll pass print.
(for those who need enlarged type, it already has.)
does that mean print is dead? um, no, not at all...
paper is _very_valuable_ as an archival medium,
one that doesn't require equipment or electricity.
there's no reason to abandon such a useful tool.
(if we'd just invented it, we'd extoll its virtues.)
this is a red herring, all the way around. move on.
K.G. Schneider on April 3, 2007 6:08 PM:
Quality of the experience plays a role. The wee grey fonts on if:book are not our future (I hope).
dave davison on April 3, 2007 8:05 PM:
if you don't like wee grey fonts - use
your browser's enlarge command to get
larger type. I always do it with
if:book. and this larger type example
of screen reading is a very useful feature for we who suffer from BEBT (Bad Eyes and Big Thumbs)
Eli James on April 4, 2007 1:47 AM:
Still, it is kind of hard to read if:book. Bigger fonts and better web typography is called for.
bowerbird on April 4, 2007 5:08 AM:
"people say it's hard to read off a screen,"
he said, looking me straight in the eye...
"i don't understand what they're talking about,"
he continued, turning back to his cinema screen.
ben vershbow on April 4, 2007 1:22 PM:
I bumped up the font size by a point. Any better?
bowerbird on April 5, 2007 4:37 PM:
most browsers enable the user to bump the fontsize
up or down themselves, albeit in lumpy increments.
(but a surprisingly big percentage of readers just
take whatever is given to them, never even thinking
of customization, even if they actually do know how,
and again, a surprising percentage don't even know.)
to get rid of that grey type, however, a user must
disable the entire stylesheet, which then sacrifices
much of the formatting as well. (firefox lets you,
anyway, but not safari or camino.) just yet another
example of the distance browsers still must travel
in order to become even substandard text-viewers.
Gary Frost on April 5, 2007 10:07 PM:
I would prefer any of my own contributions to blogs to appear in 8 pt. or 10 pt. Linotype Corona without so much leading as is applied here. 24 pica line length maximum. 1950's persona.
bowerbird on April 6, 2007 12:47 PM:
> I would prefer any of my own contributions
> to blogs to appear in 8 pt. or 10 pt.
> Linotype Corona without so much leading
> as is applied here. 24 pica line length maximum.
> 1950's persona.
the essence of the new typography is that
what the author wanted matters less
than what the reader wants.
(and the show position in this horse-race is
what the "majority" of readers might want,
as determined by research that tries to seek
the "ideal" parameters for the typography...
yes, that was the best way when we had the
one-size-that-must-fit-all _frozen_ nature of
ink-on-paper, but it's suboptimal now, as we
can let readers customize to their preference.)
Gary Frost on April 6, 2007 3:51 PM:
Your fuel efficiency is not as important as how much you drive. We tend to focus on technical proficiencies rather than behavior modifications.
Now I take your point...but the commentary format in blog response is so impoverished when it attempts simulation of oral discussion. Certain prompts would be invaluable. And a bit of 1950's newspaper typography never hurt any reader.
Neil Sanderson on April 7, 2007 7:00 PM:
Poynter is now reassessing their original claim that online readers read more. The problem is that online stories are shorter than print stories on average. See http://neilsanderson.com/?p=276