My Twitter feed is full of the latest attack on the books people (mostly women) read as opposed to the books they should read. A big movie is coming out this weekend and everyone wants to jump on the juggernaut bandwagon. Clickbait achievement was clearly unlocked in this case, since my media, feminism, romance, and literature twitter accounts were all talking about it.
I already said my piece on clickbait and how to respond, so I’ll talk about something else: how the way we read online may be affecting the way we read all kinds of content. The hot new format in digital journalism is data-driven and factoid-relating. The most obvious are the new FiveThirtyEight site and Vox, which are different yet oddly similar in that they both want to explain the news rather than report it and let us find our own ways to understand it. Oh, and stupid Buzzfeed quizzes, but those are basically the internet’s version of Cosmo’s old How Good Is Your Relationship quizzes.
In our quest to have things explained to us (and people’s quest to make money explaining things to us), are we losing the ability to comprehend information on our own, by looking at the words, numbers, and pictures ourselves? Can we comprehend the raw material? Because if we can’t that’s a big loss.
Among the ways we read now, we’re much more likely to be reading on screens rather than on pages we hold in our hands, pages which used to be contained in collated formats (from pamphlets to newspapers to magazines to books), formats for which we have we have a particular spatial understanding. It seems pretty clear that our spatial understanding of digital material is different. Not necessarily worse, but definitely different. For example, you turn a page, but you scroll down a website.
Before I go on, I need to register a caveat: Not everyone can hold printed material. Not everyone can read print in the fonts it usually comes in. So this is not about saying print is better. This is about understanding the differences, some of which are not about the digital form per se (not necessary to the form, that is) but about how information in digital form is presented and consumed. The latter and the former are mutually reinforcing (causality goes both ways).