How people read online: Why you won’t finish this article.

You Won’t Finish This Article

You Won’t Finish This Article

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
June 6 2013 7:03 PM

You Won’t Finish This Article

Why people online don’t read to the end.

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He told me that Chartbeat can’t directly track when individual readers tweet out links, so it can’t definitively say that people are sharing stories before they’ve read the whole thing. But Chartbeat can look at the overall tweets to an article, and then compare that number to how many people scrolled through the article. Here’s Schwartz’s analysis of the relationship between scrolling and sharing on Slate pages:


Courtesy of Chartbeat

These graphs show the relationship between scrolling and Tweets on Slate pages.

Courtesy of Chartbeat

And here’s a similar look at the relationship between scrolling and sharing across sites monitored by Chartbeat:

This graph shows the relationship between scroll depth and Tweets across a large number of sites tracked by Chartbeat.

Courtesy of Chartbeat

They each show the same thing: There’s a very weak relationship between scroll depth and sharing. Both at Slate and across the Web, articles that get a lot of tweets don’t necessarily get read very deeply. Articles that get read deeply aren’t necessarily generating a lot of tweets.  


As a writer, all this data annoys me. It may not be obvious—especially to you guys who’ve already left to watch Arrested Development—but I spend a lot of time and energy writing these stories. I’m even careful about the stuff at the very end; like right now, I’m wondering about what I should say next, and whether I should include these two other interesting graphs I got from Schwartz, or perhaps I should skip them because they would cause folks to tune out, and maybe it’s time to wrap things up anyway …

But what’s the point of all that? Schwartz tells me that on a typical Slate page, only 25 percent of readers make it past the 1,600th pixel of the page, and we’re way beyond that now. Sure, like every other writer on the Web, I want my articles to be widely read, which means I want you to Like and Tweet and email this piece to everyone you know. But if you had any inkling of doing that, you’d have done it already. You’d probably have done it just after reading the headline and seeing the picture at the top. Nothing I say at this point matters at all.

So, what the hey, here are a couple more graphs, after which I promise I’ll wrap things up for the handful of folks who are still left around here. (What losers you are! Don’t you have anything else to do?)

This heatmap shows where readers spend most of their time on Slate pages:

This "heatmap" shows where readers spend time on Slate pages. The "hot" red spots represent more time on that part of the page; the "cooler" blue spots represent less time.

Courtesy of Chartbeat

And this one shows where people spend time across Chartbeat sites:

similar heatmap across a large number of sites tracked by Chartbeat.

Courtesy of Chartbeat

Schwartz told me I should be very pleased with Slate’s map, which shows that a lot of people are moved to spend a significant amount of their time below the initial scroll window of an article page. On Chartbeat’s aggregate data, about two-thirds of the time people spend on a page is “below the fold”; on Slate, that number is 86.2 percent. “That’s notably good,” Schwartz told me. “We generally see that higher-quality content causes people to scroll further, and that’s one of the highest below-the-fold engagement numbers I’ve ever seen.”

Yay! Well, there’s one big caveat: It’s probably Slate’s page design that’s boosting our number there. Since you usually have to scroll below the fold to see just about any part of an article, Slate’s below-the-fold engagement looks really great. But if articles started higher up on the page, it might not look as good.

In other words: Ugh.

Finally, while I hate to see these numbers when I consider them as a writer, as a reader I’m not surprised. I read tons of articles every day. I share dozens of links on Twitter and Facebook. But how many do I read in full? How many do I share after reading the full thing? Honestly—and I feel comfortable saying this because even mom’s stopped reading at this point—not too many. I wonder, too, if this applies to more than just the Web. With ebooks and streaming movies and TV shows, it’s easier than ever, now, to switch to something else. In the past year my wife and I have watched at least a half-dozen movies to about the 60 percent mark. There are several books on my Kindle I’ve never experienced past Chapter 2. Though I loved it and recommend it to everyone, I never did finish the British version of the teen drama Skins. Battlestar Galactica, too—bailed on it in the middle, hoping to one day jump back in. Will I? Probably not.

Maybe this is just our cultural lot: We live in the age of skimming. I want to finish the whole thing, I really do. I wish you would, too. Really—stop quitting! But who am I kidding. I’m busy. You’re busy. There’s always something else to read, watch, play, or eat.

OK, this is where I’d come up with some clever ending. But who cares? You certainly don’t. Let’s just go with this: Kicker TK.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.