How we read online.

Culture and technology.
June 13 2008 1:00 PM

Lazy Eyes

How we read online.

You're probably going to read this.

It's a short paragraph at the top of the page. It's surrounded by white space. It's in small type.

To really get your attention, I should write like this:

  • Bulleted list
  • Occasional use of bold to prevent skimming
  • Short sentence fragments
  • Explanatory subheads
  • No puns
  • Did I mention lists?
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What Is This Article About?
For the past month, I've been away from the computer screen. Now I'm back reading on it many hours a day. Which got me thinking: How do we read online?

It's a Jungle Out There
That's Jakob Nielsen's theory. He's a usability expert who writes an influential biweekly column on such topics as eye-tracking research, Web design errors, and banner blindness. (Links, btw, give a text more authority, making you more likely to stick around.)

Nielsen champions the idea of information foraging. Humans are informavores. On the Internet, we hunt for facts. In earlier days, when switching between sites was time-consuming, we tended to stay in one place and dig. Now we assess a site quickly, looking for an "information scent." We move on if there doesn't seem to be any food around.

Sorry about the long paragraph. (Eye-tracking studies show that online readers tend to skip large blocks of text.)

Also, I'm probably forcing you to scroll at this point. Losing some incredible percentage of readers. Bye. Have fun on Facebook.

Screens vs. Paper
What about the physical process of reading on a screen? How does that compare to paper?

When you look at early research, it's fascinating to see that even in the days of green phosphorus monitors, studies found that there wasn't a huge difference in speed and comprehension between reading on-screen and reading on paper. Paper was the clear winner only when test subjects were asked to skim the text.

The studies are not definitive, however, given all the factors that can affect online reading, such as scrolling, font size, user expertise, etc. Nielsen holds that on-screen reading is 25 percent slower than reading on paper. Even so, experts agree on what you can do to make screen reading more comfortable:

  • Choose a default font designed for screen reading; e.g., Verdana, Trebuchet, Georgia.
  • Rest your eyes for 10 minutes every 30 minutes.
  • Get a good monitor. Don't make it too bright or have it too close to your eyes.
  • Minimize reflections.
  • Skip long lines of text, which promote fatigue.
  • Avoid MySpace.

Back to the Jungle
Nielsen's apt description of the online reader: "[U]sers are selfish, lazy, and ruthless." You, my dear user, pluck the low-hanging fruit. When you arrive on a page, you don't actually deign to read it. You scan. If you don't see what you need, you're gone.

And it's not you who has to change. It's me, the writer:

  • One idea per paragraph
  • Half the word count of "conventional writing"! (Ouch!)
  • Other stuff along these lines

Nielsen often sounds like a cross between E.B. White and the Terminator. Here's his advice in a column titled "Long vs. Short Articles as Content Strategy": "A good editor should be able to cut 40 percent of the word count while removing only 30 percent of an article's value. After all, the cuts should target the least valuable information."

[Ed. Note: Fascinating asides about the writer's voice, idiosyncrasies, and fragile ego were cut here.]

He's Right
I kid about Nielsen, but he's very sensible. We're active participants on the Web, looking for information and diversion. It's natural that people prefer short articles. As Nielsen states, motivated readers who want to know everything about a subject (i.e., parents trying to get their kid into a New York preschool) will read long treatises with semicolons, but the rest of us are snacking. His advice: Embrace hypertext. Keep things short for the masses, but offer links for the Type A's.

No Blogs, Though
Nielsen may be ruthless about brevity, but he doesn't advocate blogging. Here's his logic: "Such postings are good for generating controversy and short-term traffic, and they're definitely easier to write. But they don't build sustainable value."

That's a debatable point. My experience has been that a thoughtful blogger who tags his posts can cover a subject well. But Nielsen's idea is that people will read (and maybe even pay) for expertise that they can't find anywhere else. If you want to beat the Internet, you're not going to do it by blogging (since even OK thinkers occasionally write a great blog post) but by offering a comprehensive take on a subject (thus saving the reader time from searching many sites) and supplying original thinking (offering trusted insight that cannot be easily duplicated by the nonexpert).

Like a lot of what Nielsen says, this is both obvious and thoughtful.

Ludic Reading
Nielsen focuses on how to hold people's attention to convey information. He's not overly concerned with pleasure reading.

Pleasure reading is also known as "ludic reading." Victor Nell has studied pleasure reading (PDF). Two fascinating notions:

  • When we like a text, we read more slowly.
  • When we're really engaged in a text, it's like being in an effortless trance.

Ludic reading can be achieved on the Web, but the environment works against you. Read a nice sentence, get dinged by IM, never return to the story again.

I suppose ludic readers would be the little sloths hiding in the jungle while everyone else is out rampaging around for fresh meat.

Final Unnecessary Thought
We'll do more and more reading on screens, but they won't replace paper—never mind what your friend with a Kindle tells you. Rather, paper seems to be the new Prozac. A balm for the distracted mind. It's contained, offline, tactile. William Powers writes about this elegantly in his essay "Hamlet's BlackBerry: Why Paper Is Eternal." He describes the white stuff as "a still point, an anchor for the consciousness."

Moby Dick has become a spa.

Slate is Grand Central Station.

OK, you may leave now.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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