Long-Reading the Internet

I’m not the only (old) person here who’s complained that spending so much time on the internet has compromised my ability to read books. In the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova has an interesting article on “Being a Better Online Reader”:

[A]s we turn to online reading, the physiology of the reading process itself shifts; we don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, in Norway, points out that reading is always an interaction between a person and a technology, be it a computer or an e-reader or even a bound book. Reading “involves factors not usually acknowledged,” she told me. “The ergonomics, the haptics of the device itself. The tangibility of paper versus the intangibility of something digital.” The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience…

… On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.

The online world, too, tends to exhaust our resources more quickly than the page. We become tired from the constant need to filter out hyperlinks and possible distractions. And our eyes themselves may grow fatigued from the constantly shifting screens, layouts, colors, and contrasts, an effect that holds for e-readers as well as computers…

All is not lost, however: It may be that we just need to learn how to read “deeply” online — train ourselves not to skim, to avoid alternate tabs and pinging messages, to give proper weight to paragraphs that aren’t highlights or pull-quotes. It’s not as though reading itself is completely intuitive; even those of us who ‘taught ourselves’ to read did so based on the conveyed information that letters are discrete symbols, that words are made up of such symbols, that English texts read left-to-right and top-to-bottom…

And Konnikova’s article reminded me that I never got around to posting Derek Thompson’s lament, in the Atlantic, on “Why Audiences Hate Hard News—and Love Pretending Otherwise“:

… Audiences are liars, and the media organizations who listen to them without measuring them are dupes. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last year, Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera America, shared survey data suggesting that 40 to 50 million people were desperate for in-depth and original TV journalism. Nine months later, it averaged 10,000 viewers per hour—1.08 percent of Fox News’ audience and 3.7 percent of CNN. AJAM, built for an audience of vegetarians, is stuck with a broccoli stand in a candy shop.

The culprit isn’t Millennials, or Facebook, or analytics software like Chartbeat. The problem is our brains. The more attention-starved we feel, the more we thirst for stimuli that are familiar. We like ice cream when we’re sad, old songs when we’re tired, and easy listicles when we’re busy and ego-depleted. The Internet shorthand for this fact is “cat pictures.” Psychologists prefer the term fluency. Fluency isn’t how we think: It’s how we feel while we’re thinking. We prefer thoughts that come easily: Faces that are symmetrical, colors that are clear, and sentences with parallelisms. In this light, there are two problems with hard news: It’s hard and it’s new. (Parallelism!)

Fluency also explains one of the truisms of political news: That most liberals prefer to read and watch liberals (because it feels easy), while conservatives prefer to read and watch conservatives (because it feels easy). It’s a not-even-industry-secret that down-the-middle political reporting that doesn’t massage old biases is a hard sell for TV audiences. Fox News has monopolized the market of 60-and-overs watching cable news, predominantly because that group watches the most cable news and naturally skews conservative. Grappling with new information is exhausting, so we prefer to consume it in explicitly digestible lists or wrapped in old viewpoints we already have…

34 replies
  1. 1
    Baud says:


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    MattF says:

    Enormous fossilized dinosaur poop (via jwz):


    I have to admit I was originally going to post this on the “What a Relief!” thread, but I decided that was excessively OT, even for me.

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    Mnemosyne says:

    I managed to screw up my neck trying to do chin-ups last night, and neither ice nor heat nor ibuprofen seems to be helping much. This sucks.

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    srv says:

    Hmm, this disappoints me a lot.

    I don’t like reading with my ipad and was thinking of getting an e-ink reader because the end-user experience would be better. But this says that’s not true.

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    D58826 says:

    OT. Part of an editorial written by a rightwing Knesset member describing his solution to the problem in Gaza;

    Attack – Attack the entire ‘target bank’ throughout Gaza with the IDF’s maximum force (and not a tiny fraction of it) with all the conventional means at its disposal. All the military and infrastructural targets will be attacked with no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage’. It is enough that we are hitting exact targets and that we gave them advance warning.

    Siege – Parallel to the above, a total siege on Gaza. Nothing will enter the area. Israel, however, will allow exit from Gaza. (Civilians may go to Sinai, fighters may surrender to IDF forces).

    Defense – Any place from which Israel or Israel’s forces were attacked will be immediately attacked with full force and no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage’.

    Conquer – After the IDF completes the “softening” of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations.

    Elimination- The GSS and IDF will thoroughly eliminate all armed enemies from Gaza. The enemy population that is innocent of wrong-doing and separated itself from the armed terrorists will be treated in accordance with international law and will be allowed to leave. Israel will generously aid those who wish to leave.

    Sovereignty – Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever. Liberation of parts of our land forever is the only thing that justifies endangering our soldiers in battle to capture land. Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews. This will also serve to ease the housing crisis in Israel. The coastal train line will be extended, as soon as possible, to reach the entire length of Gaza.

    Since the US Supreme Court has allowed a religious exemption to Hobby Lobby for their deeply held beliefs, can I withhold the portion of my income tax that supports Israel? I have a deeply held religious belief against genocide.

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    Brother Dingaling says:

    I love how Al Jazeera can’t understand why a country that has spent over a decade associating everything Arab with violence and terrorism isn’t flocking to its brand. You can argue with whether that is justified, but it isn’t much of a mystery.

    Also “down-the-middle political reporting that doesn’t massage old biases” is frankly meaningless in the modern media landscape. Whenever someone tells me how even-handed they are I instantly assume they are full of shit.

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    beltane says:

    @D58826: Yes, Israel is performing 4th trimester abortions by butchering children. I sincerely believe my soul is in mortal danger due to the financial support I am being forced to provide to these violent abortionists.

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    The Other Chuck says:


    OT. Part of an editorial written by a rightwing Knesset member describing his final solution to the problem in Gaza;


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    beltane says:

    @The Other Chuck: Would it be gauche to say “Sounds better in the original German”?

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    Ron Beasley says:

    I am nearly 70 and my eyesight is not what it used to be. I don’t like reading on my computers but I do depend on my Kindle because I can increase the font size.

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    D58826 says:

    Bibi is offended because the PM of Turkey compared Israel to the Nazi’s. I think the apt analogy would be the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1944 with the IDF playing the part of the Wehrmacht.

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    beltane says:

    @D58826: There were Poles who watched the liquidation of the ghetto and cheered the Germans on. Now the Israeli right-wing can emphasize with their former persecutors. History sure has one sick sense of humor.

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    CDW says:

    Here’s the deal: people who watch fox news believe they are watching indepth journalism. We all know that fox news is “original” because they make a lot of it up out of whole cloth.

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    Bob Munck says:


    But this says that’s not true.

    Don’t believe it; their reasoning is whack-o. Text stored in an e-reader is, if anything, less ephemeral than that printed on paper, especially newspaper.

    There are add-ons for most browsers that send the item you’re looking at to your Kindle. They do a pretty good job of stripping off extraneous junk like ads. When I come across a long article that I think will be difficult to concentrate on, I just click the Send to Kindle button.

    All I lose is color in the illustrations, so if that is important, I send it to my emergency backup Kindle, a Kindle Fire. Otherwise I have no trouble with long reads on the Paperwhite.

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    ruemara says:

    I can sit up late reading on my tablet and I still love curling up with a book. I spend entirely too much time on the internet, both for work & pleasure. Individuals are gonna be individual, hey. If you love to read, you’ll read.

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    Villago Delenda Est says:

    As long as the advertisers are happy, and keep paying for air time, media companies could not care any less about whatever content is used to attract eyeballs.

    If the benjamins flow in, it’s all good.

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    RSA says:

    There’s a large research literature on factors that affect reading ease, comprehension, and speed (typeface and size, line length, line spacing, justification, difficulty of the material, etc.), and they may interact in unexpected ways. It’s actually pretty hard to put together, in my experience, and so it’s not surprising that the strategies people have developed go away from deep reading. Making the problem worse is the huge variation in page design.

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    Donald says:

    Chris Hayes had a two hour show on Saturday and Sunday that went into depth on many issues. Then they “promoted” him to the evening lineup, where he has a 1 hour show that I try to watch, but usually ignore, as it is little better than Maddow. (Though to his credit, Hayes is a lot better than Maddow on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All this is based on my very sporadic viewing of the shows–in general, I can barely stomach Maddow’s condescension for more than a few minutes)

    Kornacki replaced Hayes in the Saturday/Sunday slot, but it just wasn’t as good and I quickly stopped watching.

    I’m not sure what this means–do the MSNBC folks think (or know) that really high quality (for TV anyway) discussion on the issues is a loser?

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    Jacel says:

    On this topic, I want to thank Balloon Juice for having a design that makes it possible for me to enjoy reading (and thinking) at length, compared to trying to wade through paragraphs on most other websites.

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    WaterGirl says:

    @ruemara: Was this the weekend you were going to have the two foster kitties at your house?

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    WaterGirl says:


    I’m not sure what this means–do the MSNBC folks think (or know) that really high quality (for TV anyway) discussion on the issues is a loser?

    No, I think it means the network believes that a similar-to-all-the-others prime time show is better than a quality discussion, and apparently Chris Hayes thought so, too. For the network it’s probably all about advertising money – Chris Hayes made a name for himself so they could bring in more viewers and advertising dollars for the evening show.

    I think it was a big misstep for Chris Hayes – I just cannot watch his evening show. I really tried.

    BTW, I wrote nearly the same comment as yours, in a different context on a different thread today. So I guess we are not alone in our thoughts.

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    another Holocene human says:

    Ive now watched GA house Dem leader Stacey Adams at NN14 panel. She is one to watch. She is my new lege crush.

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    Pen says:

    If there’s one thing that annoys the hell out of me it’s the New York literary scene continually trying to retake their position as THE epitome of art culture. The rise of the internet and ebooks has pretty much completely destroyed their ability to act as cultural gatekeepers and I can all but guarantee you’ll be seeing articles like this more frequently while the major publishers go through their corporate death throes.

    This is no more sophisticated than a “serious”movie critic bemoaning the collapse of culture in the era of video games, and pointing to obscure journal articles or biased ‘researchers’ to make their point.

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    Mnemosyne says:


    For me, eInk is vastly superior for reading books than my iPad Mini is — the backlight of the iPad is too bright and bothers my eyes, but eInk on my keyboard Kindle is just right. If my Kindle gives up the ghost, I will probably buy a Kindle Paperwhite.

    If you like to read magazines, though, the iPad is far superior. It’s also better for my knitting books that have a lot of formatting, pictures and charts. But for reading text, the Kindle is much better.

    (I am a sufficiently voracious reader that I used to read books on my Palm T|X and still occasionally read on my iPhone in a pinch, but eInk is definitely superior.)

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    NobodySpecial says:

    Well, exactly how in the nine hells is AJ supposed to penetrate the market when most cable providers won’t offer it to most areas?

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    Ruckus says:

    It’s not as though reading itself is completely intuitive; even those of us who ‘taught ourselves’ to read did so based on the conveyed information that letters are discrete symbols, that words are made up of such symbols, that English texts read left-to-right and top-to-bottom…

    This is not altogether true. I’m one of those for whom school would not progress fast enough teaching me reading. So I taught myself. And I discovered a long time ago that I had taught myself to recognize groups of letters and to read starting at the back of the book. I had to later learn the correct way and if not for computers and spell check(Not auto correct!) I’d still be spelling basackwards, which I sometimes do anyway. Dyslexic don’t you know. Which may be the reason for missing the obvious in reading english in the first place.

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    J R in WV says:

    News, what is it?

    Discussion of issues isn’t news, although it can shed light on news events and how they are reported. I’m not surprised that Al Jazeera America isn’t doing well yet. Give it a century or so. They seem very professional, but the background is as if it was, maybe Imperial Japanese News, or Fourth Reich News, even Tass America.

    There were shortwave radio stations during the Cold War that broadcast Radio Moscow into the US back in the 1940s-1990s. Sometimes news, translations of Political speeches, etc. Some were “numbers stations” that broadcast continuous lists of numbers in groupd – widely believed
    tp be coded messages – both sides (all sides – every large nation) did this.

    If Israel can’t figure out a way to get along with the neighbors, I don’t think they can last forever. Eventually some radical genius will figure out a way to do them in somehow. That would be tragic and evil, I’m not saying it would be a good thing. But the bully of the neighborhood is always a precarious philosophy to live by.

    If they helped found Hamas, or helped the grow in their beginning years, they are crazier than it looks from here.

    If your iPad is too bright, turn the light level down – it will make your battery last longer, too. I use an android tablet to carry many books when we travel, and it has adjustable light output too.

    If I’m wrong and you iPad can’t adjust the light levels, quickly trade it for an Android tablet. They seem superior to me, and I’ve been working on computers since the early 1970s… Apple is so, so, something I don’t care for. Superior, maybe.

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    Doth says:

    @WaterGirl: Chris Hayes was suited to ‘Up’ Weekends so much better than Kornacki, they might as well switch shows. Kornacki is a good reporter but let’s say overly generous to the ideological opposition, he lets nonsense fly past him that would send Hayes (rightly) into a fit of righteous spluttering. Let Kornacki assay the ‘news cycle’ and let Hayes get back into digging into the big questions in earnest. Hayes still tends to invite guests who are off the beaten path but otherwise it’ feels rushed and the same flavor as the preceding endless hours of pale versions of Maddow.
    MSNBC has built a decent stable of wonks/flacks but the redundancy and waste of talent and perspective in the program schedule is ridiculous.

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    Matt McIrvin says:

    I used to read a lot of science fiction. For a while, the Internet helped feed that habit by alerting me to stuff I might be interested in. But these days… I find that my enjoyment of much of it has been poisoned by online criticism. Legitimate, deserved criticism, of all the ways in which the books don’t make sense and are promoting noxious ideas. It’s harder to ignore all the ways in which they suck, and that’s not even getting into what happens when you learn what a major-league asshole the author is.

    I don’t know, maybe I just need to get into a different category of books, like, say, socio-historical nonfiction. But then I’d just be worried that I’m only enjoying them because I don’t know enough yet and my standards are too low.

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    Peter says:

    @srv: As an owner of an e-ink reader, I can assure you that this is not the case. It is a very different experience from reading off of a screen. Still not the same as reading from a book, but a third, distinct type of experience.

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    JustRuss says:

    @Jacel: Not to mention the refreshing lack of distracting crap on the sidebars.

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