Why You Don’t Remember What You Read Online Yesterday

Photo by Stefan Schmitz under CC-BY license
Photo by Stefan Schmitz under CC-BY license

There’s no doubt that people today are reading more online, and even more on mobile. According to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends, time spent with digital media per adult per day in the USA has gone up from 2.7 hours in 2008 to 5.6 hours in 2015. The same adult consumed digital media on mobile for only 0.3 hours in 2008, skyrocketing to 2.8 hours by 2015 (Meeker 14). In fact, Ziming Liu’s study on trends in reading behaviour over a ten-year period found that in the digital age, “people are spending more time on reading” for the very reasons of digital technology and the information explosion (704). No longer a sub-par reading experience of being chained to a desktop computer, the experience of digital reading has been significantly improved by new technologies. Screen-based devices have most importantly become “smaller and more portable with enhanced resolution and graphics” as well as optimized for mobile reading (Subrahmanyam et al. 6). But what’s the difference whether we read on-screen or on paper? We actually use different parts of our brain. But will our skill of “deep reading,” defined as the kind of “long-established linear reading you don’t typically do on a computer,” be lost forever as web reading becomes more and more prevalent? (Raphael). What’s most important for us now more than ever is being aware of the differences of how our brain reads and learns in the digital environment versus on paper. This knowledge can help us make better choices to get the most out of our reading in both media.

Benefits of digital reading
There’s a reason why people read online, the web has so much more to offer than the print environment, even just in terms of interactivity. There are many other formidable advantages that are traditionally absent from print, such as the “immediacy of accessing information, and the convergence of text and images, audio and video” (Liu 701). The benefits of this multimodality are that finding reading becomes easier, faster, and more relevant. The superiority of the computer system not only in composing documents, but also in the “storing, accessing and retrieving” of them makes reading online easier (Hillesund). Nicholas Carr highlights searchability and hyperlinking as the most attractive benefits of the online ecosystem, noting that “We like to be able to switch between reading and listening and watching without having to get up and turn on another appliance or dig through a pile of magazines or disks. We like to be able to find and be transported instantly to relevant data—without having to sort through lots of extraneous stuff” (91-92).

How we read on the web
In “You Won’t Finish This Article: Why People Online Don’t Read to the End” Farhad Manjoo uses website traffic analysis from data scientist Josh Schwartz at Chartbeat to better understand online reading behaviour. It turns out that web readers exhibit behaviours that make it less likely that they will read an article online in its entirety. For example, out of those who visit a site, a large percentage (38, according to his figures) will “bounce” immediately, meaning they will spend “no time ‘engaging’ with th[e] page at all” (Manjoo). According to aggregate data from a number of Chartbeat-analyzed websites, 10 percent of visitors will never scroll, and of those that do, they stop at about halfway through the article. Most visitors will view all content in an article only by the photos and videos embedded in it (Manjoo). Manjoo explains that Schwartz’s data tells us two important things: one is that for those that do not scroll at all, there is a good chance they will see “at most, the first sentence or two” of an article; and the other is that there is not a strong link between scrolling and sharing, meaning that “lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read” (Manjoo).

Scrolling and skimming characterize online reading. Liu’s study found that “screen-based reading behaviour is characterized by more time on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and more reading selectively” (705). One of Liu’s concerns for scrolling behaviour is that “Readers tend to establish a visual memory for the location of items on a page and within a document” and that scrolling “weakens this relationship” (703). Maria Konnikova suggests that scrolling and skimming dominates online reading because of the shift in physiology from reading on paper to a screen, and explains that “when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page,” and that this tendency is a coping mechanism for the overload of information we are presented on the web (Konnikova). She reiterates that the online reader browses and scans “to look for keywords” and thus reads very selectively.

With so many options and avenues for the online reader, the role of multitasking becomes more and more dominant, indeed, “it has become an integral part of reading on screens” (Subrahmanyam et al. 6). The effects of multitasking in both reading comprehension and synthesis studies, as one can imagine, “significantly increased” reading time (Subrahmanyam et al. 15). One of the reasons multitasking becomes so attractive is the constant stimulation the web has to offer. But even if we choose not to go down the rabbit trails of hyperlinks and to focus instead only on the main text, the online world “tends to exhaust our [mental] resources. . . . We become tired from the constant need to filter out hyperlinks and possible distractions” (Konnikova). Konnikova summarizes researcher Julie Coiro’s findings, that “good print reading doesn’t necessarily translate to good reading on-screen,” because more self-control and self-monitoring is needed when reading online. She argues that picking up a book is the one choice needed to focus attention on the page, whereas in the online world there is constant temptation to click away from the main text.

Studies tend to agree that the most efficient use of online reading is the searching for reading, but it is not necessarily the best venue for consuming texts. Terje Hillesund’s study of expert readers (scholars in various social sciences) finds that “proficient readers use the Web and computers for overview,” and mainly as a tool for “finding, scanning and downloading text.” Liu concurs with the findings in his study in terms of reader satisfaction with formats, noting that “paper-based media are preferred for actual consumption of information” (701). He relates this paper preference to the widespread use of Adobe’s PDF format, which he argues “discourages screen reading and encourages printing. People tend to print out documents that are longer than can be displayed on a few screens” (702).

How expert readers read
Though we might assume that the best readers read articles in full, and books cover to cover without distraction, that is incorrect. Hillesund’s aforementioned study revealed that expert readers combine sustained and discontinuous reading. This means that they “seldom read a scholarly article or book from beginning to end, but rather in parts and certainly out of order.” So it is not the continual aspect of reading a text fully that is crucial to their success or their choice of medium, but their sustained attention to reading relevant material, whether in snippets of an article or parts of a book. Another common factor among these prolific readers was their time spent reflecting, “underlining and annotating, often relating the reading to their own writing” (Hillesund). Liu also notes that in terms of preferences, people “like to annotate when they read” but that they are less likely to do so online (707).

Photo by Stefan Schmitz under CC-BY license
Photo by Stefan Schmitz under CC-BY license

Language and reading researcher Maryanne Wolf explains the two stages that the expert reader’s brain does when reading; the first is “decoding” the words to know their meanings, but the second stage is “connect[ing] the decoded information to all that we know” (Wolf). She explains that this second stage of reading is where we are “given the ability to think new thoughts of our own” which forms “the generative core of the reading process.” The goal of the adult expert reader is to go beyond the text and to expand comprehension. Wolf explains in her book that “Reading is a neuronally and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message from eye to text,” meaning that reading is not just about the words on the page, but the messages constructed inside the reader’s brain and the connections they make in order to form their own original ideas (16). Her research focuses on the implications for the digital reader “who is immersed in a reading medium that provides little incentive to use the full panoply of cognitive resources available” (Wolf). The incentive is lower in the digital environment because we are served up so many attention-grabbing links and other media that are easier to follow than the effort required to forge our own intellectual pathways. She worries that the immediate information offered by the web “requires and receives less and less intellectual effort,” which may result in the deterioration of the most important stage of reading: connecting.

The brain wants what it wants
Nicholas Carr explains that the brain is naturally in a state of “distractedness,” and that we are predisposed to “shift our gaze, and hence our attention… to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible” (63). The most effective way to distract the brain is “any hint of a change in our surroundings” (Carr 64). The major danger for online reading, especially when paired with multitasking, is the brain’s distraction by the slightest change in our field of view. This becomes very troubling considering Meeker’s Internet Trends, reporting that notifications on our mobile devices are “growing rapidly” and are “increasingly interactive” both with messaging platforms and with other apps (54). If we consider the younger generation and their use of screens and multitasking, she cites that 87 percent of millenials in the USA admit that “My smartphone never leaves my side” (Meeker 69).

Our brains are naturally lazy, and want to take the path of least resistance. Hillesund summarizes Anne Mangen’s research in which she explains “when we have options to easily rekindle our attention through outside stimuli, we are psychobiologically inclined to resort to these options. It requires less mental energy to click the mouse and rekindle our attention than to try to resist distractions” (Hillesund). It is hard to focus the brain’s attention whether the reading is being done online or offline. Hillesund explains that traditional reading immersion is when the reader is engaged and internally stimulated by the processes in the mind, whereas online reading immersion is a result of external stimuli: an information flow fed to the reader. Carr worries about the long-term influences of the internet on how we think, and the paradox of the internet only seizing our attention to scatter it (118).

Is the internet making us stupid?
It’s not all bad. There are skills that internet users develop that may actually bode well for our reading future. Carr explains that searching and browsing “strengthen brain functions related to certain kinds of fast-paced problem solving,” particularly those “involving the recognition of patterns” in complete data and information overload (139). Internet users also become better at evaluating informational cues, such as “links, headlines, text snippets, and images” to very quickly judge whether following a source will have benefit to the reader (Carr 139). Scanning and skimming are also useful abilities, but only insofar as they do not become “our dominant mode of reading” (Carr 138). Wolf understands that web reading will help us develop important skills, such as multitasking, and integrating and prioritizing vast amounts of information, and wonders if our accelerated intelligence via these new and faster intellectual capacities could in fact “allow us more time for reflection” (214).

Photo by Jason Devaun under CC-BY license
Photo by Jason Devaun under CC-BY license

Carr defines the depth of our intelligence as a function of “our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas” (124). But the problem with reading on the web is that our short-term memory is clogged with the overstimulation of links, photos, videos, and the like. The technology of media coupled with hypertext is defined as “hypermedia” (Carr 129). Educators have long-accepted the notion of “the more inputs, the better” in regards to hypermedia, yet Carr says this notion has been completely contradicted by research (129). Having all these inputs simultaneously actually “further strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding” (Carr 129). His deep fear is that if we cannot convert material from our working memory to our long-term understanding by engaging with it, “the information lasts only as long as the neurons that hold it maintain their electric charge—a few seconds at best” (193). Carr believes that if we cannot focus and consolidate own knowledge from what we read online, we will use the internet “as a substitute for personal memory” (192). Wolf has similar fears; her concern with our use of the web’s immediate access to information is that it may cause our reading brains to be less developed in the “range of attentional, inferential, and reflective capabilities” that are associated with deep reading (214).

Making the brain better at reading online
Let’s face it; it’s highly unlikely that the web is going to become less distracting for the benefit of the worldwide reading brain. So what can we do to make sure that we get the most out of reading, both online and offline? We can make sure that we have a mix of print and online reading in our own lives, as Wolf recommends, in order to facilitate the processes of deep reading (Raphael). A skill we can take from expert readers is to annotate while we read. Konnikova notes that studies have suggested that annotation “helped improve comprehension and reading strategy use.” Hillesund explains in his study that highlighting, taking notes, and annotating helped expert readers in four ways: it helps “slow down the pace of reading,” improves overall comprehension, makes “visible relevant connections,” and gives a useful path for the “re-reading of passages.”

The reading studies cited focused on an older demographic, and agreed that more research will need to be done on the newest generation that has grown up with technology in order to better understand their reading habits and techniques for learning (Liu 710). Wolf worries that the next generation may never become expert readers and instead may be “a society of decoders… whose false sense of knowing distracts them from a deeper development of their intellectual potential” (226). Wolf recommends that teachers, parents, and guardians ensure that kids are “taking some time away from scattered reading” in order to develop deep reading skills, as well as providing “explicit instruction for reading multiple modalities of text presentation… [so] that our children learn multiple ways of processing information” (Raphael, Wolf 16). Konnikova advises that “Not only should digital reading be introduced more slowly into the curriculum; it also should be integrated with the more immersive reading skills that deeper comprehension requires.”

The best way to get the most out of your everyday online and offline reading is to give yourself more time. If you do that, you can follow web links and make your own links inside your brain. You should also be aware of your own multitasking behaviours. The allure of multitasking disrupts deep reading, so you have to teach yourself to focus first and foremost. Instead of skimming as fast as possible, Wolf reminds us that we need to “find the ability to pause and pull back from what seems to be developing into an incessant need to fill every millisecond with new information” (Wolf). The good news is that our brains are adaptable (hence “neuroplasticity”) so that we can learn (and relearn) the skills of deep reading. Wolf believes that our ultimate goal as a reading public is to develop “a discerning bi-literate brain,” whereby our brains can recognize when we need to skim, and when we need to read deeply, and the wisdom to know when to use each part (Raphael).


Works Cited:

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010. Print.

Hillesund, Terje. “Digital Reading Spaces: How Expert Readers Handle Books, the Web and Electronic Paper.First Monday 15.4 (5 April 2010). Web. 9 Feb. 2016.

Konnikova, Maria. “Being a Better Online Reader.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 16 July 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.

Liu, Ziming. “Reading Behaviour in the Digital Environment: Changes in Reading Behaviour Over the Past Ten Years.” Journal of Documentation 61.6 (2005): 700-712. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.

Manjoo, Farhad. “You Won’t Finish This Article: Why People Online Don’t Read to the End.Slate. Slate, 6 June 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.

Meeker, Mary. “Internet Trends 2015 – Code Conference.” Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. 27 May 2015: 1-196. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.

Raphael, T.J.. “Your Paper Brain and Your Kindle Brain Aren’t the Same Thing.” Public Radio International. PRI, 18 Sept. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.

Subrahmanyam, Kaveri, et al.. “Learning from Paper, Learning from Screens: Impact of Screen Reading and Multitasking Conditions on Reading and Writing among College Students.” International Journal of Cyber Behaviour 3.4 (2013): 1-27. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.

Wolf, Maryanne. “Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions.” Nieman Reports. Nieman Reports, 29 June 2010. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.

—. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

One Reply to “Why You Don’t Remember What You Read Online Yesterday”

  1. This is a thorough and well organized summary of existing work on digital reading. It brings together several sources and puts them (in some instances) in conversation with each other. It offers us reason to reflect, reason to worry, and a way of remaining optimistic. A very informative read… for anyone who actually reads it through to the end.

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