Extra, extra

Discuss how different digital reading experiences are similar or different from one another. What distinguishes each? Are they all forms of reading? Is one more “pure” than the rest?

The other day during a job interview I was asked where I get my media and how I engage with it and I really had to stop and think about it. Part of my answer was that most of the news I read, I read on twitter from seeing an article that has been retweeted and then choosing to click on it and read it in full. What this generally means is that I read the news on my smartphone.

According to NeimanLab’s Laura Owen, there is, well, “bad news” about reading news on mobile. A paper published in 2018 by Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication by Johanna Dunaway, Kathleen Searles, Mingxiao Sui, and Newly Paul argues that attention is not the same for mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, as opposed to attention to news on computers. They conducted an extensive study on web traffic data and used eye tracking in two lab experiments to capture the effects of mobile devices on attention.

Through tracking attention to news links in the following ways: “duration of fixation on links embedded in news stories, number of fixations on embedded news links, and a dichotomous measure of whether participants fixate on links at all,” they determined that on average, people spend less time on news story content on mobile, and are less likely to notice links on their mobile devices in comparison to when they are on their computers. Their overall findings were that people spend less time on news web pages online and that their focus wavers more while on these devices, and so platforms that prioritize delivering our news through mobile (like Twitter) can be harmful since readers are processing less of the information.

It is worth considering how reading on mobile devices can change our reading experience because according to Fortune.com, 85% of U.S adults read their news on a mobile device. That is not even digitally — that is specifically on mobile!

“There is the stereotype that people buried in their smartphones in public places have tiny minds to go along with their tiny screens and tiny attention spans. None of this bodes well for the future of long-form journalism” — Forbes

Interestingly, a study done in 2016 by the Pew Research Center also investigated how much time people on their cellphones spend reading news articles and what kind of routes readers take to get to news websites from their phones. Pew specifically wanted to measure if mobile users are still responding to long-form journalism (so journalism as was originally intended).

This is what Pew found:

What they discovered was that reading time does, in fact, increase with the increase of the word count. On average, cellphone users spend 123 seconds on long-form articles versus 57 seconds on short-form articles.

While Kevin Murnane’s Forbes article “Think People Who Read On Smartphones Have Short Attention Spans? Think Again” seemed optimistic about these stats, I am not sure I share his positive outlook, because those are awfully short times spent on news articles if you compare them to the amount of time each of my classmates spent on each individual article for our readings every week.

I think there are a number of reasons why readers are not spending as much time reading on mobile devices (despite the increase in accessibility to news sources), the first being distractions. I do not have push notifications on my laptop, but I do on my phone. If someone is as much as writing me a message on snapchat, that is visible to me and can immediately grab my attention, leaving me to forget the article.

Most of us skim on both our mobile and our computers, but the space is narrower on smartphones than it is on a computer, which can result in the article length feeling more daunting, thus resulting in an increase in skimming. And my third rationale is that phones do not necessarily utilize tabs in the same way that computers do. My phone has multiple tabs, but only one online tab visible at a time, and so when I go to delete unused tabs I often have over 20 to delete that I had long since forgotten about because a new link route had been opened.

I can see why mobile reading might be a less “pure” form of reading than reading on one’s computer, with print journalism trumping both in terms of providing the best reader experience resulting in the absorption of information. That being said, access is a necessity, and I have easy access to articles on my phone, whereas most newspapers cost money. I also have zero interest in having newspapers pile up and occupy my already cramped living space, and so while I might make the switch to reading more on my computer rather than mobile, newspaper journalism remains an unattractive alternative.

Works Cited:

People read news differently on phones than they do on computers, new study suggests

85% of U.S Adults Read the News on a Mobile Device

Think People Who Read the News on Smartphones Have Short Attention Spans? Think Again

2 Replies to “Extra, extra”

  1. Hey Amber! I like that you compared your personal reading habits between mobile and computer and backed it up with some research! Great job!
    I like the point you made here:
    “I am not sure I share his positive outlook, because those are awfully short times spent on news articles if you compare them to the amount of time each of my classmates spent on each individual article for our readings every week.”

    123 seconds (2 minutes) on a long form article is not really that long, you’re right. We were definitely spending way more time but that’s also because we were actively engaging with it and critically thinking about it. I wonder if more people should be doing that? Less content would be consumed though – because people would spend more time on one article. That doesn’t bode well for advertisers and publishers perhaps. But it’s definitely a better reading experience to read slowly and think about it.
    I guess there are pros and cons to everything!

  2. Hey Amber,
    Thanks for this post! Similar to Avvai, I also really liked that you used something from your life (a question at a job interview) as an entry point exploration, research, and reflection regarding reading the news on digital platforms.

    I think your point about notifications on cellphones is such a good one—it’s so easy to get sidetracked and forget about something you were reading when you have texts etc. flying in your face.

    Similar to this point, I think the portability of mobile phones also contributes to these shorter average reading times—if I’m out and reading something on my phone, it’s not an uninterrupted reading experience. I might have to pay at a check out, board or get off of the bus, speak to someone, etc. etc. I’d be interested to know if people tended to revisit articles on a computer that they encountered first on their mobile device—I do this sometimes using that Pocket app, which I’ve found a useful antidote to the distracted mobile reading experience.

    Congratulations on finishing PUB 802!

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