Humans of New York: A Case Study in Viral Stories

HONY
Humans of New York (HONY) has employed many strategies in order to become successful on the web. This photo blog turned social media sensation has over 17 million likes on Facebook and almost 5 million followers on Instagram to date. There is no doubt that HONY is popular, but the purpose of this essay is to understand why. HONY’s basic premise is a simple photograph and a quotation from the subject photographed. But this phenomenon is far from “simple,” and is extremely successful on the web, soliciting sometimes hundreds of thousands of likes, shares, and comments within a day (on Facebook alone). After reading an article by Maria Konnikova about viral stories, I applied her question to HONY: “What was it about a piece of content… that took it from simply interesting to interesting and shareable? What pushes someone not only to read a story but to pass it on?” (Konnikova). Using Jonah Berger’s six tenets of virality from his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, this essay will explore Berger’s principles in relation to HONY, in order to better understand how HONY’s content is consistently viral.

 

Social Currency

Essentially, social currency is the ability to “make people feel like insiders” (Berger 22). HONY pulls in readers with often very personal quotations by the subject of the photograph. The photographer/founder of HONY, Brandon Stanton, explains that what makes HONY so moving is the juxtaposition of “seeing a photo of somebody that you know nothing about except for this—one kind of very vulnerable or intimate piece of information—is a very powerful combination” (qtd. in Hendrikson “Humans”). This strangely intimate information makes readers feel like insiders, providing them with the necessary social currency. Readers get to know deep details of a stranger’s life, yet they do not need to match the emotional outlay, resulting in personal satisfaction. HONY and Stanton have been widely criticized for this emotional saturation, eliciting comments that his portraits with captions actually gravitate to the “quick and cavalier consumption of others” with “flattening humanism” (Cunningham). But others have stated that HONY can have a more positive benefit to readers, symbolically linking them to those with similar challenges or experiences. Dr. Ellen Hendrikson explains that “HONY offers many things—empathy, validation—but the biggest thing… people get out of it is normalization. If a random stranger shown on HONY does or thinks something you thought you were alone in doing or thinking, it breaks the grip of ‘I’m the only one’” (Hendrikson, “Psychology”). Humans of New York is instantly appealing as we are naturally “curious about humans and hungry for the elements that connect us” (Mirchandani).

 

Triggers

Berger explains that for content to go viral, “lots of people have to pass along the same piece of content at around the same time” (Berger 97). To accomplish that, the content needs to be kept in the forefront of readers’ minds, as “the more often people think about [it]… the more it will be talked about” and the best chance for success is to have what you want people to talk about “frequently triggered by the environment” (Berger 23). HONY accomplishes this triggering by thriving within the online environment, producing content specifically for social media. This way, HONY’s content will appear within the social media streams and feeds that its audience is already consuming. Readers cannot easily forget about HONY because it keeps popping up, seamlessly integrating into their social channels. In its early days, Stanton quickly realized that his blog was gaining more and more traffic from social media, so he “removed [his] ‘free-standing’ website, and began hosting 100% of [HONY’s] content on social media” (Stanton). The HONY website still exists, but is merely a placeholder to drive traffic to their social media venues, as evidenced by the calls to action at the top of their webpage.

 

Emotion

Berger says that “When we care, we share” and thus “[n]aturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion” (Berger 23). HONY often features emotional content, and the stories predictably go viral because they “are impactful, emotional, short, visual, and engaging” (Corrado). Some, however, have criticized this approach, claiming that Stanton’s “humans are actually caricatures…reduced to whatever decontextualized sentence or three he chooses to use along with their photo” (D’Addario). D’Addario further claims that readers are “emotionally manipulated” by Stanton’s representation of a person’s life and are guilted into “press[ing] the thumbs-up sign” (D’Addario). Or is it that Stanton is simply a good interviewer, knowing what part of a person’s story reflects real raw emotion? Stanton explains that the original blog consisted only of photos, then of short quotations, and then “it turned into 30- or 45-minute interviews… with each subject” as he dug deeper into the narrativizing of the photos (qtd. in Hendrikson “Humans”). Stanton asserts that every single person has a powerful story, and HONY is based on the principle that “there is enough drama and comedy and emotion and love in the life of every person to formulate a story that will captivate millions of people” (qtd. in Hendrikson “Humans”). But not every post is emotional roller coaster; Stanton also features cute kids and puppies, which encourage feel-good sharing with emotional levity.

 

Public

Since all HONY content lives online, all behaviours associated with HONY are performed in public. Berger explains that “[m]aking things observable makes them easier to imitate, which makes them more likely to become popular” (Berger 24). This means that when people like/favourite a HONY post/page on Facebook or Instagram, or share an individual post on either platform, each action is done in public and produces more visibility for HONY’s content, which in turn perpetuates its own popularity. In reference to Facebook, Berger notes that “[b]y simply clicking the Like button, people not only show their affinity with… [an] idea, or organization, they also help spread the word that something is good or worth paying attention to” (Berger 149). HONY also fits the characteristics of Alexander and Levine’s “Web 2.0 Storytelling” model. The first feature is “microcontent” meaning the using and reusing of “small chunks of content, with each chunk conveying a primary idea or concept” (Alexander and Levine 42). HONY creates a small story package with a photo, and can reuse that content throughout its various online incarnations, though it has been identified that Facebook is HONY’s “native and most comfortable medium” (Cunningham) as evidenced by Stanton’s screenshotting and posting of Facebook-first content on HONY’s Twitter.

The second part of Alexander and Levine’s model is “storytelling” which is described in the digital realm as “a narrated personal story of overcoming obstacles, achieving a dream, honoring a deceased family member, or describing an event” (Alexander and Levine 44). This wide definition surprisingly fits the overall model of many of the stories posted by HONY. Another public action that readers can engage in is commenting on a post, and indeed, Alexander and Levine note that “[u]ser-generated content is a key element of Web 2.0” (47). What is particularly pertinent for HONY is that these comments actually become integral to the HONY experience: these interactions “fold into the experience of the overall story from the perspective of subsequent readers” (Alexander and Levine 47). Various reactions such as sympathy or empathy may be offered through these comments, but overall the effect is engagement, facilitated by the open web, which “inches toward full-blown community” (Hendrikson, “Psychology”).

 

Practical Value

Berger asserts that humans naturally “care about others and… want to make their lives better” (Berger 177). HONY has proven that it can actually accomplish a lot in terms of helping others through its social media. Heralded as a stunning example of community engagement, HONY is also being recognized as “a model for crowdfunding” (Mirchandani). HONY has started many fundraising campaigns, and has raised millions of dollars for various causes and people not just within New York, but also internationally. One particularly successful example is from within the United States, and it all started off with a photo of “Middle school student Vidal Chastanet… stating his truth about the school principal who inspires him in his rough Brooklyn neighbourhood” (Grinberg et al.). The post went viral, soliciting over 1.2 million likes on one photo alone on Facebook.

An online campaign began a few weeks later to benefit Vidal’s school: the goal was a class trip to Harvard, in order to “broaden students’ horizons and expand their idea of their potential” (Grinberg et al.). Owing to the campaign’s wild success on Indiegogo, raising over $1.4 million (1,418% of their original goal of $100,000!) Stanton announced that the school was “starting a scholarship fund available to the graduates of Mott Hall Bridges Academy” naming it the Vidal Scholarship, as Vidal was the inspiration and would be the first recipient of the fund (Grinberg et al.). This fundraising success could only be done this quickly and coordinated with expert efficiency because of HONY’s popularity on social media, which leveraged its connections and converted many readers into donors.

 

Stories

Humans of New York’s tagline, New York City, one story at a time, emphasizes the most important part of HONY—the stories. Berger notes that in order for content to go viral, it needs to be packaged as a story, as “[p]eople don’t just share information, they tell stories” (Berger 24). When asked “why New York City?” about the choice of location for the project, Stanton replied, “If you’re going to exhibit the diversity of the lives and stories on Planet Earth… I don’t think there’s any single location that would be easier to do that than New York” (qtd. in Miller). Stanton’s original stated goal for the blog at its inception in 2010 was “to create an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants, so [he] set out to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and plot their photos on a map” (“About” 2016). After many months of creating content with this goal in mind, the blog began to take on a different character, and Stanton “noticed that the stories and quotes were becoming as important, or more important, than the photos” and that the inclusion of stories was the “tipping point” for HONY’s popularity (Stanton). When asked about how we can become more empathetic towards strangers, Stanton foregrounds the importance of learning others’ stories: “it’s the most simple thing in the world: just learn about [others]” (qtd. in Hendrikson “Humans”). He also emphasizes the role of HONY’s online environment, stating that the Internet is creating “sub-communities that reach across boundaries… that allow people to connect” through stories, which has an “inherently… pacifying effect in the world” (qtd. in Hendrikson “Humans”). HONY has also branched beyond the web, with Stanton’s authoring of three successful books: Humans of New York, Little Humans, and Humans of New York: Stories. The first book alone had 30,000 pre-orders, and spent its first 29 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, thanks to Stanton’s careful cultivation and promotion though his many social channels (Corrado).

 

Conclusion

Stories are the main reason Humans of New York has become so increasingly popular. Berger explains the almost magnetic attraction to reading HONY posts, as “[n]arratives are inherently more engrossing than basic facts. . . . If people get sucked in early, they’ll stay for the conclusion. . . . You want to find out whether they missed the plane or what they did with a house full of screaming nine year olds. You started down a path and you want to know how it ends. Until it does, they’ve captured your attention” (Berger 181). The rapid growth of HONY’s social media channels is precisely because of Stanton’s ability to ask the right questions during interviews and to shape the responses into unified kernel stories with immense impact. Stanton’s savvy as a web strategist also contributes to his success, he explains the journey of HONY as “a constant process of ditching what’s not working, and doubling down on what’s working” (Stanton). Stanton moulded HONY content from a close-ended project about New York to an “open-ended blog about individuals,” moving from photo- and blog-exclusive website content, to reusable social media content with a prime focus on stories (Stanton). Stanton has been able to profit directly and indirectly from HONY: directly through book deals and royalties, and indirectly through his own profile from HONY, which translated to “collaborations, … magazine pieces, occasional speeches” and freelance photography jobs (Stanton). At the same time, Stanton has been able to facilitate the help of others by crowdfunding using the HONY web community and storytelling through social media.

 

 

Works Cited

About.” Humans of New York, 2016. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Alexander, Bryan, and Alan Levine. “Web 2.0 Storytelling: Emergence of a New Genre.” EduCause Review November/December (2008): 40-56. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Berger, Jonah. Contagious: Why Things Catch On. London: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print.

Corrado, Taylor. “Digital Storytelling, Crowdfunding, and Social Media: How HONY Raised $1,000,000 Online.” Blue State Digital. BSD, 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Cunningham, Vinson. “Humans of New York and the Cavalier Consumption of Others.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 3 Nov. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

D’Addario, Daniel. “The Problem With Humans of New York.” Gawker. Gawker, 13 Aug. 2014. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Grinberg, Emanuella, Lisa Respers France, and Katia Hetter. “Obama Meets Boy Who Inspired $1 Million Fundraiser.” CNN. International ed., 6 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Hendrikson, Ellen. “Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton on How to Talk to Strangers.” Savvy Psychologist. Quick and Dirty Tips, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

—. “Psychology of Why You Love Humans of New York.” Savvy Psychologist. Quick and Dirty Tips, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Humans of New York.” Humans of New York, 2016. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Konnikova, Maria. “The Six Things that Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Miller, Sharde. “Humans of New York Creator Reveals How He Gets People to Share Life’s Intimate Details.” ABC News. ABC News, 12 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Mirchandani, Tricia. “What You Can Learn About Crowdfunding From Humans of New York (HONY).CauseVox. CauseVox, 23 Apr. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Stanton, Brandon. “I am Brandon Stanton, creator of the Humans of New York blog. I’ve stopped, photographed, and interviewed thousands of strangers on the streets of NYC.” BestofAMA. Reddit AMA, 20 May 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

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.

The Death of the Author—Again

Peter Brantley in his article, “The New Ones: The Only Horizon is Before Us,” discusses a software developer who is interested in digital authorship as he “wants to play with versioning, reader collaboration, and all the other cool things you can do on the web,” such as “deal[ing] with iterative story-telling, and foster[ing] reader engagement.” This new, fluid, multi-voice authorship of the Web 2.0 challenges both the romantic ideal of the author-as-sole-creator (or genius), and concepts of the singular authorial voice and the author’s role in textual production. Divorced from the notion of the author in a place of importance as the sole provider of a unified text, Ana Sevilla-Pavón explains in “Examining Collective Authorship in Collaborative Writing Tasks through Digital Storytelling” that “the notion of author of contents created and shared through digital technologies has shifted and evolved towards a state of what in many cases could be considered as being nearly invisible.” She notes that before this type of collaboration, readers consumed information passively, but now we have “enabled individuals to become simultaneously users, receivers and producers of content and information,” which increases overall learning. The concern of not having “an author” per se is one of responsibility—should we trust the information if we don’t know whom the authors are? Do they feel less responsible for the content if their names aren’t attached to it, or they are relatively unidentifiable? Sevilla-Pavón’s assertion that “Very often, we do not know the ‘original’ author(s) of the content we are constantly accessing, reinterpreting and modifying” made me think of Wikipedia, which is in my mind one of the greatest successes of digital multi-authorship. I think of Wikipedia as a useful academic resource for both a broad overview of any particular concept as well as an avenue for finding relevant source information through user-generated citations. In my opinion, Wikipedia has only become more reliable with increased use, collaboration, and engagement. Also of concern for academic writing are citations: how would one cite a Wikipedia page? Interestingly, Wikipedia provides auto-generated citation for each of its pages. For example, when searching for “Puppy,” the citation is as follows:

Wikipedia contributors. “Puppy.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Jan. 2016. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.

Normally the author name begins the citation, but here, even credit is given among all contributors (all 1,476 as of today), thereby attempting to acknowledge its multi-authored nature.

 

Works Cited:

Brantley, Peter. 2013. “The New Ones: The Only Horizon is Before Us.” PWxyz (Archived).

Sevilla-Pavón, Ana. “Examining Collective Authorship in Collaborative Writing Tasks through Digital Storytelling.” European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 6 Dec. 2015.

Libraries & Publishers Need to Work Together

Peter Osnos in his article “The Coming Book Wars: Apple vs. Amazon vs. Google vs. the U.S.” writes that everyone in the publishing industry “will find it very hard to keep up with the pace of sweeping changes underway connected to the impact of the enormous expansion of digital reading.” The fact is that people are reading online and reading ebooks, and Osnos cites 21% of Americans had read an ebook in 2011, and digital readers consumed an average of six more books yearly than just the print reader alone. One of the issues Osnos foresees that “greatly complicate[s] the evolving book culture and the publishing business” is the concerns of libraries and digital reading. Libraries have the issue of “how to integrate e-books into the traditional role of lending libraries” for two reasons; they want to “remain relevant by increasing the universe of material that is available electronically,” as well as “maintaining their venues as destinations people choose to visit.” Osnos claims that “publishers remain wary of making current e-books available through libraries, because of the likelihood that potential buyers instead will become borrowers of digital books that never wear out,” but I don’t think that’s necessarily what their concern is. Publishers know that potential print buyers can take out their print books from the library just as they always have, and instead of buying their ebooks, they could also rent ebooks from the library. OverDrive is one system through which the public can borrow ebooks from the library. Just like print books, the library purchases ebooks, which are then signed out by one person per copy at a time. So readers have to wait to read the digital file, even though there is no physical object that needs to be returned. What kind of user experience is that? It seems crazy to me (I mean, as of now, if people need the book right away, they can buy the ebook). The library buys a copy of the ebook, which Osnos states as one of publisher’s pricing difficulties: should they charge “as much as triple the price of e-books to libraries” in order to account for the repeated circulation of the item? Instead of having to guess at a fair price, and of making patrons wait to check out the ebook, why don’t libraries pay the publisher on a per-checkout basis? And before you think that’s crazy, think about the Public Lending Right. The PLR system is designed to “compensate authors for the potential loss of sales from their works being available in public libraries.” So why can’t we extend this type of system for publishers for their ebooks within libraries? (And the publishers could then pay authors based on their agreements). As of now, the Public Lending Right has variations on payment, but setting up a system whereby publishers can be paid for their ebook offerings through libraries makes the most sense for all parties concerned. The publisher will be compensated correctly, the author will be paid fairly, and the patron will have a better experience.

 

Reading:

Osnos, Peter. 2012, April 17. The Coming Book Wars: Apple vs. Amazon vs. Google vs. the U.S. The Atlantic.

Can I Have Your Attention Please?

The readings for this week focussed on how the Internet has changed and consequently how our interaction with the web has changed. One of the most interesting trends noted in “The Web We Have to Save” is that the web used to be more text-based content driven, such as reading online magazines, and has now shifted to more video- and image-based content (Derakhshan). This aligns with Dash and Kottke’s insights on “the death of the blog,” or how independent websites/blogs used to host valuable and focussed content on the free web, and how content is now couched within third-party sites and apps like Facebook. The goal of these apps is for users to spend as much time within the app as possible, and to not navigate out of its platform, hence the devaluing (or disabling) of the hyperlink (Dash, Derakhshan). The structure of these major apps contributes to their ability to keep our attention intra-app. This structure is called “the stream,” where users are “fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex… algorithms” (Derakhshan). The algorithms rank based on how users interact with the content, and privilege and promote what is popular and habitual, reinforcing its grip on our attention. According to “Internet Trends 2015” it is working. We are spending more time on digital media—2.9 more hours per day than 7 years ago—for a total of 5.6 hours per day on average (Meeker 14). This is why Clay Shirky tells his students to put their laptops away during class, and in his research he explains that multitaskers have impaired “declarative memory,” or the what-did-you-just-learn memory that is so important to students. Shirky’s assertion that “hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract” is corroborated by Meeker’s data that notifications are growing rapidly and are more interactive (54). How sinister, too, that “Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field” (Shirky). Instead of just assuming that we have shorter attention spans, after this reading I am convinced that the real problem is we are attempting to multitask during every second of our day. We are constantly being interrupted by our devices. When we do check our phones, we are sucked into the perpetual streams on our apps, which happen to feature really interesting personalized information with eye-grabbing pictures and videos. My main reaction from these readings is: What are we doing to ourselves? Wouldn’t it be best to unplug and focus? The next time someone laughs at me for taking notes on paper (my specialty) I’m going to smile to myself silently.

 

Readings:

Shirky, Clay. 2014, September 9. Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away. Medium.

Meeker, Mary. 2015. Internet Trends 2015 – Code Conference

Dash, Anil. 2012. The Web we Lost.  Anil Dash: A blog about making culture.

Derakhshan, Hossein. 2015, July 14. The Web We Have to Save.

Kottke, Jason. 2013, December. The blog is dead, long live the blogNiemanLab.