Sunday, May 20, 2018
Perspective

Perspective: My piece on reading got skimmed

Last Sunday, I wrote a story that ran on the front page of Perspective about how scanning and skimming our way through the Internet is messing with our ability to read deeper and longer works. The article, first published in the Washington Post, went viral, generating an enormous online conversation, including Twitter and Facebook debates — and even starring in Craig Ferguson's monologue on CBS's Late Late Show.

But here's a question for the digital age: Did all those readers actually read the story? Lots of people joked about this on Twitter, with variations of "I skimmed this." We decided to find out.

The good folks at Chartbeat, which tracks how people read digital content, performed an analysis and found that 25 percent of readers didn't even scroll past the headline and photograph to the text of the article. A smaller percentage of readers dropped off somewhere toward the middle of the story. And 31 percent made it all the way through. (I have a lollipop for that group.)

As the writer, should I be happy about those numbers or deeply, deeply sad? I asked Josh Schwartz, Chartbeat's chief data scientist. Then I held my breath.

"Anytime I talk to journalists, they always ask that question," Schwartz said.

Not an answer. This felt not good.

And then: "Those are very good numbers, though," he said.

This felt great! But perplexing. If only 31 of every 100 readers made it to the end of my piece, how can that be good?

Schwartz said that, on average, about one-third of news readers never start reading a page after they open it. The worst-of-the-worst articles see up to 90 percent of visitors saying goodbye without reading.

And here's the scary, fascinating conclusion: "The fact that the numbers on this story are so good," Schwartz said, shows "that most people don't read the article they land on."

They do what my original story said. They look for key words, and if something excites them, they read. If not, they scamper around. There is, apparently, a lot of scampering. This is how we deal with the superabundance of information online. The problem I've found in my own reading life — like other readers I interviewed — is that I am beginning to read this way with novels and other longer works.

Cognitive neuroscientists are worried about this. I think they are on to something.

© 2014 Washington Post

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