Following up on last month’s buzz about the Internet killing literacy, this NYT article baldly states,

Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.

Yes, internet reading is nonlinear. Yes, it may be tied to some disturbing trends in youth literacy (the article cites the same National Endowment for the Arts data and Atlantic Monthly article I linked to in my post last month.) Yes. . . the salient thing about this NYT article is that, although it’s a well-written discussion of a controversial question, it also shows how little data is out there to feed this important conversation. There’s a serious need for measurable benchmarks and well-defined criteria. What exactly is that clear difference between reading online and on paper? And what learning outcomes can we use to objectively determine, anecdotes aside, if one is “better” than the other? (Presumably neither will be better – each will have different strengths).

It’s an open question, and will probably continue to be so for some time to come.


  1. #1 Jon H
    August 1, 2008

    “, internet reading is nonlinear.”

    Weeeellll, it *can* be, but it isn’t necessarily.

    A New York Times magazine feature article is not especially more non-linear on screen than it is in print. Nor does A Tale Of Two Cities become non-linear when you’re reading it from Project Gutenberg rather than a Penguin Classics paperback. Reading an online Encyclopedia Britannica article requires no more obligatory topic-jumping than the paper model, though you are free to click any links that pique your interest.

    There seems to be an assumption in the original article that “reading online” is always that super-dooper-hyper-texty activity that Wired told us it would be 15 years ago, but that is only a single mode of usage.

    Sometimes, you go on a manic surf binge, careening from one wikipedia article to another to imdb to YouTube etc without ever quite finishing anything.

    Sometimes, you read closely an article from PLOS, which is also ‘internet reading’.

  2. #2 Jessica Palmer
    August 2, 2008

    Sure, but how often do you sit and read something straight through on the Internet, Jon? Personally, if I have to read an article, I almost always print it out – it’s more comfortable for my eyes, but I’m also less likely to be distracted – not only by internal hyperlinks, but also by IMs, emails, and the opportunity to check other information sources as the whim strikes me. It my be quite different for you, of course – but the question is, overall, what are people doing?

    I’d love to see actual numbers on how often people “reading” online are reading in the linear, traditional way, vs. reading in a multitasking, skipping-around way. Does anyone know of any studies differentiating the types of documents people read on line?

  3. #3 Maxrad
    August 2, 2008

    We all seem to be saying “nonlinear like it’s a bad thing.

    To be sure, part of the power of (hardcopy) print is its linearity. But that’s not to imply/infer/impugn that nonlinear reading is not equally powerful, albeit in different ways.

    I would suggest to the discussion that the n-dimensional nature of hypertext makes it more like the way we humans interact with the so-called real world. It brings an effectively unlimited number of possibilities to bear on the linear process. And in those possibilities lies power.

    Hypertext is more friendly to a “don’t-know” exploratory mindset. It’s better suited to different (nonlinear, obviously) learning styles. And it it opens up source text to a wider range of supplemental information, interpretations, and possibilities. (The advent of tabbed browsing allows the reader to impose his or her own preferred degree of linearity to the reading process, opening up a unique dimension where the very linear aspect of print to becomes a reader-controlled experience.)

    As has been said many, many times before, the internet is not a “replacement” for print media any more than television was a replacement for radio or movies, If anything, internet augments traditional print by offering a different context for its content.

    Consider the example of spoken-word recordings. They’re just as “linear” as reading the print with your eyeballs– the recordings tell exactly the same story in exactly the same fashion (although the timeline is extended, unless you’re a particularly slow reader). But they also add entire layers of meaning and nuance to that linear experience. Which might be good or bad, depending, but it’s certainly not an “inferior” experience.

    Hypertext does something analogous, but the direction in which it takes the reading experience is only as unlinear (I wouldn’t even say “nonlinear”, especially)as the reader wants it to be.

    And, depending on what you’re after, anyway, that’s a good thing.

  4. #4 Jon H
    August 2, 2008

    “Sure, but how often do you sit and read something straight through on the Internet, Jon? ”

    Fairly often, actually.

    Heck, I wrote a Mac app for easier reading of Gutenberg e-books, but once it got to the point of being ‘good enough’ to use, I wound up procrastinating by reading the e-texts rather than coding. Tale of Two Cities, the Moonstone, King Solomon’s Mines, etc etc. (I was unemployed at the time so I had plenty of time for this…)

    Then there was the night when, for some reason, i decided to read about all the Popes in Britannica. Some articles are long, some are short. I read them all until they got boring in the post-Renaissance period when the Popes stopped poisoning each other.

    However, there’s nothing inherently wrong with nonlinear, or even partial, reading. In fact, a good (or essential) reading skill is to know when to read all of something, when to skim, and when to stop reading as soon as you have what you need or have determined that the item is not interesting or useful.

    There’s no moral imperative to read everything to completion.

    The real difference now is not how people read. Internet reading is no different than the way people read a newspaper or magazine. They rarely read every word. They read some stories intently, they skim others, they skip still others entirely. They might even completely avoid entire sections (sports, obits, legal notices).

    The real difference is the vast quantity of material available to read on the internet.

    Somehow, cheap mass-produced newspapers (with morning and evening editions!) and magazines – which greatly increased the amount of information available to people who often had only a Bible to read – didn’t damage literacy, despite catering to skim-reading and predominantly short item length.