Overload—the amount people feel compelled to know combined with the volume of information they have to sift through in order to know it—is perhaps the largest factor in the increasingly distinct difference between how people read printed material and how they read online. Faced with the reality of having two eyes, one brain, and what the latest count estimates to be one trillion Web pages, many people forego immersive reading of a handful of sites in order to skim the surface of thousands.
Although scores of academics study everything from how the number of hyperlinks on a page affects a user’s heart rate to how parents read e-books to their children, the new type of reading that the Web either drives or enables is here to stay.
Newspaper designers and editors have begun their own attempts to determine Web readers’ habits. It’s part of an effort to make newspaper Web content fit the pace and shape of the Internet, divine reader tastes, and determine how to bring an audience to their sites and make them stay awhile. But honing Web strategies can also be a process of exclusion. It has been argued that long-form narrative, in-depth analysis, and other time-consuming examples of newspapers’ strengths will not translate online—a rather dubious claim given the extremely varied Web content that exists today—but there is also little doubt that the Web is rapidly evolving, and it is impossible to predict, with any certainty, where that evolution will ultimately take us.
In 1997, Jakob Nielsen, who would later be dubbed “the guru of Web page usability” by The New York Times, posted an article on his site titled “How Users Read on the Web.” “They don’t,” Nielsen explained, citing research he had conducted that showed 79 percent of users scanned any new pages they came across, and only 16 percent read word by word. (The most common method of scanning looks something like an F-shape: two quick horizontal glances followed by a third down the left-hand side.) Nielsen is a usability expert whose goal is to narrow the gap between how people wish to use a Web page and how that Web page is actually designed. Toward that end, he works to streamline, perhaps even encourage, the behaviors that the Internet fosters, behaviors that some scientists and intellectuals fear herald a new, less desirable—even dangerous—kind of literacy.
Nielsen has found Web users to be engaged in a “ruthless pursuit” of bits of personally relevant information. To help them in this hunt, he recommends that articles written for the Web include “highlighted keywords,” “one idea per paragraph,” and “bulleted lists.” The mass of narratives and investigations that fill a newspaper are, in the eyes of Nielsen’s Web user, distractions to be hounded into the shadows.
Mario Garcia Jr., of the prolific newspaper design firm Garcia Media, has suggested that “a newspaper is something we read, but the Web is something we do.” I wondered out loud to Nielsen whether newspaper Web sites could draw an audience that is interested in something beyond all of this using and doing. “What about all the other things that people want or need?” I asked. “What about education?”
“The analogy with the school doesn’t work because you’ve forced the children to attend,” he said. “You can’t force anyone to go to a Web site so you have to make it more appealing to people. They’ll still get what’s good for them, but they won’t get the things that are just a little bit good for them.”