Nielsen is equal parts realist and optimist, a result of his belief that communication mediums exist in a kind of socialist harmony where each does its part to fulfill a different task. (He’s originally from Denmark, which may explain this.) He argues that we should accept the fact that the Web isn’t well suited for deep reading or narrative, but says that’s okay because other mediums, such as books or magazines, will always be there to fill that role. The flipside to his argument that different mediums needn’t fear one another, however, is a rather narrow view of what any given medium is allowed to be—the content of a declining medium (print newspapers) can latch on to a surging one (the Web), but not without being completely integrated into the new form. If Nielsen is right, narrative storytelling and investigative journalism, at least as they exist in print newspapers, will be stranded without a business model to sustain them.
Maryanne Wolf, the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, thinks, unlike Nielsen, that the more scattered style of Web reading is not simply picked up when one opens a browser and left behind when it is closed. Instead, Wolf has argued that reading, an unnatural act to which we’ve forced our brains to become accustomed, in effect requires us to create a new circuit within our brains. She said that what and how we read determine the function of that circuit, and that the methodical way in which we read a book is more than an example of how our brains perform feats such as logic—it is the model by which we became logical thinkers. In other words, deep thinking is nurtured by deep reading. Call it the you-are-what-you-eat theory of cerebral input, and Wolf believes that the size of the Web is driving people to frantic, chaotic gorging.
Nicholas Carr, who wrote the much-discussed Atlantic cover story last summer employing Wolf’s findings, worries that the way a person reads on the Internet becomes the way he or she thinks in other facets of life—in a classroom, for example, or a voting booth. Elsewhere, Carr has suggested that the upshot of this shift could be the devolution of “contemplative man” to “flickering man,” at which point only the most monastic Web reader would be able to focus on deep reading within a newspaper’s Web site while the rest of the Internet idled in the background.
In 2007, the Poynter Institute released the results of EyeTrack ’07, the largest effort yet to decipher how readers look at newspapers, both in print and online. Five hundred and eighty-two regular readers of newspapers in four cities were selected for the study. Those who got their news primarily from the Web were placed in one group, the holdouts from print in another. Cameras tracked their retinas as they went about what for them was still a common routine.
The results, heartening to most but perhaps disappointing to those who subscribe to the doomsday theory of online reading, described something markedly different from the scenario recommended by Nielsen and warned against by Wolf and Carr. Web readers were more selective in the stories they chose, but once they found what they wanted, they read a substantially higher percentage of text than their print counterparts—a result that was true across all story lengths. Rather than running from words, Web users tended to be more textually based, and typically entered a story through a headline rather than a photo.
In fact, all of the differences between the actions of print and online readers in EyeTrack could be far more easily attributed to the navigational structure of a news Web site than to the mysterious force of a new medium. The Web readers weren’t frantic or scattered. Their heart rates, from all outward appearances, remained at a reasonable level. They were more or less just engaged members of a community, wearing cameras on their heads and turning pages with a button.