Friday, May 28, 2010

How we read (articles and magazines) now

In this post, I want to compare the two modes of reading: how we read before the internet and how we read now. I will be limiting the analysis only to news articles and magazines since I believe, pace Nicholas Carr, that it isn't still clear how the internet has changed book-reading habits. But today, the internet IS the platform for delivering news and I believe it has changed our reading habits substantially. (It's also caused a big disruption in the publishing industry.)

Just to be clear, the analysis in this post is based on a sample size of 1: me! But I believe the salient points will hold true for many others.

How we read Pre-internet

Back in the days when there was no internet, we had two newspapers delivered to our home in the morning: a newspaper in English (we alternated between The Times of India or the Indian Express) and one in Marathi (Maharashtra Times or Loksatta). On Mondays we also took in the Economic Times and on weekends, my father would usually buy some more from the news-stand (The Sunday Observer, The Asian Age).

My father would usually read every newspaper from the first page to the last. My mother would usually only read the Marathi newspaper. My sister and I would usually at least skim through the English newspaper but concentrate on a few sections (usually comics, editorials, and sports).

Even in India, where newspapers are generally smaller, (i.e. less number of pages compared to, say, the tome that is the daily New York Times), a newspaper would try to cover everything it thought needed to be covered. So while the bulk of it would be devoted to national politics, there would be a smattering of world news, book reviews, entertainment and sports news, etc. No issue would be covered in too much depth (because of lack of space, which in turn corresponded to the high cost of newsprint) and the issues covered would be chosen keeping in mind the broad preference of a newspaper's readers.

So if you were interested European Union politics, you would be lucky to get an article every two weeks. But at the same time, the very fact that newspapers felt that they were the only way we got content, they did feel obligated to at least sample the whole spectrum of topics. E.g. even if the sports pages were dominated by cricket, soccer and tennis, at least once in a while, volleyball and football would be covered.

In the figure above (click to see full figure), I have chosen to represent how we read back then in terms of two orthogonal axes: the breadth of reading (X-axis) and the depth of reading (Y-axis). The breadth of reading corresponds to the topics that we could cover, the depth of reading corresponds to how much we could cover on a certain topic. Each line represents a topic; how long the line is corresponds to how deeply a topic is covered.

The characteristics of pre-internet reading were:
  • The newspaper/magazine decided what topics it would cover (and it tried to take the interests of the majority of its readers into account). This meant, to some extent, that the "long tail" of topics was not covered.
  • The limited space available for a newspaper meant that:
    • The depth that it could go into for any topic that it covered was limited.
    • However topics were sampled uniformly across the spectrum of topics. Which meant that even if you didn't care for national politics at all, the very act of glancing through the newspaper everyday forced you to have some idea of what was going on. Ditto for sports, or for entertainment.
Pre-internet reading thus tended to emphasize breadth over depth. This was its advantage as well as its disadvantage. Diligent readers were "well-rounded" but they came up against the hard limit of newsprint if they wanted to know more.

How we read now

Reading on the internet is different.

There's far far more material to read, and it's easy to get to, requiring nothing more than a click of the mouse.

There's also more control over the material meaning you can decide what you want to read and ignore the stuff that you don't care for. E.g. if you are interested in economic policy you can subscribe to the Business feed of the NYT and nothing else. If you're interested only in foreign policy and particularly in the U.S.-China relationship, you can use Yahoo Pipes and set up filters that will bring to you only those articles that mention the U.S. and China.

Finally, there's more depth. A newspaper, even an online newspaper, can only devote so much time and space to U.S.-China relations. But on the internet, this material can be augmented with the many blogs and wikis out there. There are blogs by anthropologists and economists, by foreign policy and international relations experts, and by political scientists, -- you name it! -- all of whom are interested in conveying their point of view to both lay and specialized audiences. In other words, you can choose to specialize in whatever you want and your specialization will be world-class.

In the figure above (click to see full figure), I've tried to represent the characteristics of online reading in terms of its breadth and depth. The characteristics of internet reading are
  • We get to decide what topics we want to read about.
  • There is unlimited "space;" it is possible to access any conceivable magazine or newspaper; in addition there are blogs, wikis and Twitter feeds that we can use as our filters to get to the interesting stuff that we care for.
    • One can go as deep into a topic as one wants.
    • But since our time is ultimately limited, emphasizing depth has the effect of sacrificing breadth. One could go as deep as one wants and read about international relations but the cost could well be no time to read any sports news. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I am not sure.
Reading on the internet tends to emphasize depth over breadth. This is its advantage as well as its disadvantage. It's possible to indulge your interests a lot, but it comes at the cost of being "well-rounded."


Anonymous said...

This is not to contradict or criticize your analysis, I believe you have done a good job, but my personal opinion is that reading newspaper editorials daily and weekend reading of Economist (what you call pre-Internet habit) is more likely to offer analytical depth than browsing tens of blog sites and following up-to-the-minute trends on Twitter. IMHO, Internet has more breadth but less depth... I would want my young kid to follow the newspaper+Economist habit than bothering about hundreds of ever-changing news stories on Twitter and blogs.

russasaurous said...

Spot on - I too am both relieved and concerned at the loss of 'gatekeepers' that the Internet has induced. I have any number of RSS feeds on my iGoogle home page, but none of them cover straight news. I knew that there was a guy who'd made artificial bacteria well before I knew about the BP oil spill. Nice article!

Nathan Nifong said...

I think that the breadth-depth metaphor for knowledge is good, because it illustrates how one can know the same 'amount' of information in different ways, but that's as far as the metaphor goes. Why must there be only two dimensions, breadth and depth, along which we measure the extent of our knowledge? maybe its 15 dimensional, or maybe its just an undirected graph with all kinds of goofy loops and redundant connections.

I think the web is changing reading because it is helping make the transition from the breadth-depth metaphor to a graph theory metaphor. But I don't think it should stop there, there are probably many more ways of thinking about knowledge, and how we communicate it, and what structure we should impose upon it.

scritic said...

Anon, you have a point. Although what I had in mind wasn't so much the "real-time" stuff that we get from Twitter and random blogs but the extensive analysis that's often offered on blogs like RortyBomb. I find it to be the single-best coverage of the current machinations over financial reform going on in Congress. Of course, if you follow the financial reform bill extensively, you're going to have to sacrifice reading about, say, the latest news on Israel-Iran relations or the latest on the national political scene in India.

Russasaurous, me too! I don't have any straight newspaper feeds in my daily RSS check. Instead I just subscribe to bloggers who (pretty much always) manage to direct me to some of the best newspaper pieces of the day (but not limited to a single newspaper). But I am sometimes bothered that I am missing out on something big either because my filters don't find it very interesting.

Nathan, good point. I was only trying to model (crudely) the amount of knowledge, and how it's "distribution" seems to me to have changed with internet reading. But I agree with, knowledge is far better modeled as a graph with all kinds of loopy connections and it would be cool to see the different metaphors we can apply to distinguish between pre-internet and internet reading.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree that there is such a clear distinction pre and post internet. You are comparing simply the choices your father chose to make for your family. If he was more interested in sports I'm sure there was a daily or weekly newspaper that just focused deeper on sports and didn't cover politics, and if he was specifically only interested in cricket there was probably news periodicals that just went deep into cricket. There was plenty of narrow but deep topical coverage pre internet (magazine racks full of specialty coverage of every topic imaginable), if you chose that. Your father simply chose breadth for your family. No doubt though that the internet allows everyone in a household to pursue the news that interests them most. Though I share a concern at the loss of editorial gatekeepers - someone to tell us what is out there that we should be interested in. There have been many important news articles I have read simply because they were prominently displayed in a traditional newspaper, that I wouldn't have pursued on my own.

Pierre said...

Just an observation, but when I read news on the internet I have real tendency to skim. (In fact, I rarely concentrate all that hard when I read from a computer, whereas I can concentrate quite hard when i'm reading from a book. When I read from a magazine or newspaper I'm somewhere inbetween) I'll click on a link and while the page is opening go to another tab and read a few sentences and then jump back and then.... so on and so on. In the end I usually only end up with a very superficial understanding of the topic and what is going on, even after I've "read" (really, skimmed) a half dozen articles. Not really going anywhere with this, just saying that I think there are other ways to think about "how we read."

scritic said...

Anon, good point. I may just be projecting my father's preference for "breadth" into a characteristic of pre-internet reading (although I don't think so). I need to come up with some more evidence.

Anonymous said...

While reading this, all I could think of is how this parellels human interaction. I feel that since technology has seemed to grow exponentially there have been ways of living that are getting majorly affected. Just as you feel the internet is changing the quality of reading for folks, all this cell phone, texting-social-networking crap is changing the quality of personhood. Sorry if this doesn't quite so fit into the scheme of aforementioned comments but, I'd really like to see more of this talk going on.

Everybody seems so juiced for the new technological advances but it just makes me feel like one day we'll be in a place where we'll look around and wonder how the heck we got to having automated showers and preprocessed meals in our home.

Stick to our roots and don't forgot what it means to read off paper, hand write a note, and talk to your friend face to face!