You don’t read anymore


A question on Quora asking “Why does web copy need to be easy to read?” reminded me about some articles and videos I saw a while ago. I will extend this question to why does any type of text on the web, even newspaper articles, have to be easily readable.

The answers at Quora were usually along the lines of every copy needs to be easy to read. Which is totally true, yet I have a slightly different opinion.

My answer to this question: because we don’t read anymore. Or not really at least, for most part. Not as we used to.

Back in the good ol’ days…

Garry Vaynerchuck mentioned in one of his videos, that an e-mail newsletter campaign created by him in the 90’s had 90% opening rate. From 10 e-mails that he sent out, 9 were opened! That’s crazy! Today if you’re around 30% you are the GOD of e-mail marketing.

Now he wasn’t an e-mail marketing genius, we simply used to treat our inbox as we treated our mailbox. Every mail that came in, got read. And we read every single word of it.

My grandfather usually read all the newspaper, front to end. He read even multiple-page articles. Because those were the only news for the day that he was going to consciously read. Not quite what we’re doing nowadays on a news site…

Clickbaits, notifications and #hashtags.

Yep. These are the things that flipped the script. We are swimming in information. Or maybe just in content, but there is plenty of it. Content increased exponentially on the internet ever since.

In 1998 when Garry did the e-mail campaign, you know how many pages were indexed by Google? 26 million. This number in 2014 was 30 trillion. That’s 30 and twelve zeroes.

OK, Google was the new kid on the block way back then, but even AltaVista the king of search engines had only 150 million pages by 1999.

You can barely see the 26 mill in 1998 on the chart.

Our attention spans got shorter. We have all kinds of distraction in our life. Instagram comments, work e-mails etc. Sometimes coming from multiple screens. We have less time and less patience. 140 words is enough. 500 is plenty.

Stopped reading. Started skimming.

So we’ve came up with new ways to cope with this. We don’t read every news article, word-by-word, instead we skim it. A research conducted by the Nielsen Normal Group from 2008 says that we’re reading content in an F-shaped pattern. Article title, first headline, image. We’re reading more of the paragraphs at the beginning and less toward the end. Just like this:

Word-by-Word Reading

We still do it. We are slowing down our pace, and read every word occasionally, but only when reading for pleasure. We’re getting in an effortless trance, Nielsen says.

If you’ve made it until here, congrats! You are the statistical anomaly who gets excluded from research unfairly. Also, thank you.

Technology has affected my offline reading habits as well. Even on printed documents, I tend to skim information if it is not of particular interest for me, even though it might be important. I bet most of you are doing this also. What are your reading habits?

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