Is the Web Dumbing Us All Down?

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The latest design writing piece in the magazine Design Week, Screen literate (29 July 2010), examines the power of the written word online. It was triggered by the launch of Yahoo's first editorial style guide, which the internet services provider describes as "the ultimate sourcebook for writing, editing and creating content for the digital world."

Along with the good sense, there's an assertion from Anna Richardson, the journalist, that I'd like to challenge.

"Attention spans are much shorter" amongst "online audiences," she says.

This is a common belief, but I take a different view.

The excellent Poynter EyeTrack studies, which looked at how people read print and digital newspapers, suggest that while online readers may navigate quickly to the content that interests them, they often read for longer than offline readers when they've found what they're looking for.

It's a myth that we have all become Twitter-brained visual grazers with no appetite for prose. I'm with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who said: "There is no such thing as an attention span. People have infinite attention if you are entertaining them."

In my experience, good digital design enables readers to be more ruthless about navigation and more immersed in conversation.

The best digital design provides efficient journeys to great content destinations.

That's why usability is so important for writers working in digital media - get that bit right and you're more likely to gain your reader's full attention (possibly for longer than in print).

The speed with which people move through the content they're not interested in isn't evidence that they're not interested in spending time with online content per se.

Incidentally, much print design is now influenced by web design, and comparisons should note this dynamic relationship.

The myth that readers are increasingly tough to reach and retain is fed by mountains of books, articles and talks on the enormity of information being produced and the supposed increase in demands on our time.

We are swamped by communications and content, apparently.

This version of society and culture suggests that the contemporary, connected reader must bravely navigate an ever-rising ocean of content in a small nimble craft.

But such an interpretation of our collective media experience is wrong.

There have been many periods in history when people had less time and faced enormous work and social demands (extreme poverty tends to require most of your attention). And previous generations have experienced larger single leaps in communications technology than we have, from the arrival of printed bibles to radio, film, TV and the Filofax.

OK, maybe not the Filofax. But what's most important here is that humans are hugely adaptable. We respond quickly to the new and incorporate it into our life. We interrogate innovations and use, reinvent and mash up whatever can provide us with practical benefits and pleasure.

In terms of reading, I think we're witnessing something rather wonderful unfolding before our eyes.

We're seeing a flowering of reading and writing that crosses generations and classes.

We can now read a novel, use our phone to access a library to check a reference in it, share what we have found with our friends via social media, read our friends' responses, draw on competing sources of information via the web, watch a video of the author talking, and so on.

And we can often do that on the move. And we can have a similarly rich media experience in terms of content about everything from news reporting to poetry to fashion to cookery to politics to gossip and on and on.

Thanks to digital technology, our reading can be deeper, richer, more rounded, more instinctive, more timely and more diverse.

This mirrors the way our diet has improved and varied. Today's media can provide readers with more flavours, more choice and more nutrition.

Of course, there are many, many serious issues to address around literacy and education.

I'm particularly concerned that many schools seem to lack the appetite to teach great, demanding literature. But the proliferation of new ways of accessing, navigating, reading and re-using content is not part of the problem, it is a potential aid in addressing the problem.

So, that leaves us to question why the myth of shrinking attention spans has become so widespread, when all around we are gaining the benefits of more powerful and varied reading technologies.

For me, it points to a fear of change driven by a lack of confidence in the robustness and flexibility of our culture.

Whenever I hear people bemoaning the fact that 'young people don't read anymore' it suggests to me that they fundamentally mistrust others, particularly the young.

But I think that cynicism goes deeper; I think it suggests we don't trust ourselves.

It suggests we feel technology (and so content) has become a Frankenstein's monster - created by man but raging out of control.

That's not the reality I experience.

Really, there are no chaotic seas of content to drown in. There are no systems so complex we can't redesign and improve them. There are no demands on our time that we can't reorganise or reprioritise.

We created reading. We created digital media. We created culture.

And we are recreating them every day. Far from being helpless victims of technology-driven dumbing-down, we are actively paying attention in all sorts of new and productive ways.

Writer, editor and one of the founders of 26, Tim Rich runs writing workshops for business people and designers, and has co-edited four books on writing, the alphabet, the Circle Line and football. He is also one half of photographic duo World of Good.

Read Tim's blog at 66,000 Miles Per Hour.

This story, "Is the Web Dumbing Us All Down?" was originally published by PC Advisor (UK).

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