Michael S. Rosenwald on how readers consume news online (Hint: quickly)
The above graphic is the answer to a riddle for our digital times: Did readers actually read a story about reading?
The story in question — about how scanning and skimming our way through the Internet appears to be messing with how we read deeper, longer works — went viral earlier this week, with insane numbers of page views, a gazillion tweets, and even a starring role in Craig Ferguson’s late-night TV monologue.
Though there were many chants of “me, too” about the story on Twitter, there were also many jokes that took this form: “I skimmed it.”
So we decided to actually test this. The good folks at Chartbeat, which tracks how people read digital content, performed an analysis and found that 25 percent of readers stopped reading this story before they even reached the article text. A smaller percentage of other readers dropped off somewhere toward the middle. And 31 percent made it all the way through. I have a lollipop for all of them.
As the writer, should I be happy about those numbers or deeply, deeply sad? I asked Josh Schwartz, Chartbeat’s chief data scientist. Then I held my breath.
“Anytime I talk to journalists they always ask that question,” Schwartz said.
Not an answer. This felt not good.
And then: “Those are very good numbers, though,” he said.
This felt great! But perplexing. If, say, only 31 of 100 readers made it to the end of my piece, how is that good?
Schwartz said that, on average, about one-third of news readers never start reading the page after they open it. The worst-of-the-worst articles see up to 90 percent of visitors saying goodbye without reading.
And here’s the scary, fascinating conclusion: “The fact that the numbers on this story are so good,” Schwartz said, “show that most people don’t read the article they land on.”
They do what my original story said. They bounce around. They look for key words, and if something excites them, they read. If not, they scamper around. There is, apparently, a lot of scampering. This is how we deal with the superabundance of information online. The problem that I’ve found in my own reading life — and with readers I interviewed — is that I am beginning to read this way with novels and other longer works.
Cognitive neuroscientists are worried about this. I think they are on to something.