Why “Nobody Reads” Is Not A Content Strategy

“…the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”

You’ve heard this claim, whether from those who lament it or those who celebrate it, whether from your neighbor or from no less an authority than Steve Jobs.

While it’s true that some forms of communication are fading while others ascend, the truth of what’s happening with reading gets misrepresented in the war of words.

“Nobody reads” to the extent that people don’t do anything quite like what they used to do in consuming information. But people are consuming words more than ever.

{especially those that slog through this post}

The Macro View – Literacy

The most basic challenge to the “no reading” claim is whether more people have access to reading material now. The answer is yes.

The way people use written language has been changing since the start, though never more rapidly than in the last decade or two. But for most of human history, many people didn’t have either the technology (hello, Gutenberg!) or the luxury to read much in any sense of the word. If we had a century or three when our expectations of literacy increased and now it’s leveled off, that doesn’t change the fact that more people read than ever before.

UNESCO research shows world illiteracy has been cut in half since 1970, even as the world population has doubled. In 1870, more than 20% of the American population couldn’t read, and that number is less than 1% now, with enormous strides in some demographic groups leading the charge. This is not to say that illiteracy, and functional illiteracy, doesn’t remain a problem. But the dramatic change wrought by technology, education, and all the good people who’ve spent energy proliferating literacy over the last several decades all add up to a true reading revolution. [i]

And 2 Billion people have Internet access.

The World of Words

The “nobody reads” claim has something more to do with an assumption about how media and technology has impacted reading habits in recent years.

Are you reading less newsprint and novels than you were 10 years ago? Quite possibly. Are you reading less email, text messages, web content, news, search results, and Facebook updates than you were in 1980? Impossible. There’s a good chance you’re more flooded with words than ever.

Between 1980 and 2008, the number of bytes consumed by Americans increased 350 percent. Today, the average American consumes an unfathomable 34GB of data and 100,000 words of information per day.[ii] Not all of these words are in written form, and a decreasing number are printed on paper. But almost all of them were written to be read or said. And the number is staggering – it’s the equivalent of consuming “War and Peace” every four days.

The implication is that media consumption is not the zero sum game it used to be. Where the introduction of TV may have meant a corresponding reduction in people’s leisure reading, now people are just doing more of everything, often simultaneously.

And the average young American shows what’s to come – they now spend practically every waking minute — except for the time in school when they are presumably exposed to a little reading as well — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device, often all at once. [iii]

The Interweb We’ve Weaved

The obvious driver of all this is the rapid move of our attentions into online/electronic media. In 2000, 46% of adults connected to the Internet (5% with broadband) and 0% used “social media” as we know it today; in 2010, 79% connect (64% broadband) and 48% are social networkers. The shift now is to more mobile/portable devices. With this shift, the volume and velocity (of info), variety (of sources), and venues (times and places) for information have changed. [iv]

We know that the experiences online are getting more immersive (in the sense of providing more and faster pictures, sound) and now mobile. But does that mean no one’s reading? A casual glance at visually savvy and popular sites online suggests not.

For instance, if there was going to be an example of reading obsolescence, the aforementioned Steve Jobs and his Apple would provide it, since so much successful effort goes into designing intuitively and communicating visually through product design and UI. And yet, try taking the 600+ words that “no one reads” off the Mac home page alone and see how well you think it works: http://www.apple.com/mac/.

Next, expand your exploration of the Internet to its most trafficked sites. Would you argue that Google is, say, mood and gesture-driven? Are you communicating with your friends on Facebook using shrugs and grunts? No, these sites are giant repositories of verbiage that rival the Library of Congress for sheer volume of reading. Google has created an entire economy out of words that’s actually replaced more visual-driven forms of communication. Keep going down the list of top-visited sites. Do sites like Yahoo!, Wikipedia, Blogger, and Twitter seem like reading-free environments?

In short, a lot of the changes in media suggest more reading rather than less:

–  To the extent TV is moving online, more text/reading will occur

–  To the extent verbal/oral communication is being subsumed by e-communication, more reading will occur

–  To the extent the amount of user-generated content through forums, blogs, posts, comments increases, more reading/writing will occur

The Micro-View: Eyes On The Page

At the most micro-level, heat maps and eyetracker tests show that what people look at on a web page are the things that orient and guide them quickly – very often that’s the headline, the nav options, and the most concise bulleted text, tracing a visual F pattern with their eyes across the page. Perhaps they won’t subject themselves to meaty text (like what you’re reading) until they’re sure it’s relevant. But there’s an awful lot of reading even before they get there. [v]

Eyetracker tests, by their nature, probably skew towards indicating people read and behave logically more than they absorb information and react viscerally to aesthetics and visual cues that might not require focused eyeball movements. But the point is, they show that people do read. They also show that people appear to be getting very good and very quick at deciding what to read and what not to read. Filtering is now a big part of reading.

To that end, the ingredients of web and mobile user interface creation are still word-driven. Content strategy, site maps, headlines, outlines – these are the initial components of designing and building web environments from the corporate site down to the personal blog page.

The Internet has challenged traditional reading-driven print media, but what has driven that model? Keywords. In the end, the Internet hasn’t deleted reading; it’s heightened the importance of making each word relevant.

Wherefore “Nobody Reads”?

So if this is all true, where does the  “nobody reads” claim come from? Three things:

1. Context: even if people read more than ever, where/how we read and interact with words has changed.

2. Roles: In the new context, roles collide just like media forms. And people bring with them perspectives

3. Definition: This all leads to a value judgment about whether these new ways of reading are really, well, reading

Context: Reading Has Changed

What’s happening as a function of people moving from other media to the computer and phone screen is that people are moving from a world that is compartmentalized to one that is commingled. In the digital realm, video and audio mix with text and images, and any of that can just as easily be created by your grandma or through Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. What do you even call consumption of digital media? Reading? Viewing? Who creates and who consumes?

We’re not reading Dickens by candlelight after a long day plowing the fields. We’re not making appointments with radio shows. We’re not deciding whether we want to read or watch or what to call it – we’re increasingly simply producing and consuming something that we now so unceremoniously refer to as “content”.

Roles: The Only Thing That’s Changed More Than Reading Is Writing

Into this commingled and information overloaded world enter a great many perspectives. Along with a blurring of the lines between content types, there is a fundamental blurring of the lines between roles. It used to be you were either a writer or a reader, but only Writers could be both. Today, everyone is an information producer and consumer. Everyone must communicate – reading material is being produced by a more and more diverse segments of society, from the technical and artistic contributors to website development, to the layman who has a popular social media destination.

Let’s be honest – the people who build the web are not always the people who appreciate words. Some see the web as a giant vessel of technology and design into which words are poured sparingly as a commodity called “content”. People who think more visually, analytically, or technically are invited to the party to communicate in their own way. People who have no especially sophisticated skill at all are engaged in generating content, where once it was the clear purview of a chosen few of the most elite who could string together a grand sentence. That doesn’t mean people don’t read anymore – that just means if you write something, it better be good enough to compete not just against other writing, but against everything.

So the most ardent proliferators of the “nobody reads” myth are those who either celebrate reading and writing, or those who don’t and tend to devalue it in favor of their own skillset. Neither one is right.

Definition: The Reading Culture

This change in roles and context triggers a series of value judgments about what constitutes reading. For some, the idea of reading is inextricable from things like category (e.g., literature vs. graphic novels), format (letters vs. email), duration (sustained vs. sporadic), motivation (e.g., voluntary vs. required) and especially medium (print vs. electronic text). “Nobody reads” if they’re reading blogs instead of Shakespeare, or if they’re reading to accomplish tasks rather than to expand their consciousness, or if they scan a thousand short words instead of reading a contiguous block of a thousand. [vi]

Put simply, a lot more reading and writing sucks, or is trivial, and people have to filter more assertively to slog through it.

Maybe this means something about the way humans think and that for humanity to advance as it has since The Gutenberg Press, we need the “quiet, solitary space of the book”. Then again, maybe the “Enlightenment depended more on the exchange of ideas than it did on solitary, deep-focus reading”. [vii]

No one knows for sure. But these value judgments do not change the irreversible reality that goes unexamined in the oversimplified “nobody reads” statement: reading and writing has both increased and changed forever.

Dear Reader, You Are A Writer.

It’s not that people don’t read anymore, it’s that they do more of every kind of communication. Within that, the volume of reading and writing going on is absolutely unprecedented. And that means more is expected of words and of everyone involved with them:

More Democratized: It turns out it’s just as true to say “nobody reads” as it is to say “everybody writes.” Writing and reading are not solely the purview of educated elite. The tacit agreement about how reading/writing works is gone. Anyone can create. Some of it will be terrible, hyperbolic, wrong. Some will be transcendent. Sorry. And Congratulations. Power to the people.

More Decentralized: It’s a corollary to the above, to be sure. But it’s fun to watch large organizations try to figure out how to alternately control and inspire grass roots content creation when every single one of their employees, customers, and readers is also a writer with an audience.

More Intertwined: Words ARE interface. They’re woven into the fabric of this thing called “content”. They’re not black ink on a white page. They’re part of navigation and color and structure and form.

More Sporadic: There’s still a place for the long form, but short words help get to the long ones. Does that make it easier? No. A good headine can take you longer to write, test, and revise than all of the words that follow it.

More Dynamic: Most content online increasingly lives in a content management system, database, or at least in some format that’s much easier to change than print. Words are not written in stone, nor meant to be read that way.

More Functional: There will always be those that love words for their own sake. But more and more writing is focused, driven by how people want to find it through keywords and true communication, not with the aim of presenting a suspension of disbelief.

More Conversational: You don’t not have the last word. Today is more 1:1 or 1:few than 1:Many. Relevance is relative.

More Free: Nobody’s going to pay you much for what you write, what you sing, or what you draw. It’s just like during the Gold Rush – people made money selling shovels, not mining gold.

More Important: Don’t prattle on – every syllable has to work to communicate or guide. Words have become the structure as much as they fill the vessel. Weak ones will be skimmed in a Darwinian meritocracy of attention span.

What’s Next?

Digital communication is moving past this phase where we were all mystified by how the infrastructure of online destinations got designed and built and connected. This was the context where people dismissed reading as irrelevant. What matters is all this mysterious new technology and vast interconnectedness. But content has now returned with a vengeance, and all of a sudden the demand for it seems infinite., even though patience for anything irrelevant is non-existent.

No less a literary giant than Rupert Murdoch sums it up when he says:

“Through history, once critical mass has been achieved, the technology implications around the business model begin to wane, and the value of the core product begins to take center stage. Movable type totally changed the world. Radio and then TV waves likewise. Sheet feed color printing presses, color TVs, FM radio, and so on—they all changed the way the business of a specific media was transacted. But as they became commonplace, and as the newer innovations became variations on a theme, the core creative content was once again the most important part of the product.

The web is no different. Online “content is not just king, it is also emperor of all things electronic.” Content is the driving force behind almost any business model in the digital world. By definition, media is about content. Without content, there is nothing to search; without content, there is nothing to aggregate; without content, there is a whole lot less for folks to comment on.”

So, whether you are an information consumer adapting your consumption to the new media landscape, or a company corralling its words into a coherent “content strategy”, if you believe the cliché that “no one reads anymore” it’s probably because you need to work smarter to create content worth consuming, and to find and hear content most relevant to you.

~ by joshuakelly on December 23, 2010.

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