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Do we read differently online?

June 30, 2008

First cover of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. November 1857.Image via Wikipedia

The Atlantic Magazine has an article out now called “Is Google is making us Stupid?”, and it made me think.

I think about Google a lot. Because Google managed to place an offer in front of the right person at the right time — something marketers spent the better part of the 20th century trying to accomplish.

Google adwords are keyword generated. If a business is selling boats, that business might be inclined to purchase the keywords “Buy a boat” and place their ad in front of anyone searching for that string of words.

Forget target markets, Google positions ads in front of buyers. So Google is making marketers smarter. We have to be, or people will spend all their money with Google.

But then, as I thought about this, I thought again about the Internet, and digital and how extraordinarily new things are. Before I get into that, here is a excerpt from the Atlantic Magazine article:

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

In light of the post from last week about old media thinking in a new media world, this seems to me a classic example. In the old days, if something began to bore us, we had two options, stop reading it, or keep reading it. Finding something better, pre-Internet, took effort.

But forget that. Because I really want to address the major point of us being more stupid because of google and the internet.

The author supposes that the Internet is having an effect on the way we think because of the way we now process information. He says:

“And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Yes, the digital world offers more and more articles on more and more things. And it offers us the unprecedented ability to skim to our heart’s content. But it also offers a conversation about an idea on a level we have never experienced outside of a think tank.

Before Digital, an article like this would have been a one-way talk to the readers. Yes, some people would read the article, pen a letter to the editor, and then wait for the letter to be printed (or not). But that was the extent of the conversation. If someone had an idea like this one, it was only discussed on a very micro level (in front of the water cooler, at a dinner party, etc.)

Now, we can have a conversation outside of the pages of Atlantic Magazine (a conversation outside of the brand, if you will). I can write that I disagree. I think Google (and more importantly the Internet) is making us smarter because it’s allowing us to come together and talk about interesting ideas.

People will excerpt it, link to it, talk about it, dissect it, and agree or disagree with it (especially now that it’s also available online).

And if that means we’re getting stooopid, then we have a different definition of the word.

I think these conversations will make us smarter (assume we engage in them). I think blogs, discussion groups, and tools like Twitter, create communities of people that spring up around ideas. This blogger once wrote that the discussions after his posts were sometimes the best part of the blog.

Yes, there are perhaps billions of blogs on the internet. Ironically though, thanks to Google, we can find the ideas we think are relevant to us and expand on them, debate them. Dissect them. Learn from them.

I think because there is so much information at the touch of a mouse that ideas and articles online need to be credible, engaging, thoughtful, and smart to get read. In other words, the readers are getting dumber, the writing has to get smarter or it won’t be read.

One last thing: The Atlantic doesn’t link to the conversations that this article will generate. The brand will create conversations based on the ideas it produces, but it won’t really do anything with them. In my opinion, that’s not the greatest of ideas.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 1, 2008 2:59 pm

    What? Is that a serious post? I doubt it. I believe from crawling the Internet looking for things we care about, our eyes have become trained to scan massive amounts of information, pay no attention to material that attempts to “advertise”, and find text that teaches.

    Wishing Success4u,

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