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Actually Reading

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Today I spent time reading articles in their entirety. It’s something I rarely do anymore, and I suspect many of you share this problem.

There’s a severe psychological

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struggle that’s been created by the web and particularly amplified by social media. The mental rewards we receive for sharing what we’re reading has become stronger than the act of reading.

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The user flow of reading 20 years ago was pretty simple. You would look through a collection of books, magazines, or newspaper articles, then:

  1. Read it.
  2. Process it during and after you were done.
  3. Maybe tell some friends about it, but only if prompted.

These days the process is quite different. You’re being served up content to read before you’re done with the current set of words in front of your face. You’re also thinking about how your reading choices (and your views around those choices) are being perceived by others.

The carrot of reading today is rarely about stirring up your imagination or teaching you something you didn’t know before. It happens of course, but far less than your link-sharing friends will have you believe. Today we’re driven less by what the words on a page (or screen) do for us, but rather by how they can be used to trigger other people to give us that satisfaction.

In the end we’re still trying to make certain chemicals in our brains fire off and make us feel good, but reading seems to be a more indirect path to that outcome now. Because the

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internet is so rapid and abundant, we’ve learned to spend less time reading and just fast-forwarding to the social validation part and worry less about the individual fulfillment we get from experiencing a piece of writing alone.

Today I spent some time actually reading. I read three pieces including Transitional Housing, The Collective Value of Diversity, An Interview With Max Temkin, and a handful of posts in my Medium collection Best Thing I Found Today.

Perhaps by telling you this and writing this entire post I’m being a hypocritical, but my goal is to make you think about your own reading habits.

Is your day composed of reading 10% of 100 articles or 100% of 10 articles? I assure you that you won’t miss any big story and you’ll be fine if you learn about a story later than everyone else. Reading in 2014 doesn’t really seem to be actually reading anymore. I hope you consider how we can change this together.

Don’t share this article.

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  • http://www.trendsient.com/ Jacob Greer

    I shared this on reading.am so I both ignored your “Don’t share this article” plea and would like to make up for it by commenting on your post. :)

    Such a plea is reminiscent of NPR’s April Fool’s Day joke http://www.npr.org/2014/04/01/297690717/why-doesnt-america-read-anymore

    In general, I think you are right about a few things but some of this seems to miss a bit of the nuance. I think I might summarize your post differently than either “Actually Reading” or “The Current State of Reading Online” by looking a little closer at you point about time in the sharing economy. Being first, reading the most, even having time to consume multiple or longform articles seem to be the primary issues in this sense of reading. There is an interesting project called Sustaining Time (http://www.sustainingtime.org) which has looked at the social dynamics of temporal shifts. I’d argue that their point about perceptions of time is more likely the issue with some of these problems of reading/sharing online.

    A more nuanced approach might wonder about the shift of broad-coverage newspaper reading (even if at a glance) to more self-selective article reading. Or how the dynamics of a just-in-time news cycle has changed the relationship one has with the need for establishing facts or background stories.

    The “user flow of a reading 20 years ago” might equally miss the modern nuance. The dynamic of having stacks or collections has changed with social reading and sharing online. Even the curatorial model you use on the “best thing i found today” seems to explain that shift in an interesting way: where people might have looked to reviewers or to library recommendations, now the curatorial model is front and center in social reading. Meaning that the dynamics of reading haven’t changed as much as the social dynamics of the collection/curatorial process are more dynamic and consequently also just-in-time.

    The “carrot of reading today” and “chemicals in our brains fire” points seem more like a nod to the issue of amusing ourselves to death. Which is more like Neil Postman’s argument about Huxley’s Brave New World. As a throwback, this is particular helpful in this case, because it suggests this isn’t particularly a new dilemma but maybe a novel example. The social dynamics of reading online might be the soma, but I doubt that the materials themselves or even the act of reading are what is killing us. Certainly, asking not to share this and even NPR’s hilarious prank are good examples of the dynamics between social reading as compared to actually reading.

    I’d posit that something else is at play for “actually reading” which is the oft made mistake of such a dichotomy. I’ve been reading some research on reading communities (both online and pre-internet) and thinking about the shifts without worrying so much about the medium or the time. If you look instead at reading groups or a sense of reading with a purpose, those dynamics are in some sort of decline in the “current state of reading online” and there do seem to be consequences for what used to seem like a shared process with reading materials. That’s not a complete thought, because I’m still thinking about it.

    Anyway, I liked this post. :)

    • http://centup.org Len Kendall

      Wow! Thank you for the lengthy response. I hope you plan on turning it into its own blog post :) I have a lot of things to research now because I’ve heard of almost none of your references. I’m particularly interested in Sustaining Time and will be diving in later today.

  • benkunz

    I rarely see something that strikes such a chord. So I shared this on Twitter, three sentences in (honestly). And then came back 10 minutes later to read the whole thing. I suck as a reader. I really need to finish that Kevin Kelly book.

    • http://centup.org Len Kendall

      It got 20,000 views. Don’t feel bad because you clearly weren’t the only one who shared the post. It was actually a really interesting test.

  • Francesca

    Read it only now because you didn’t share :)