The basic principle of this article is simple, almost banal: the technology online is changing our way of reading, focusing and perceiving information.
The progressive substitution of the papery support with a video display is inevitably modifying our receptive ability.
The process is without doubt uneven and involves mostly the young people and the “high-tech” sector, those who use frequently the net.
The use of smart devices such as cell phones, tablets, e-readers, supports decisively this change; over the last decade the reading of “material in digital format” has become from occasional to very frequent, even indispensable in certain cases.
The new video displays, smaller and smaller and more and more high-resolution, propose a wide range of contains, including multimedia files, rarely in their entirety. It is necessary to browse and bypass the advertising inserts, advancing into a jungle of information in order to have a complete picture or to track down what is required, unless our attention is not distracted from alternative contains.
The information placed on the video display loses the “page” structure for a more and more elaborated multidimensionality. It becomes browsable, full of hyperlinks, images and videos, the pages shorten then expand with a click, or vice versa, the fonts increase in size, the language changes becoming guttural synthetic and visual, composed only of short twitters and empathetic smilies.
This change is so consistent to induce us to affirm that until now, on web, it is impossible to read a text sequentially without being transported elsewhere, visually and receptively.
In this stage 2.0, in which internet changes fast, a certain “digital divide” of bidirectional type arises. One part of the audience doesn’t know or doesn’t want to read newspapers or papery books, the other part has trouble interacting with the technology and doesn’t succeed in reading a webpage or a novel in eBook format. There is an evident generation gap in terms of perception and understanding regarding the tool and the readout mode which is being used.
Magazines are now useless and impossible to understand, for digital natives”—that is, for people who have been interacting with digital technologies from a very early age.
(from “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper“)
These changes determine evident contradictions: sometimes the “traditional” readers don’t succeed in approaching a multimedia text in its entirety as well as in evaluating all its alternatives (link and multimedia elements), vice versa the youngest ones often use an excessively impulsive method of reading based on the text browsing and not on the sequential close examination of the contents, this having unavoidably an effect on the comprehension and the rationalisation of the information.
We must specify that such change is irreversible; the proportion between digital and papery material is moving fast toward the digital one. To confirm this is the closure of over 10.000 newsstands in Italy over the last decade, closure caused only minimally by the economic crisis. The readers are moving toward internet and to prove it is the crisis of purchasing of the newspapers and magazines in paper format.
Let us be clear, the final changeover to the digital it will take time, perhaps generations, but it is facilitated by certain factors such as the availability of the contents (immediate, countless, sometimes free), also on mobile devices, minor (or no) clutter, minor perishability comparing to the papery one (and not the other way round as many of nostalgic people of the paper format affirm), etc…
On Internet it is not difficult to find studies that are aimed at analysing this phenomenon, among all we underline the following:
“Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension” developed by Anne Mangen and published on January 2013 (University of Stavanger in Norway).
Anne Mangen and her staff have analysed the behavior of two groups of students, the first group has studied a text in paper format, the second one has studied the same text by reading it on monitor LCD.
The analysis of the questionnaires that the students have passed through after the text reading, has underlined a better comprehension of the text from those who had read the paper format. What does it mean that the reading on video is less reflexive and analytical? That it gives fewer memories and concepts to the reader? We don’t really know, the excessively homogeneous sample (72 students all of the same age, education and social background) along with the fact that the students were not digital natives to all intents and purposes (the university students of the class of 2013 have completed a good part of their education in the ‘90s and the early 2000s entirely on the paper in absence of social network and smartphones), make us wonder. In short, the same study repeated in the 2030s and on a sample of subjects of different ages could provide us less convergent results.
The second study we suggest deals the matter wider (and in a comparative way). The study has been developed in 2008 by Jan M. Noyes and Kate J. Garland of the University of Bristol, Department of Experimental Psychology and is about “Computer- vs. paper-based tasks: Are they equivalent?“.
The peculiarity of this research, of only 24 pages, is the presence of various summary charts that show studies developed during different timeframes. The presence of dozens of researches with very different results, in some antithetical cases, reveals us how controversial is the topic and how difficult is indeed to come to a conclusion.
Even though, most likely after reading these charts, some “probable certainty” begins to emerge:
– It is likely that the human eye is mostly responsive in front of the video screen, the fastest reading allows us to move among the arguments but at the same time generates the assimilation of fewer information, leaving less traces in our memory, while the slow, progressive and sequential reading, determines benefits in the perception.
– Many of the proposed studies have been developed in the ’80s and ’90s; today, the daily use of video screens also of small dimensions, the different receptive ability of today readers, along with a different graphic-publishing proposal of the contents of the last generation texts (let’s mention for example the frequent use of infographics and “responsive design” techniques), makes these experimentations obsolete, at least in part.
We believe that for a complete evaluation of a new generation of tools, we need a new generation of users! It is impossible to evaluate in absolute terms the receptiveness of a reading on a video screen without paying specific attention to the generation gap in the sample of the users! Let’s remember, that the new Web came up about ten years ago.
– the charts proposed in the research are in fact illegible on the video screen and this is a paradox, maybe done on purpose, where a document that concerns the comprehension of the text may be intelligible only if printed on paper format. If the receptiveness of the readers on the video screen has been proved by using documents with charts like these, the results are actually unreliable. Anything but infographic and new graphic techniques 2.0, there are charts placed the wrong way, we are genuinely perplexed!
In addition, we recommend, actually we place it at the top of the list, a reading of “Eyetracking Web Usability“, a text that is not a recent one (2009), by Jakob Nielsen and Kara Pernice, a real milestone that provides a particularly exhaustive sample of cases, the outcome of a triennium of research, in which has been described the behavior of the human eye in front of a video screen. Clicking the following link you will find 32 interesting pages available in PDF format where are chromatically highlighted topics of special interest and the paths that the eye follows (eyetraking) on the web page / digital text.
Contrary to what everyone thinks, the images and the multimedia elements don’t represent the entry point in a reading of a Web page, despite the presence of various stimuli, the user always tends to begin reading from top left to right (see the image placed on top of this article – red area Priority 1). It is also true that unfamiliar concepts, such as the use of the tools for advanced search, are better assimilated and understood if supported by multimedia examples (for instance short videos that describe them). It is also decisive the ability of summarizing when the paragraphs of a text are created, longer the text is, bigger the probability grows that the cyberuser loses his patience giving it up for a different alternative present on the page or on web.
In conclusion in Internet, up to now, every component develops a conclusive role from the visual and receptive point of view: the background color, the colors of the main entities, the positioning of the menu, the browsing keys, the images, the “alternatives” offers, the connection and the congruity between the information. The online offer is richer, the alternatives lead the eye to perceive more information in a short period of time losing completely the sequential approach that characterizes a reading of a papery text.
It is also clear the fact that the reading time and the intensity of comprehension of a text on a video screen are, up to now, inferior compared to an analogous document in paper format. Further researches, probably in the coming decades, will confirm or disprove this trend. Maybe the new generations, who will use almost exclusively the video display, will prove to be less receptive than the previous ones, less capable of comprehending, or, refining their digital abilities, through a sort of Darwinian evolution of senses, will succeed in controlling their own “eye tracking” so as to reach a comprehension level similar to the papery one, maturing, at the same time, a better comparative ability thanks to the presence of many hypertextual options toward “other” contents.