How the Web changed reading, and how writers must adjust

Internet

InternetReading online is a different experience from reading print. In part because hypertext has made it easy to jump from one place to the other, people’s attention spans have gotten shorter.

It almost seems a stretch to call most people’s online behavior “reading” at all. They wander throughout the Internet searching for something in particular. They stop to read only when they find it.

Perhaps they want simple facts. Beyond just facts, people look for explanations of unfamiliar topics. They look for reviews of products or movies or books. They look for controversy.
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Foraging

Foraging

Foraging baboons

Whatever any of us look for, we’re seldom sure what it is when we start out.  So we search. We hunt. We sniff around until we find it. Then when we find a source of what we want, we raid it. We gorge ourselves on the value we have discovered.

In other words, we forage, just like medieval armies or wild animals looking for food. We search high and low, quickly abandoning places where we don’t immediately find what we want.

I just said that most people’s online behavior hardly counts as “reading,” but foraging behavior in general isn’t quite like having a meal, either. Real reading, like eating, begins once foraging has located the feast.

Technology writer Nicolas Carr used a different metaphor when he observed, “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”

In print, Carr was the scuba diver. The online environment practically forces people into the jet ski mode. The Internet is too recent for us to know its long-term impact.

So far, no one treats print so superficially, unless perhaps they’re just looking up something in a dictionary. What makes the online environment different?

The linearity of reading a book or article in print hardly allows for instant gratification. Hypertext, on the other hand, promises instant gratification at the end of every link. Every browser has a back button for times when the promise fails.

For all the advancements in technology, reading online tires our eyes more than reading print does. On the other hand, it’s hard to stop.  If finding an answer requires leafing through half a dozen books, we might give up and decide we don’t care much.

Online, we find it easier to keep clicking than to get off the chair. As difficult and tiring as it can be, the online environment has become quite addictive.

It’s almost as if the Internet has rewired the human brain. And that shouldn’t be surprising. Societies of hunters and gatherers are seldom literate. The development of reading soon began to detract from human memory. Why remember what you can easily look up?

What the Internet has done to the human brain is nothing that hasn’t happened somehow or another many times before. It’s simply a sign on human adaptability.
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What online reading means for online writers

writing at computerPerhaps the most difficult task for any Internet writer is to understand how differently the “print mind” and the “digital mind” operate. Here are a few observations to keep in mind.

Research indicates that people looking at a web site for the first time will begin by scanning it. They want to decide whether it’s worth reading before they commit much time to it.

I assume everyone has learned something about the difference between formal writing and informal writing in English classes somewhere. Most strictly informational writing in the print world is formal.

Scholarly writing in particular has for centuries used “big” words that have a very precise meaning. It has likewise used long sentences with multiple clauses and phrases.

Scholarly sentence structure has the virtue of being very precise in its meaning. It also requires readers to read slowly and analytically. Once I got to college I was glad my 7th-grade English teacher had taught us how to diagram sentences. One of my professors assigned a book with only a few very long, complex sentences per page.

Even with shorter sentences, people online lack the patience to read the kinds of paragraphs we learned to write in school. Each paragraph for a school paper had to have a subject stated in a thesis statement and substantiated by other points. That meant it had to be at least four or five sentences long.

When I was writing for publication in academic journals, I wrote long sentences and paragraphs. I don’t write online that way. I want people to read what I write!

So I’m providing serious content using informal writing. If I write a paragraph that takes more than five lines (not five sentences), I look for a logical place to divide it.

Online readers’ habit of scanning also requires writers to provide additional signposts. Some involve hypertext. Otherwise, online signposts simply make greater use of certain print techniques.

From grade school through college, students hardly ever write anything that requires section headings and subheadings. Graduate level term papers don’t often need them, either. In print, it’s a technique reserved for theses, dissertations, books, and long journal articles.

Even a 600-word blog post needs headings, bullet points, and other typographical ways to make it easy for visitors to scan. The post might have exactly the information visitors want, but they’ll leave if they don’t notice it in a few seconds.

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Photo sources unknown

Public libraries in American life

library parking deck

Last January I wrote about how Americans perceive libraries, based on a Pew research poll about library services. For one thing, Americans hold their public library in high esteem even when they don’t personally use it. It’s time for a closer look at that point.

First, the numbers

library parking deck

Library parking deck in Kansas City

The Pew questionnaire begins with some very general questions about the respondents’ communities, their access to the Internet, and their book-reading habits. The first question directly related to libraries asks about the importance of public libraries, and explicitly excludes school or university libraries.

Are libraries [very important / somewhat important / not too important/ not at all important] to [you and your family / your community as a whole]? 46% of respondents answered that the libraries are very important, and 30% said somewhat important to themselves and their families. Continue reading

Book Lovers Rejoice! Fantastically Creative Ways To Display Your Treasures

Guest post by Paul Moore

Since the dawn of the digital age, tangible books have been slowly disappearing. Remember those books that you hold in your hand, with pages that crinkle a little when you turn them, that smell slightly old and musty and … intelligent? Kindles and iPads and even audio books have started to replace our familiar, old hard-covered, yellow-paged friends.

1459071392_54f76dbab2_z But for those of us who still cling to our books and feel a certain amount of satisfaction in perusing the many different titles in all their unique sizes, shapes and colors can rejoice! The web is full of unique and colorful ways to display your collection. Check out these ideas for using home decor to showcase your personal library. Continue reading

Why you’re not allowed to hear most old recordings

Wax cylinder (Edison)
Wax cylinder (Edison)

Wax cylinder (Edison)

The U.S. Constitution empowers Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” In 1976, Congress set the limit at 75 years or the life of the author plus 50 years. In 1998, it extended both terms by 20 years.

At least that’s true for most of what comes under the copyright law. For some reason, sound recordings do not fall under the federal copyright law. Instead, they fall under, and are crushed by the weight of a tangle of federal and state regulations that have the effect of preventing them from ever entering the public domain.

Public domain simply means a body of works that are not subject to copyright laws. Therefore anyone is free to publish them or otherwise use them without having to obtain anyone’s permission or pay anyone for the privilege.

Copyright law for nearly everything

By 1998, any print materials (including movies, which are essentially printed on film) published before 1923 had entered the public domain. Some works published between 1923 and 1977 were also in the public domain if they had either been issued without a © symbol or their copyright had not been renewed after the end of the initial 28-year term specified under the old copyright law.

The 1998 legislation has the effect of preventing anything else from entering the public domain until 2018. And if business interests can persuade Congress to grant another extension before then, it will take even longer before anything enters public domain.

In some cases, no record exists of whether a particular work was ever copyrighted. These are called “orphan works.” It’s not like it’s illegal to use them as if they were in the public domain, but there is an obvious risk. Someone might own the copyright, object to the use, and easily sue for damages.

Most people find copyright law and what it allows them to do confusing enough. As I said, sound recordings have been left out.

Sound recordings

Vinyl record grooves

Closeup of the grooves on a vinyl record

According to a report issued by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress in 2010: “The effective term of copyright protection for even the oldest U.S. recordings, dating from the late 19th century, will not end until the year 2067 at the earliest.… Thus, a published U.S. sound recording created in 1890 will not enter the public domain until 177 years after its creation, constituting a term of rights protection 82 years longer than that of all other forms of audio visual works made for hire.”

Here’s what it means:

  • Recording companies secured copyrights to the recordings they made. Many older companies no longer exist, but the copyrights have passed on to successor companies.
  • Recording companies may reissue any older recording they want to.
  • If a recording company does not care to release its older recordings, they can and do prevent anyone else from doing so.

Preservation issues

sound recordings

Reel to reel tape deck. 1960 advertisement

The technology of preserving writing with ink on paper is older than the printing press. One needs only to look at the writing in order to be able to read it. If the paper tears or otherwise becomes damaged, there are time-honored methods of repairing and preserving it.

Sound recordings, on the other hand, require some kind of machine as a “mediator” between the recording and the listener. Sound recordings have existed in a wide variety of forms, including but not limited to

  • Wax cylinders
  • Wax discs
  • Vinyl discs—with much narrower grooves than wax recordings
  • Magnetic tape
  • Compact discs
  • MP3 files

Each of these forms requires different machines to play them back. In fact, magnetic tape has existed as reel-to-reel tape, cassette tape, and 8-tracks. Fixing a damaged recording is much more difficult than repairing torn paper. It might not be possible at all. The playback machine must also be kept in good repair.

The best way to preserve a sound recording is not to keep the original recording medium in good repair. It is to copy it to a newer technology. Enrico Caruso’s recordings, first issued on wax at a time when the cylinder and the disc were engaged in the first of many recording format wars. They have been reissued on every subsequent technology.

We can listen to Caruso’s recordings today because RCA, the copyright owner, can still profit from them. The vast majority of recordings are not commercially worth reissuing on a new technology.

Libraries have taken on responsibility for preserving our cultural heritage and making it widely available. Except that the current copyright tangle absolutely prohibits American libraries from preserving old sound recordings and making them widely available.

According to European copyright law, on the other hand, sound recordings enter the public domain 50 years after they were first issued. European companies can reissue any recordings issued before 1963 that they want to. They just can’t sell them here.

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Source: Copyright Protection the Serves to Destroy / Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2013

Photo credits: Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons, except

Reel-to-reel tape player ad. Some rights reserved by Nesster.

Government web sites you should know about: consumer issues

USA.gov pageVarious offices of the federal government offer a wealth of information that the public can use. It seems good to describe some of them here from time to time. This first installment looks at three web sites devoted to various consumer issues.

Federal Trade Commission

The FTC’s Consumer Information page has separate tabs for information on

  • Money & Credit
  • Homes & Mortgages
  • Health & Fitness
  • Jobs & Making Money
  • Privacy & Identity

It also offers a video/media library. There you’ll find not only videos, but audio tips and games. Quite a bit of the content deals with scams and consumer fraud, but the library includes tips on such things as saving money on gas, understanding how to understand “lumens” when buying light bulbs, and how to read bills.

Besides finding information on the site, you can take action: file a consumer complaint, register for do not call, get a free credit report, etc.

Financial Literacy and Education Commission

Before I checked out MyMoney.gov I was not aware that such a commission existed. The site itself is very well organized. It collects and categorizes information from other government agencies.

You can find, for example, a great deal of information about scams and consumer fraud from the FTC site above, but at MyMoney.gov, you can also find links to the General Services Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Department of the Treasury, and more.

In part, the site is designed around life events, with sections devoted to

  • Birth/adoption of a child
  • Going to collect
  • Marriage/divorce/partners
  • Home ownership
  • Starting/losing a job
  • Starting/buying a business
  • Planning for retirement/Retiring
  • Death of a family member
  • Natural disasters and unexpected events

It also offers helpful calculators, worksheets, and checklists to help with various aspects of money management.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s site exists not so much to provide information as a place to get assistance. You can indeed read the reports, bulletins, and other information the bureau has published, but more than that, it is a place to file a complaint, tell your story (good or bad) about experiences, and pay for college.

The page for filing complaints enables consumers to deal with very specific issues:

  • Bank account or service
  • Credit card
  • Credit reporting
  • Money transfer
  • Mortgage
  • Student loan
  • Vehicle or consumer loan

There, you can not only submit a complaint, but also track its progress through the system. Meanwhile, information consumers supply to the bureau helps it fine tune its procedures and improve its services.

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