"If I have to sit here and read, I'm not being productive"

It's a familiar soundbite I've heard, as I'm sure you have over the years, as the Internet has gradually colonised our 'modern lives' that "people have short attention spans and they don't read online." If this is the case however, I'm doomed, as is every other copywriter and writer who uses the web as their primary publishing platform. For if people aren't actually reading what I'm devoting my deep time to, can I justify continuing? Is copywriting and writing for the web already redundant? This is a question I've been turning over recently and while intuitively I'm pretty sure that this argument groups humans with lizards and amebae while perpetuating the poor attention spans and 'always on' culture that it criticises, I'm ready to dig down and do some unpicking.

I'm curious as to where this blanket assumption came from and what the implications might be for writing in a way that caters to this 'always on world' of 'instant gratification' and 'low attention spans.' My hunch is that by living by The Guardian's datum, that "website owners need to find ways to grab the attention of visitors and keep it for just long enough to get their message across...because if you don't, the cursor will be heading to the back button in the blink of an eye," we're heading for a place that none of us are going to like all that much.


In 1997, Jakob Nielsen, former VP of research at Apple computers (the one in the in the purple shirt) etched in stone four main reasons why 79% of people scan instead of read on the web. They go something like this;

  • Reading from computer screens tire our eyes and is 24% slower than reading a hardcopy book or paper. His suggestion is for people to purchase high-resolution-high-scan-rate monitors that lab tests have shown have the same readability as paper (a quick Google search for such monitors led me to 'heart rate monitors at Harvey Norman!?)
  • The web is a user driven medium where users feel they have to move on and click things. Nielsen quotes a member of a user testing group that bemoaned, "if I have to sit here and read the article then I'm not productive." For Nielsen, people want to feel like they are 'active' when they're online. 
  • Each page has to compete with hundreds of millions of other pages for the users' attention. Nielsen argues that people don't know whether 'this' page is the one they want and are therefore not "willing to commit to the investment of reading the page in the hope that it will be good...they want the most tasty segments only."
  • Modern life is hectic and people simply don't have time to work hard for their information. Nielsen quotes one test user who said, "if this (long block of text) happened to me at work, where I get 70 emails and 50 voicemails a day, then that would be the end of that...if it doesn't come right out at me, I'm going to give up on it."

I want to quickly pull out some of, what are for me, the most disheartening 'takeaways" in Nielsen's research:

1. If I have to sit here and read the article then I'm not productive.

 Reading online must therefore be an unproductive activity and we should all stop reading now because it's a dead end. Reading in itself is not productive and so the writing part must also be foolish.

2.  People are not willing to commit to the investment of reading the page in the hope that it will be good...they want the most tasty segments only

People are impatient and only want 'positive' online reading experiences. Nielsen is therefore implying that one can know that something is 'positive' or indeed 'negative' by not reading it but perhaps by using a sixth sense to discern such particulars (or by just reading something their friends or a 'thought leader' has recommended). In short, 'tasty',  however prickly and problematic that term is, is better.

3.Modern life is hectic and people simply don't have time to work hard for their information

People don't want to invest themselves in learning new information because they're too busy checking their Gmail and Tinder accounts. Hasn't life always been modern to those that were living in that time?  Have time, or make time-I think he's missed that distinction.

3. If it doesn't come right out at me, I'm going to give up on it

Yes. Because the best things in life are the easiest to amass. Such things require you to input the minimum amount of physical, emotional and or intellectual labour in making, obtaining and creating them. Things like life long friendships, university degrees and novel writing.


Hopefully it's clear that I think there are some serious flaws in what Mr Nielsen's research has concluded about meaning making, attention spans and reading online.

While I'm disheartened by perspectives like Nielsen's that seem to bleed into and become the 'popular consciousness,' I am equally as heartened by folk like Maria Popova of Brain Pickings who I caught over the weekend sharing this little anecdote:

"Time. Information and knowledge take time to digest. There seems now days to be no place for depth. Everything has to be entertaining. We don't want our brains to be stretched. We seem to be bored with thinking; we want to instantly know. This I think explains why there is an epidemic of listicles. Why think about it when you can skim. Adrienne Rich in 1977 gave a commencement address and in it she said that an education is not something you get but something that you claim. Which I think is true of knowledge itself, we are increasingly intolerant of long articles and have been infected with this pathological impatience that makes us want the knowledge but to not do the work of claiming it. But the irony is that we can only glean knowledge by contemplation and the only road to that is time. Meaning is what we  seek to give to our lives and there is no shortcut to that."

If Popova, in all her eloquent, depthful brilliance could one day become as influential as ol'mate Nielsen in the 'popular consciousness' well, I'd say that's certainly a place I'd very much like to teleport to and curl up in.

The end :)