Why Did I Click That? Time as Investment in Digital Reading

In the context of discussing how notions of authorship have morphed in the digital age, Dennis Baron notes: “Any scribbler with a computer, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks has immediate access to the universe of plugged-in readers, many of them eager to devour all manner of digital text they would never touch in printed form” (Loc 2389*). While Baron cites this as evidence that opportunities to write for an audience have exploded through the affordances of the web, I find the latter portion of the comment suggestive for thinking about how conceptions of readership have changed in new media.

The idea that we are willing to read in pixels what we would never read on paper caught my notice because, somewhat embarrassingly, it’s quite true to my own habits as an internet user. Though painful to admit, when I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed on my iPhone, I’ll find myself clicking on stupid links from Buzzfeed or Upworthy. The content is almost never satisfying—most of the time, it barely scrapes the surface of “entertaining”— and one would think I’d learn from those mistakes. Moreover, I would feel like an idiot browsing through a whole magazine’s worth of “The Top 10 Best Things About Your Thirties.” But I think I continue to read this content online because there’s something about the stakes of the commitment that feels lower when reading online—it doesn’t feel like an investment in the way that it does to pick up a newspaper, magazine or book. (And, of course, because there’s an element of self-deception involved: this post might actually be good!)

I can't imagine picking up a magazine with this headline...
I can’t imagine picking up a magazine with this headline…

Part of this is an issue of literal monetary investment, since there is simply much more free reading material to be found online than there is in print. But when so much of the content is free, as it is on the internet, it seems that we move from thinking of reading text as an investment of money, to thinking of it as an investment of time. On my computer, it is easy and quick for me to click 15 links in a row, lining up a series of tabs in my browser of reading material. I’ll scan the opening lines of each to determine my level of interest, and the second I decide it’s not worth my time, I simply click that little “x” in the top righthand corner of the tab, and the material literally vanishes. No lugging the magazines or books back to the shelf, and if I have turned on the “private browsing” setting, no record of my ever having looked at “10 Ways To Make Over a Cardigan.” The sheer immateriality of the medium makes texts incredibly easy to access and subsequently to discard. As Baron notes in his discussion of “teknophobes” and neo-Luddites, critics of the computer have argued that the increased speed afforded by new technologies makes writing “too easy,” “becom[ing] so effortless that writers don’t bother to think about their words” (Loc 1839). Similar arguments disparage how we read now for the web. Internet readers are accused of being “A.D.D.,” spending too little time with each text, and degrading the quality of both reading and writing from a better, earlier age—when people spent time with texts.

Yikes, that's embarrassing.
Yikes, that’s embarrassing.

Yet when we consider the long history of evolving writing technologies as laid out by Baron, it seems to me that this is not actually some sudden and unprecedented change in the way we read, but is in fact a shift that has been in progress for quite a long time. Each innovation in writing technology—from clay tablets, to quill and parchment, to the Gutenberg printing press, to the web, to name a few— has made the production and dissemination of texts cheaper. As a result of increasing affordability, texts become of course more accessible, but also more discardable. Prior to the print revolution, when books were rare because the cost of production and labor investment was so high, it is easy to imagine that the few texts to which any person had access would be read again and again. As the printing press took hold, and text became cheaper and more widely available, people likely read more texts, perhaps reading a new book or magazine instead of re-reading an old one. In the internet age, when there are so many texts available at no cost, it’s hardly surprising that we might spend less time with each text on average.

Even so, I also think it’s a bit of a logical leap to assume that because we spend less time on most of what we read, that we spend less time on every piece of digital reading. Though I may spend 30 seconds or so on the stuff I’d “never touch in print,” there’s also a good deal of web content out there that is designed to hold our attention, and I often find myself reading articles or essays to the very last line. And above all, I’d argue that the world is still full of curious, thoughtful humans—we can enjoy the immateriality and ephemerality of some texts, while maintaining a desire to think through complexities in sustained ways. The web gives us access to so many texts that for me, much of the pleasure is in casting a wide net and sifting through the content—both to enjoy the little textual blips on my radar before I close the tab, and to find something worth reading to the end.

*NOTE: Because I have the Kindle version of A Better Pencil, I unfortunately can’t share page numbers, so I’ve given the “location” number instead. Supposedly page numbers are now available for some eBooks, but apparently this isn’t one of them. Although I love that I don’t have to tote around all of my books this semester, I’m finding that the inability to reference page numbers is one major failing of using eBooks in an academic context.

7 thoughts on “Why Did I Click That? Time as Investment in Digital Reading”

  1. Kiley–

    Your post struck a chord with me, because, after reading Micahel’s post in which he links to a picture of type writer, I spent a solid three minutes looking at pictures of type writers online. I have no idea why I did that.

    Because my response was almost involuntarily, I wonder how much of our willingness to to read things on the internet that we would not read otherwise comes from our predisposition to click links. Even if I have no interest in a something that is linked within a body of writing (although I do kind of like the aesthetics of type writers) I find myself compelled to click it, just because I can. And while I agree that a big part of this is the lack of commitment that comes through the lack of commitment that clicking a link requires, I also think that there has become something almost instinctual about it—as if we’ve been dutifully trained to follow links, regardless of how inane they may sound.

    Although I do kind of want to find out how to make over my cardigans.

    1. I love your thoughts on feeling compelled to click links. I feel the same way and think that most people do.

      It made me wonder if we could chart a relationship between, say, linked text in blogs to something like footnotes or endnotes. With some guilt, I will admit to often skipping the footnotes and endnotes in print (or even PDF versions of print) articles and books (especially academic ones that often just list citations). Linked text, however, especially in blog posts or more “serious” web pages, feels so much more immediate as well as necessary. I don’t always feel like I need to have read a footnote to continue reading a print article, but often I feel that web pages expect me to visit the linked text in order to understand its significance and/or relevance.

  2. Kiley,

    After reading your post, I immediately started examining my own online reading behaviors. I too am guilty of having multiple tabs lined up (mostly from blogs about pop or indie music) so I can read them all one after the other once I’m finished with classes for the day or have some time between them. Since I’ve gotten so used to reading short blurbs (oftentimes the links I read don’t have very much to say in terms of substance, other than X pop star said such-and-such on Twitter), I find myself getting annoyed when an article I click on at random ends up requiring more than 30 seconds of my time (talk about instant gratification!). But I’d like to think that my annoyance doesn’t occur solely because I’m a bad reader/writer/student. It seems to me that brevity and quickness are major characteristics of the internet, and thus we’ve come (or at least I’ve come) to expect as much from digital texts and get frustrated when those texts contradict our expectations.

    But the concept of monetary investment also got me thinking: being so used to finding a majority of media for free online, I really dislike having to shell out almost 30 dollars for a hardcover novel from Barnes & Noble that I someday plan on reading on some break in the near future. I find that unless I’ve REALLY enjoyed the book, I feel cheated out of my money and wish I could return said book for a full refund. There seems to be much more at stake – in terms of both money and time investments – with physical texts compared with digital ones.

  3. I too am guilty of investing an inordinate, and likely unjustifiable, amount of time reading articles on sites like Buzzfeed and Gawker. For me, the experience is an opportunity to learn about something that I would have never considered investigating otherwise. Sometimes, the post or article showcases a fact, cultural institution, or story that I never even realized was a “thing.” I don’t necessarily see that as time poorly spent, because I view making the effort to read or scan an article is worth it if I come away with some new knowledge and have a new creative idea to appreciate.

    This does not mean, however, that I’ll spend less time seeking to understand things I am deeply interested in. It just means that I have more options in terms of the other information I seek, which breaks the potential for monotony that more involved investigation brings.

  4. Kiley,

    I enjoyed this funny and perceptive piece! And as someone who has been seen in a cardigan …

    I wonder, though, if we might risk flattening the experience of reading by talking about all links as though they are the same? Chris, I agree with your valuing of “brevity,” which seems to imply a valuing of wit and elegance (I think of Calvino’s praise of “lightness” in writing). Not to sound silly, but might it not be possible to admire the writing of a piece on cardigans (or whatever)?


  5. Great post, Kiley! It reads like a thoughtful confessional. (Thank you for sharing; it seems like you are in good company with your online reading habits!)

    As Joe brought up, all links aren’t equal. There are thoughtful links that serve as portals to other writing of similar quality and/or on a similar topic. There are clickbait links that offer another hit of ephemera. There are ad links. I’m interested in the whole concept of hyperlinking in general and on sites like Gawker, Buzzfeed, Lifehacker, etc. in particular.

    Something we haven’t talked about much yet in this course, though I’m sure it will be a major topic of conversation, is how compensation works for online writing versus how it works in traditional publishing. I think it’s worthwhile to ask how our habit of playing “follow the links” makes money for the content creators and content platforms. But that’s probably a discussion for another post!

  6. Kiley–Like seeminlgy everyone else here, your post resonated strongly with me. I’d be curious to know how many hours I have spent–I’d say wasted, but let’s be generous–falling down a rabbit hole of links just because I clicked on one Buzzfeed article, one Wikipedia page, or one New Yorker editorial.

    However, as Joe and Janel point out, each of these versions of “follow the links” is a little different, but the rabbit hole experience is often the same.

    Online quizzes are another form of interactive reading experience I find fascinating; they evoke horoscopes in their relative lack of true meaning, but also more serious personality tests like the Meyer-Briggs, if with significantly lower stakes. Links to quizzes on Buzzfeed, Zimbio, and even PBS Masterpiece inundate my Facebook newsfeed, oftentimes reposted by various friends as a means of displaying what they feel is a particularly amusing or apt result. The reading/writing activity in such quiz-taking then is multifold: the initial quiz-taker’s reading of the quiz, her reading and analysis of the result, her choice to share the result with others (sometimes with commentary) for the purpose of validation, solidarity, etc, and her im- or explicit encouragment of others to take it as well. Indeed, I do sometimes I feel compelled to click on such a link, answer its fairly random assortment of questions, and finally be awarded with my very own supposedly unique assessment of “What city should you actually live in?” (Paris) or “Which Avengers character are you?” (Thor). I feel more self-aware already.

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