Digital attention spans

Like many academic libraries, mine holds a vast number of full text journals online, via our databases as well as some electronic serials subscriptions. So I was interested to see a recent article arguing that perhaps the internet hasn’t killed attention spans, and readers are capable of taking in longer articles online.

Except when I read it, I learned that the Pew study the article references didn’t paint nearly as rosy a picture when you dig into it. First of all the study was examining internet news consumption, which is arguably easier to read than academic journal articles. Pew found that “the total engaged time with articles 1,000 words or longer averages about twice that of the engaged time with short-form stories: 123 seconds compared with 57.”

123 seconds per long article. I was curious about the average words read in a minute, so I looked that up. According to both The Guardian and The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science the average adult reads about 300 words per minute. So, if people are spending 123 seconds, or just over two minutes, on articles over 1000 words, they are probably reading just over half or less, depending on the article’s length.

That may very well be the reality of the digital journal reading. Who among us hasn’t skimmed to get to the part of an article we wanted to read, skipping stuff that doesn’t seem as relevant or important? I’ve done it, especially at work. I think this kind of reading can be important when time is short and the material I’m trying to tackle is voluminous. I’d also argue that our educational system promotes this kind of skimming for comprehension because it’s an essential skill for standardized test taking.

But when I do have time, say on a relaxing Sunday afternoon, to read every word of a long article in the newspaper or from a pile of magazines that stacks up all week, or to dive deeply into a good book, I savor that kind of reading. So for me, print triggers a desire to “slow read,” and electronic content seems to motivate me to skim. But that could be a factor of where and when I am doing each kind of reading. Work isn’t conducive to “slow reading.” Home is.

Regardless of how I or anyone else feels about digital or print reading, I think what really caught my eye is that Pew merely found in its study that people are engaging with long form online content, but the article I found (linked in an OCLC newsletter, as I recall) seems to think the study proves the Internet hasn’t diminished attention spans. That seems like a logical fallacy to me. I’ll be interested to speak with students in the fall to see how they feel about reading digital content and how engaged they are with what they read online. It’s an important, and very basic, question for academic librarians to ask as more and more of our materials are available digitally. Are our users engaged with the resources we’re providing?