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People don’t read ‘ differently’ on the web

It’s a truism of the web that people read ‘differently.’ It’s a new type of media and because reading habits appear to be different to books or magazines, a lot of people seem to think that makes the web a special case. Uniquely different.

They’re wrong.

People think marketing speak is garbage. Do you think the web generation was the first to notice?

Do people read books the same ways they read newspapers? Or letters the same way they read magazines? Do they read cereal packets the same way as travel guides? Do they read neon signs the same way as post-it notes? Is the Internet uniquely different in the way people read ? No it isn’t.

Jakob Nielsen, one of the great prophets of the Internet, wrote an Alertbox for October 1, 1997 which says:

People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.

Now, I’ll not disagree with the findings. But do you know anyone who doesn’t scan magazines. Or newspapers?

I agree that attention span on the ‘net is shorter. There are so many distractions, so many other sites to visit. People probably aren’t as comfortable as when sitting on the sofa with a magazine. It doesn’t have the same laid-back feel.

But people also scan magazines. And people will still sometimes read long text on the web. Jakob continues:

“Promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts “Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions,” their first reaction is no, it’s not, and this thought slows them down and distracts them from using the site.”

He’s right, of course he is. But hey, this is true everywhere, not just on the internet. Gee whizz, people think marketing speak is garbage. Do you think the web generation was the first to notice? Really?

Hey, this is true everywhere, not just on the internet.

The best way to write for any media is to inject a little personality, be fun, say something provocative, be informative. Don’t get too hidebound about ‘how to write for the web.’

People are still reading text. The trick is to make it interesting. And that’s difficult everywhere.

Of course, just about everyone else will tell you that people read ‘differently’ on the web. But they’re just repeating something that’s supposed to be true, perhaps without thinking it through.

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