In my digital history class, we had some readings on web design and content and in one of the articles, it talked about how a lot of websites shy away from lengthy texts and go with “chunking” the information into smaller bits that are more suited for web reading, and basically that historians should just say, “We’ll just make long texts our thing, attention spans be damned.” (I am paraphrasing a bit here.) But they also specifically say, “More people are reading ever longer passages on a computer screen, and for better or worse that trend will continue because a greater and greater percentage of our lives involves digital media.”* They attribute this at least in part to improvements in display technology. (Mind you, this text was written in 2005. The iPad was just a vague itching in the back of Steve jobs brain at that point.)
While I don’t discount the improvements in technology, and I can definitely speak personally to one piece of tech that has helped me, I think a part of it is also a generational shift.
Someone born in 1993 when AOL started their mass mailings of
coasters cd’s is now 21 and has always known online digital media. I didn’t get an AOL account until 1996 when I was 24. (I did have Prodigy before that, but I can’t really count it as being online, because it was terrible.). If you’ve always known online digital media, reading extensively online is hardly a foreign concept. And young people DO have good attention spans. There is a lot of lengthy fanfiction out there being consumed by young readers, and they can’t all be reading novel length treatises on their phones. Every year that goes by, that percentage of the population gets larger and larger.
But for me, 24 years of reading books as books kind of gets stuck in your head. I’ve never been able to effectively read anything of length on a computer, and it’s not an attention span issue. (Pretty sure I wouldn’t be closing in on the last book of Game of Thrones after starting the series in July if I did have attention span problems.) That being said, I can’t even read long magazine articles on my laptop. It’s not the display, it’s not my attention span, it’s just something that I am really, really bad at, and I think there is just part of my brain that has never adjusted to being able to read a book on a laptop screen.
What has been a boon for me for reading online/digitally has been my iPad. As soon as I got it, I activated the digital option for my subscription for The Economist. I could read it. (Which I’d never been able to do on their website.) The whole thing. Digitally. Same with GQ and Vanity Fair. Got the Kindle app. Found I could read for hours on my iPad. I don’t know if it is the display (it is quite nice) or the fact that the physical structure of an iPad feels more like a book or magazine in my hands and therefore my brain accepts it more readily as a “book” or “magazine” and processes it accordingly.
I will definitely be inquiring as to optimizing digital history projects for tablets in class. Because I can’t be the only one that has found the iPad to be the solution for being able to read anything of length online, and if digital history is going to involve long texts at times, I’m thinking that the producers of these digital projects should probably be taking tablet readers into account.
So…out of curiosity – can you read anything more than say, 5 pages long on your laptop or desktop computer? Or do you have to print it or switch to a tablet to be able to read it? I really can’t be the only one, right?
Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web Paperback – by Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig