To Read or Not to Read: Digital Texts and Finding Friends

I have never liked reading online. This means a lot, considering that I’ve taught online for many years, and was the managing editor for a successful online journal. As an instructional designer and an employee who works remotely, online text is not only a huge part of my job, but it is also the “classroom” through which I teach. Regardless, I find digital reading to be laborious, and have always preferred the turning of pages to the roll of a mouse wheel.

Anne Mangen, in her interview with Maria Konnikova says that “Reading ‘involves factors not usually acknowledged … The ergonomics, the haptics of the device itself. The tangibility of paper versus the intangibility of something digital.’” And I would agree. I am usually unable to engage the same way with digital text as I do with ink-on-paper text. For one, I think the Internet encourages skimming, and makes deep reading as hard on the soul as it is on the eyes.

Moreover, I’ve mostly found the Internet to be an alienating environment, at least as it’s built. Plenty of work has been done to make digital environments warm and friendly, full of people to talk to and collaborate with (Twitter and Google Docs have been my go-to spaces when I want to feel more in touch with my colleagues); but it nonetheless feels like personal interaction is hard to make authentic. Like reading, the Internet encourages me to skim.

And I know, even as I write this now, I’m asking you to read online.

“The shift from print to digital reading may lead to more than changes in speed and physical processing,” Konnikova reports.

It may come at a cost to understanding, analyzing, and evaluating a text. Much of Mangen’s research focusses on how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy but broader processing abilities. One of her main hypotheses is that the physical presence of a book—its heft, its feel, the weight and order of its pages—may have more than a purely emotional or nostalgic significance. People prefer physical books, not out of old-fashioned attachment but because the nature of the object itself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension.

I get stuck on “people prefer physical books,” because if this were so, how have we become a society of digital readers and writers? When did it change, and who ushered in that change? But even more importantly, because digital texts have become commonplace everywhere—from our schools to our coffee tables to our commute to work on the train—how do we begin to change our relationship to those texts in order to make our reading as deep, as meaningful, as it can be when we read physical texts?

Maryanne Wolf “fears that as we turn to digital formats, we may see a negative effect on the process that she calls deep reading. Deep reading isn’t how we approach looking for news or information, or trying to get the gist of something.” We could call this “functional reading”, and it includes a lot of the kind of reading we do online. Twitter feeds and Facebook walls encourage not just skimming, but a strange synthetic process of reading headlines, watching gifs (always partial and repetitive), getting our information from summaries, and spending little to no effort on fact checking and analysis before liking or retweeting what we’ve read. This creates not just a spread of misinformation but a subtle endorsement of not-deep reading.

Reading on social media is especially problematic for these reasons. But it’s also a strange cultural activity. When we read our Facebook wall and respond to (by liking or sharing) something a friend has shared, we are, in the social economy of Facebook, maintaining and encouraging friendships. But these friendships can bear a striking resemblance to the idea of “functional reading” in that they are brief nods rather than deep conversations.

Because so much of our social interaction is contained in text today, how we read may well indicate how we relate. Good readers make good friends.

Enter collaborative annotation. Konnikova reports that “In a new study, the introduction of an interactive annotation component helped improve comprehension and reading strategy use in a group of fifth graders. It turns out that they could read deeply. They just had to be taught how.” Collaborative annotation tools, like Hypothes.is, give readers a reason to read more carefully by enabling them to post their own thoughts as digital marginalia on any web page with a unique URL. Any article, any site, any news report—all of these are available for annotation.

Moreover, this kind of digital annotation is also social. But instead of simply liking, sharing, or retweeting, responding with your own marginalia to a colleague or friend’s marginalia requires thoughtfulness and time. Conversation, analysis, and debate can quickly enter into a collaboratively read text, making the text itself the site of social learning.

How we learn and teach this social annotation is very much still a question. What are the skills involved? What should be the expectations? If annotation creates deeper reading of digital texts, how do we assess it? And how might our discoveries about social reading and annotation inform our perspectives on academic reading and research altogether?

To Respond:

Please feel free to respond to this post by annotating it using Hypothes.is. Be sure to join the MiddAnnotate group and select that group before beginning your annotation. (If you have questions about how to do that, take a look at these tutorials.)

Please also take a look at Maria Konnikova’s article in The New Yorker and annotate there as part of MiddAnnotate. If you’re interested, you can also follow some of her hyperlinks and share your thoughts in marginalia on those articles as well. When you annotate using the MiddAnnotate group, everyone in that group will be able to see the articles and sites you’ve annotated right from the group home page.