At some point in 2011 –I can’t remember exactly when– I came to a very important realization about reading and the internet. That realization is not exactly a breakthrough, since I’m sure many of you have on some level gotten it too, but I like to think of it as a tiny apple that fell on my head and made an important impact on my life. It has affected the way I blog and the way I read online.
To understand the importance of my “discovery”, let’s go back a bit in time and remember how we used to read before the internet came along.
A long, long time ago
It must be very difficult to imagine a world without the internet and all its glory, without timelines, without likes, without check-ins and retweets. but that time did exist. Back in the early 2000s My favorite magazine was (an still is) The Economist. I remember the joy every new issue brought to me and I remember exactly the ritual I used to go through when I got it. That ritual had two phases:
- Phase 1: Browsing the magazine.
This phase took no more than 30 minutes and usually happened at the steps of AUB’s Main Gate. I would take a quick look at all the articles, and in my head I’d mentally mark the ones I don’t want to miss. A cup of coffee later and phase one is complete. I’m now looking forward to reading the articles.
- Phase 2: Reading it.
This is the laid back, ritualistic part of the reading. I would arrange for a very comfortable couch (or bed), a warm drink, some ambient music with low volume, and preferably a storm outside. This was the “do not interrupt” zone, a place where time has no meaning, where the phone is silent and everyone else is asleep. this is where the pleasure of uninterrupted reading takes place. A pleasure that can only be appreciated by the people who actually felt it.
A.D.D freaks on the loose
Fast forward to today’s world. The internet is so cool. There are so many exciting things to read thrown at us from all corners of the social web. The interesting, the bizzare, the awesome, the WTF?!?’s, the petitions, the I-cant-believe-she-said-thats. Multiple stimuli kept screaming to be read, now, at this very moment.
And I did read, and share, and LoL’ed and WTF’ed and OMFG’ed and raged and Face Palmed..
But in the end, it was all wearing me down. I was realizing that I can’t possibly read all this cool stuff AND read The Economist, AND read good books. That was when I came up with my first theory about reading and the web: “People have so many things to read it made no longer sense to write long, in-depth articles”. It was June, 2010 and I decided to apply that principle to my blog: There would be short posts only, with links and few pithy words of commentary. That, I thought, would fit more with the zeitgeist and with people’s hectic lives in front of their screens.
Things worked out fine for a year and I got a ton of traffic on my blog, but there was an emptiness I couldn’t shake off. People no longer took my writings to bed with them. They only “consumed” it while hunched over a PC at work and moved on. I must have made zero impact on their lives. That’s not what I wanted.
Coming Full Circle
How can we make use of the fast web and yet still manage to read more in-depth and pleasurable stuff? This is where my second realization, the one I’m writing this post for, came in. The key to enjoying the web is to differentiate strictly between the activities of “browsing” and “reading”.
Browsing and reading are different creatures that require different mental faculties. The first is fast, hectic, ruthless, selective, broad and sweeping. The second is leisurely, slow, deliberate, precise and thorough. The first seeks to manage complexity by cutting quickly through the superfluous, and the second deeply investigates the ins and outs of every word and idea.
We commit a crime against our brains every time we jump from twitter (a browsing environment) to an article (a reading environment) and back to twitter again. Your mind will be in browser-mode when you’re reading the article, and you’ll find yourself racing through the words without actually understanding or enjoying the nuances in the piece. If you find yourself impatient while reading an interesting article, think of that as a warning sign that your brain is in browsing mode.
So what does this mean on a practical level?
It means that when we browse, we should be aware that we are browsing and we should not be tempted to read. Here’s how I’m doing it these days: Whenever I find links to articles I like to read (from Twitter or facebook), I save them for later using a read-it-later service (my favorite is Instapaper). Then, when I have enough time to relax and read, I pull up the iPad, shut down the world (and browsing activities) and lose myself in reading… Just like the old days.
PS: I hope you took your time to read this post and that you enjoyed it. If you skimmed through it to try to get its point on the cheap, you’re doing it wrong ..