A Cluttered Medium - The Issues With Consuming Digital Information

During the last 15 years or so, the Internet has transformed how we consume information and the services we use in our everyday lives. Nowadays, we buy our music online, we pay our bills online, we socialize online, and the Internet has become interwoven into the fabric of our lives. Obviously, our newly digitalized lives are in many ways more efficient than they were, but the Internet is also transforming the way our brains process information.

When I consume information on the web, I forage for the most important content. I scan headlines, I look for bolded words, hyperlinks and I read the synopsis and conclusions of articles. I get restless if I cannot find what I am looking for, quickly. If I am not intrigued or entertained, I move on. In User Experience research, we see this type of behavior as being very common. In Jakob Nielsen’s famous study from 1997 on how people read websites 79% of users scanned a page, while only 16% read the page word for word. Right now, I am certain that the percentage is larger. We are turning into what Nicolas Carr coined as a “short-attention-span culture”. In the back of our minds, we always know that other content will always be only one click or one tap away.

A couple of weekends ago, I started to think about the way I personally consume information and what I actually remember from reading digital content. I discovered that I have a fairly shallow recollection. I know the buzzwords, the statistics and other important sound bytes, but I have a tough time verbalizing more than that. Is this ultimately because of the way I consume information?

David Brooks illustrates this problem in his New York Times Op-Ed piece “The Medium is The Medium”, contrary to Marshall McLuhan’s theory of “The Medium Is The Message”

The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”
But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world.

The focused reading of a book, “cultivates” the mind. If you read a book, your information consumption behavior is very focused. You consume, not only the most important information, but also the information in between.

This gives creators of digital content a conundrum. How can we make the consumption of digital content more focused? E-readers like the Kindle and the iPad is moving in this direction, but they also contain other distractions, which can steer one away. Online, a great example of an application that can make you have a more focused way of reading is “Readability”.

This plug-in removes extraneous objects when reading an article by the click of a button. Another example of a great online reading experience is Grain and Gram, “The New Gentlemen’s Journal”, which has a minimalist magazine-like layout that invites the user to dive deeper into a topic, without being bombarded with other messages.

These examples show that creating an online information experience can be inviting and allow for in-depth reading, by removing extraneous objects and noise. Having the mindset of removing, rather than adding, will make you successful in creating your next digital content experience.