Browsing and reading in the age of the hyperlink

March 27, 2008

Reading and the Internet:

Browsing and Reading in the Age of the Hyperlink


This column was originally posted on January 2, 2005, as part of a collection of columns at a now retired site.

ANNAPOLIS, MD — (January 2005) —
Remember the time you turned to the dictionary to look up a word and got sidetracked by another word or words along the way, eventually closing the book before finding the word you sought in the first place?

There’s a subtle pattern in this activity that’s important to understanding the modern mind of adolescence, and especially the mind of the adolescent reader.

That you are reading this column indicates, I suspect, that you are one of those persons who picks up a newspaper or goes online for leisure, sits, and relaxes by scanning some generally innocuous words. O.K., so you’re doing so now with a computer, but, admit it, you still like to read the newspaper.

Modern adolescents are far less likely to engage in such activity.

A study of young readers and where they get their news—a study now almost a decade old— indicates that young adult readers claim to read the newspaper about three times a week, and that’s the high reader group.

You’ve heard it from many quarters, no doubt, especially from educators, that today’s teens simply do not read. It’s wrong to call them illiterate, but they may be a-literate; that is, they know how to read but prefer not to.

That assertion, however, needs careful elaboration. High school students do not read the things they are assigned to read by teachers.

They are indifferent—notoriously indifferent—to reading anything that they are assigned to read or ordered to read by others.

They choose to go against most things intellectual that have an adult flavor, and that includes the adult habit of keeping up on the news through newspapers. Most teenagers, faced with the prospect of a fresh newspaper newly delivered and still encased in its plastic wrap, will pull out the comic section or the sports section–just as most adults did when they were learning to read the newspaper.

Nevertheless, the assertion that teenagers do not read is blatantly untrue!

Their reading, however, is more often than not in a form that many adults are only beginning to experience and understand. (As you are because you’ve come to this Web site to read what is basically an opinion column similar to many in the daily newspaper. To grasp what I’m arguing here, consider how you arrived at this Web site!)

When I say teenagers are reading in a different manner, I speak of a reading that depends heavily on hyperlinks, and hyperlinks are the basic stepping stones of reading on the Internet

Reading on the Internet is, I think, much like getting caught up in the exploration of words while looking up a specific word in the dictionary. One just never knows where the trail is leading, and while one has some control over which hyperlinks to follow, there is a path that becomes almost irretrievable once the first two or three links are opened.

In the old days of newspapering, the rigid principal of the inverted pyramid guided journalists, and while that principal is still at work in many news stories, its rigidity has been greatly relaxed. According to the inverted pyramid model, the most important elements of a story must appear in the first few paragraphs; in fact, the opening paragraph is to contain most of what is determined to be “new.” Second and third paragraphs become supporting or buttressing paragraphs of what was introduced in the lead. For many people confronting the daily newspaper, reading beyond the first few paragraphs is unnecessary.

By virtue of its physical presentation to readers, the Internet also demands a “lead” and supporting information below. Many of the popular search engines charge a premium for the upper echelons of their listings; thus, one sees “sponsored results” topping off many search listings. These essentially are nothing more than paid-for leads.

Similarly, most news sites on the World Wide Web provide simply a lead to the story, often with a headline that is a hyperlink. One reads the lead and clicks the hyperlink to get to the story in its fullness.

The point of the matter is this: What we have known as “browsing” a newspaper (or even the library shelves, for that matter) has been revolutionized by the Internet and the Web. Browsing is no longer a leisurely scan or a chance glance; instead, it has become a kind of electronic hopscotch, a multiple checker game jump on an unlimited board with no squares.

The reading skills of a newspaper reader and an Internet reader are essentially identical, but the dynamics are miles—and generations—apart.

Hyperlinks, virtually unknown two decades ago, have become commonplace, not only in advertising and popular literature such as magazines but in scholarly research. Look at a bibliography on a scholarly paper that’s been written in the past five years. There’s a good chance it has more hyperlinks than references to books.

Teenagers haven’t stopped reading; they’ve simply stopped reading the way most adults were taught to read. Once we grasp this, we may recognize that the hyperlink is as revolutionary as the double helix.

The other side—perhaps the frightening side—of this sort of reading, of course, is that it tends to randomness and disorganization; some might even say to chaos.

Nevertheless, there are those who argue that genuine learning emerges more from chaos than from organization! But that’s another avenue to explore, and I haven’t reached that hyperlink just yet.

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