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In Context: Reading In The Digital Age

In Context: Reading In The Digital Age

AUTHOR: Chloe Loos and Katherine Monberg

“People don’t read things!” A common complaint around my desk and my dinner table, as my colleagues and family will attest, from a dramaturg whose craft revolves around literature and language. But my assertion really isn’t quite true; people do read things, at an almost unprecedented rate. However, what we read and how we read it – and what value it provides – is a hotly debated topic in our current technological culture of clickbait, Buzzfeed quizzes, and 140-character thoughts and revelations.

I will be the first to admit, I do sometimes like to check up on “What Hogwarts house do you belong to?” – what if I’ve grown out of my Ravenclaw ways? — and “Which Broadway show describes your personality?” The ease and accessibility of these tidbits of information is just too enticing to pass up. But why? Some media analysts, such as Nicolas Carr in his book The Shallows, assert that the age of information has actually damaged our brains irreversibly; that the ability to concentrate deteriorates with this newfound expectation to consume information the way we meet it on the Internet: easily and fluidly. Actually, a busy and animated computer screen might be better suited to the way that we learn. Recent research has suggested that people naturally scan text following an “F” shape, rather than from left to right, and that a lack of focus may actually predispose us to prefer superficial and surface information rather than deep, complex, works of literature.

Clickbait – news headlines designed to draw a reader’s attention and entice them into clicking on a link – fulfills not only our desire for information, but satisfies our human appreciation for enticing stories that we “Won’t believe…” or that will “Change your life!” Sound familiar? While the concept of clickbait is hardly new, as an offshoot of the sensationalist “yellow journalism” style of reporting that became popular in the 19th century, contemporary technology has allowed its rapid proliferation, easy to piggyback on the marketing goals of our widespread consumer culture.

And what’s more, social media allows us to adapt our perhaps somewhat shallow interests into a means of connecting with our social networks, thus providing a social incentive to spend our reading time on Facebook rather than with Steinbeck. Think about it: How many of your friends and coworkers pop open their Facebook app during the day? Now, how many of them go with the Kindle app instead? The small time and energy commitment of gathering news and information on social media greatly outweighs the inconvenience of seeking out a book or even a newspaper. For a little perspective, Katy Perry is the most followed person on Twitter with 82,561,517 followers as of February 12, 2016 (followed by Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, respectively). These celebrities have more followers than copies sold of The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, The Great Gatsby, and The Grapes of Wrath. Combined.

We live in a culture in which we can easily consume information in short, convenient bursts of text, and where we learn alternate perspectives from the frequent oversharing on our social media platforms. While literature lives on, even avid readers may spend as much, if not more time, reveling in the gratification of superficial articles placed at their fingertips. This conversation is repeated in Sex with Strangers, as Olivia and Ethan hotly debate what good writing is, what real literature is, and what the general public wants to read. What do you think: Do we judge our peers and potential partners on their choice of reading material?

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