On Reading

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Luxury Connect | Oct. 16-18 | Beverly Hills

Sharing, baiting, accessibility and the race to the bottom of the web.

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

– Alan Bennett, The History Boys

It’s a common misperception that people no longer read online because they lack the time to digest anything more than bite-sized chunks of information. Many argue that we now live in a pressurized mobile-enabled environment where our collective attention span is required to happily skip from site to site, email to email and tweet to tweet throughout the day, doubling the amount of information we share year on year in accordance with Zuckerberg’s Law. Social sharing, through the inclusion of a plethora of networked links, is proven to drive eyeballs into sites, especially when they use a strategy of linkbaiting headlines specifically designed to get more visitors to arrive into a page and subsequently share it again themselves. Many believe they can artificially make content ‘go viral’ this way. They are wrong. Many articles proudly display the degree to which they have been shared at the top of their pages, prior to the content itself, as their own sash of social achievement. This has been an incredibly powerful approach for news organizations such as The Huffington Post, Mashable and Gawker, all of whom have been able to substantially grow their digital footprint through the aggressive and highly successful implementation of a baiting and sharing strategy. Many of them are now surpassing traditional outlets such as the New York Times or The Washington Post in terms of online audience.


Page One’ Documentary Trailer

This strategy exists exclusively for one purpose, that of driving in as many people as possible and appeasing advertisers through the increased assertion that page views will be generated through the creation and publication of compelling content. The more page views, the more monetized the page can become. The more eyeballs and time spent on those pages, the greater the exposure of the advertisers’ message, and the obvious increased likelihood of the visitor converting over to being a visitor to the advertisers’ site itself. But, as Rian van der Merwe recently suggests, what happens is that there’s a ‘bizarre race to the intellectual bottom to write the most generic article in the world so that everyone with an Internet connection will click through. And the only purpose seems to be to keep the advertising monster fed, fat and happy.’ In short, the content being created is specifically being built with advertising and revenue generating goals in mind. This goes well beyond any inherent search engine optimization strategy. More importantly, it creates enormous accessibility problems for those wishing to read and consume something meaningful and interesting online, as it proactively discourages the creation of anything outside of what is already proven to be successful to advertisers. What results is an unusual type of regurgitative content with linkbait-driven headlines such as ’10 mobile apps that will keep you in business’, ‘101 ways to jump start your social media content strategy’ or perhaps ‘Why Siri is the reason your kids will never go to college’. They’re rampant online. They’re misguidedly designed to inform and educate in a climate where 1 minute is all we can assume to expect from online readership. It’s neither education nor insight, but it generates an enormous volume of monetizable actions, directly benefitting both publisher and advertiser.

The person who suffers most is the one who clicked expecting to find something interesting to read.

Van deer Merwe concludes by referencing Clay Shirky (author of the fantastic ‘Cognitive Surplus‘), who argues that the problem isn’t that people don’t have enough time, it’s that people don’t have enough attention. People have more than enough time, so it isn’t that we need more of it, it’s that we need better things to hold our attention in a sea of sameness.

“The wells of attention are being drilled to depletion by linkbait headlines, ad-infested pages, “jumps” and random pagination, and content that is engineered to be “consumed” in 1 minute or less of quick scanning – just enough time to capture those almighty eyeballs. And the reality is that “Alternative Attention sources” simply don’t exist.”

– Rian van der Merwe: ‘The Demise of Quality Content on the Web

I love Instapaper. I’m also a big fan of Longreads. Why? For me they’re the same reason I love HBO. Not only because it’s a huge help in being able to create a vast bank of useful material for me to write from, it’s also a way that I can circumnavigate the structure and design of ad-driven pages (or TV channels) designed to ensnare me in advertising messages and clickable links. They are services performing the task of being ruthless editors. I want to read, not be sold to. I want something of quality. I want something interesting. The reason I don’t read as much on the ‘regular web’ is because on that same page there’s hundreds of things competing for my attention outside of the reason I’m actually there. I can’t read there, much as I would love to. Instapaper and services like them remove all the extraneous information from the content and allow me to read on my own terms, not those of advertisers. Now I have to have an app to consciously remove the distractions of reading. Safari has also integrated their ‘Reader’ service as a way of adding this idea. As much as I love it, it’s also disappointing that Instapaper even has to exist. It’s almost impossible to focus on reading a modern long form article online when the page is simply a barrage of social sharing buttons – likes, tweets, plus onesies, emails and dozens of others, in addition to the typical right hand columned approach of filling up the remainder of the page with flashing advertising messages. Share! Tweet! Like! Too often these messages require scrolling down (beyond what used to be called ‘the fold’ before the days of infinite scrolling and the iPad) in order to even get to the page’s content itself. Can you imagine this kind of approach inside of a regular book? Or even eBook? What if you were reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ and along the right hand side of the page was a skyscraper unit to save money on your car insurance (reference to Gatsby’s car intended. Targeting opportunities within the classics will be the subject of another post for another time – Cruiseship tours and desert island getaways inside of Robinson Crusoe? Investment advice inside of Pride and Prejudice?). What if this approach came to eBooks as a way to monetize them? Longer form blog posts already have them implemented, in addition to ‘jumps’ or pagination to deliberately serve up more page views for advertisers, so it might not be too far away. Photo slideshow pagination is already rampant across the web.

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Designer and web usability pioneer Jeffrey Zeldman suggests one reason this is happening is due to a crisis in the field of interaction design itself. That there’s a downward arms race where web pages are polarized by designers as either ‘cool’ or ‘crap’, whereas the important thing is the focus on the immensely important usability aspect which exists in the vague middle ground. If you buy into the idea that the main thing people do online is read, you can easily see how the problem isn’t attention span, it’s the lack of quality things to read in specifically readable, accessible forms. In many ways it’s just as much a design problem as it is one of content and headline writing. Advertising and sharing options are laid out as barriers to reading, that services like Instapaper have seen and provided workable solutions for. The need to monetize websites is coming at the expense of the reader and the content, and it’s being presented as ‘people don’t read anymore online’. This isn’t true. More people read online than ever before (http://bit.ly/vA8YmU and http://bit.ly/sxzf0f). The issue isn’t that people don’t want to read electronically – the rise of the iPad and eReaders such as the immensely successful Kindle are concrete proof of that (as I’ve discussed before, just be careful about what you read in bed: http://bit.ly/tt7jU5). People love to read electronically, it’s just that there’s so many barriers under the thin guise of monetization that are concrete barriers to actually consuming that information within web pages. The problem is that they don’t have enough meaningful things to read. As a result, the content gets dumbed down to increasingly more digestible forms, the status quo begins to rule, and there’s less and less time spent reading longer form content. We skip from short-form list to short form list over paginated links and in and out of short video clips. There’s a strong argument that longer form video content is going to be a large part of how the web gets consumed in the near future.

“I was there because I just wanted to read something. Words. Black text on a white background, more-or-less. And what I saw – at a professional publication, a site with the purpose of giving people something good to read – was just about the farthest thing from readable.”

– Brent Simmons: ‘The Pummeling Pages’, Inessential

Many have characterized this problem as an over abundance of information being pushed daily at people. So much so that we’re all getting really skilled at ignoring things that are of no interest to us. Seth Godin talks about the importance of creating remarkable experiences in order to even remain visible in his infamous Purple Cow discussion (Here’s Seth’s amazing TED talk on this topic: http://bit.ly/4xNdUs). But it’s more than that – it’s not just the creation of content that holds our attention, it’s distribution that allows us to tune out the need for advertisers to get their message across, or layouts which make us vault the hurdle of the need to instantly share it all with our friends. This isn’t a new idea. In Quentin Hardy’s wonderful overview of David Weinberger’s recent books for the New York Times’s Bits Blog, he writes:

“The abundance problem of the Web, Mr. Weinberger said, is really an old one. The Roman philosopher Seneca talked about “too many books” (echoing Ecclesiastes 12:12, “of making many books there is no end.”) The issue nowadays is to some extent the need for good filters, pushing away information after centuries of seeking it.”

Hardy characterizes his discussion as an attack on the idea of knowledge itself. It’s not just that the consumption of information is changing based on accelerated media production and how it’s organized into interwoven networks as opposed to linear structures, it’s that the process of discovering new forms of knowledge (not content) is being eroded as shorter form content is being consumed more aggressively, specifically in favor of more numerous bite-sized pieces of ever dumbed-down ‘content’ created with revenue in mind. As Hardy continues, Weinberger (author of The Cluetrain Manifesto: http://bit.ly/A7VDd) himself proposes that the online content and its presentation isn’t exclusively the problem, it’s the structure of the web itself:

“Newspapers, encyclopedias, they are just gone, at the touch of a hyperlink,” Mr. Weinberger said. The institutions of “education and politics – they’ll just shatter. How did they get to be so fragile?” With the pained glee of a scientist discovering very bad news, he added, “knowledge for my generation was at the center of the human quest. It is going the way of the recording industry. It is a term that won’t survive the generation.”

Intrusive Ad Example

So where do we go from here? As always, the future remains exciting, but uncertain. Will reading, as Weinberger suggests, go the way of the recording industry? Will advertisers continue to fuel the downward arms race of ever dumber content in the perpetual quest for eyeballs and page views? Mobile banner advertising continues to strengthen, primarily with an approach based on targeting, not ad volume or frequency. What does this mean for the real estate industry? There’s certainly an argument that longer form, critically based discursive writing within our industry is very much in its infancy, and also in the minority (I’m looking at you Rob Hahn: http://bit.ly/19eRXO), but that’s because sites that publish those posts aren’t advertiser-centric. They tend to be personal blogs from industry professionals where the business model is elsewhere. This is a healthy thing, but debatable good business practice, especially given the investment of time it takes to create a truly studied long-form read. I argue there is tremendous untapped value in taking this approach. Is there a place for longer form content in a monetized digital environment? The New York Times’ iPad app has a good college try at achieving this, but still the articles are dominated by large intrusive units, sometimes at the expense of being able to read the full article at all without consuming the ad. The attempts to reach more eyeballs are unfortunately all too often results in more and more prohibitive reading experiences.

The bigger point of concern is what happens to readability in the era of linkbaiting. The spiral I characterized as posts headlined as ’10 great things you need to know about right now in order to still be in business next week’ show few business signs of slowing down, but there’s a difference between visiting a page and actually reading it, just as there’s a difference between watching the TV and having it on in the room. Visitors are not readers, but readers are visitors. Readers spend more time on pages. Readers share more meaningfully. Readers will comment more as they’ll have had the opportunity to consume the information at a slow pace and formulate an argument. For the analytics-minded amongst you, they have lower bounce rates and longer time-on-site metrics. Their responses go beyond Facebook-centric comments consisting of ‘cool post’ and open discussions and conversations – those holy grails that online marketers so desperately crave. The overall quality of the interaction, consumption, time spent on the site and sharing opportunities is far greater. It makes it more like HBO than QVC. It will allow you to stand for something. And in standing for something, you’ll stand out. If attention span is diminished collectively, creating something which will hold someone’s attention over time becomes the key, not something that will simply appease the constant desire to click and share. Time and relationships are the new digital currency. Let’s work towards making that mean something.

 

Further Reading:


Adam Clarke Estes: ‘The Huffington Post passes The New York Times in traffic’, The Atlantic 
Doug Gross: ‘More Americans get news from Internet than newspapers or radio’, CNNTech
Daniel Gulati: ‘Facebook is making us miserable’, Harvard Business Review
Quentin Hardy: ‘How the internet is ruining everything’, The New York Times
King James Bible (Official Blog): ‘400 Year-Old Bible more popular than ever before’
Ian Paul: ‘YouTube spending $100M to compete with Broadcast TV’, PC World
Larry Seltzer: ‘Facebook utterly dominates web referrals’, Information Week
Brent Simmons: ‘The Pummeling Pages’, Inessential
Rian van der Merwe: ‘The demise of quality content on the web’, Elezea
Rian van deer Merwe: ‘Please let this not be the future of reading on the web’, Elezea