Reading is a cyclical evolution
Riding any kind of public transportation in Jakarta has been more interesting now than in the past decade. Even in the most filth-ridden metro minis, you will find a couple of worn-out office workers brandishing their shiny tablets without the slightest care in the world, sharing their day on Path or tweeting to celebrities. Updating social media accounts and jumping into the hottest hashtags of the day seems to be the norm these days. It is undeniable that our generation is consuming more information than ever. It created a new generation of “readers” – those whose daily reads solely consist of social media updates (and most likely brief news articles). Nonetheless, being informed is still better than not knowing, and this phenomenon can be considered a side effect of everything good the internet has brought to us – globalized business, accelerated research, instant reporting of news. This abundance of information is a typical trait of the 21st century lifestyle, a feat never before seen in any point of history before us. Is the overflow of information always a good thing, and where we should draw the line?
The advent of the internet is undoubtedly one of the biggest technological breakthrough in the last few hundred years. The biggest power of the internet, unlike other breakthroughs in communication technology that precedes it, lies in enabling great flexibility in delivering information to the recipients. Telephone is limited to voice calls but you can video call, send IMs, and email a mailing list with a single internet connection. The many forms of communication – voice, text, video, even tactile response – have been generalized into ‘information’. As long as you have information, the internet will find a way to convey and deliver it to another person or even everyone on the planet with a connection. As a result, many other breakthroughs arose thanks to the internet’s collaborative nature, to the point where we can view the live photos of the surface of Mars from the comfort of our bedroom. The constantly flowing information isn’t always a winning formula for humanity, though: humans are social creatures, and most of the information we consume are pointless chatters, or otherwise Facebook won’t be the second most visited site on the planet after Google (which in itself symbolize the triumph of curiosity over gossiping, or maybe Google is just that good at their game).
The older generation’s grumbling about their kids chatting on Facebook all the time is not without basis. Facebook’s statistics are indeed a staggering accomplishment from the point of business: every day, there are an average of 4.75 billion contents being shared, and 10 billion messages sent to each other, out of 1.23 billion monthly active users. Out of those contents, four of the top five most shared sites on Facebook on September 2014 are news sites (or roughly qualified as such): Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Fox News and NBC News. These sites stood out not because their sites made the most reliable, up-to-the-second news more than any other. Most of the time, the sites applied what is known as “clickbait titles” to their headlines – titles that intrigue people to click them, no matter how inane the news actually is. Titles like “Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis Reveals Baby’s Name…” or “Drake Just Got an Emoji Tattoo and You’ll Never Guess Which One” are certainly demanding their viewers to be clicked, while the actual article can have only one sentence for all they care. Clickbait articles have become such an issue that many people try to take it from many angles, from the Twitter account @SavedYouAClick that answers clickbait titles so you don’t have to click them (its creator said he hates how “the reader is always being manipulated”), to the parody site ClickHole.com that takes pointless articles to a whole new level (one of their article is titled “7 People Who’ve Made Out With Your Sister”, for real). The backlash against clickbait has been so big that even Facebook rolled out updates to reduce the number of click-demanding titles with little to no actual content. Like it or not, these sites produce tons of money by exploiting the curiosity of people, and they’re here to stay.
These clickbait sites are making worse a problem that’s already bad enough, namely the shortening of our attention span. A way higher volume of content are meant to be consumed in the same 24-hour day to remain relevant, pushing us to be highly selective on what to read, and not to spend too much time on one item. People are urged to read only what matters – or what seems to matter. Reading as a daily activity is reduced into bullet point gathering, list skimming, and note taking. Nicholas Carr, an American author, revealed that internet use leads to alteration or “rewiring” in brain activities with as little as 5 hours of browsing, resulting in shallow thinking that reduces comprehension and creativity (although it also strengthen brain functions in fast-paced problem solving). One study in 2008 even suggested that our attention span had dwindled to a mere 5 minutes from 12 minutes a decade before. This change in behavior took a toll in a more global level: the print industry.
Novels, print magazines, and newspapers have been in the frontline of print industry for centuries. This is not the case anymore in the 21st century, as digital publications are flourishing and print publications are forced to adapt to avoid being deserted by their once-loyal readers. Newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have implemented online subscription to complement their print edition and magazines like Newsweek have even moved entirely digital, ending the print edition after 80 years with a large hashtag titled #lastprintissue (although they decided to relaunch the print edition a few months later after being bought out by IBT Media). Due to negative growth of readership, advertisers are deserting print media, thus destroying profitability for those who can’t adapt. Some considered this phenomenon as the end of quality journalism, because the creation of a good journalistic piece takes time and needs to be written in length with great detail, which is something entirely missing from the modern culture of content consuming.
Fiction publishing is largely a different matter, though, since it is not dependent on advertising revenue, yet authors and publishers are still fighting a huge disadvantage: people simply can’t read hundreds of pages anymore. The avid book lovers are still here, but pulling the new generation into the vortex of literature reading has been proven difficult. Sales of printed books in the United Kingdom fell 9.8% in 2013, as well as anywhere else in the world. Fortunately, there’s a way out for the book industry in the form of e-books. Dedicated e-book readers like Nook and Kindle are spreading like wildfire, and sales of e-books have been constantly on the rise, creating a new generation of readers. However, the side effect of shortened attention span still persists: people are demanding the continuity of their favorite novels in a much steadier pace, resulting in book sequels released only months after the original, as seen in James VanderMeer’s “Annihilation” trilogy amidst other titles. The international hit “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy was even released in under a month, not letting readers catch their breath.
The culture of reading is one of the most basic method of sharing information, and like many times before now, the whole culture of reading and writing is adapting to the new medium with various results. The aforementioned e-book readers have made a new culture of reading electronic books that isn’t meant to replace print books but to complement them, as shown with the rise of print books sales in the first half of 2014. After all, the whole point is conveying story in textual form, no matter where you read it. Journalism also fights back through online subscriptions, and those who prevails are the ones that incorporate multimedia elements into their online version, such as the British-based Top Gear, with videos and interactive charts accompanying pieces about the culture or the economy.
Turns out, the whole slew of new readers are not just clickbait-content consumer; many of them outgrew the insatiable desire to click and demand quality in their reading list. There has been the rise of websites specialized in creating (or curating) long-form articles such as Aeon Magazine and Longreads, which came from the rising demand of people who are missing in-depth writings that used to be severely lacking in the online space. This kind of long-form journalism is back on the rise along with a new generation of print magazines, such as film magazine Little White Lies or lifestyle magazine Kinfolk that emphasize visual design and minimalistic photography that are better enjoyed on printed pages. Once more, the culture gives way to technology by embracing it without having to die out. As more and more clickbait consumers educate themselves and search for better content, the future of reading doesn’t look too bleak – instead, exciting in-depth topics can now be covered in greater, more attractive detail than ever before thanks to technology.
This essay was originally written for a writing contest selection process.