Something Old, Something New.

Something old, something new.

What are you looking for when you read? It’s a behavior that requires a certain amount of effort, and if you’re like me, you always want to be effected in some degree commensurate with the time you spent applying yourself to the task. Much has been written about the short attention span that web reading promotes. Is this really the case? Every few months I get an e-mail from someone telling me that they spent hours on my site, something that they claim they never do. Sometimes, I read an entire site myself.

It takes a certain sense of connection. I begin to wonder if the web actually promotes these connections by its sheer diversity. When the audience is so broad and multi-leveled, the chances of stumbling onto someone that satisfies your own peculiar needs as a reader are greater. However, the formula for effective web writing seems to be well quantified.

Effective Web Writing by Crawford Killian brings together the question of audience needs, and the means to satisfy those needs. Most of it is stuff that will be familiar to web writers, but it’s good to see it gathered together in one article. I especially liked his description of the “hooks’ for increasing readership:

  • questions – they make us seek the answer,
  • unusual statements – we love surprises,
  • promise of conflict – we love fights,
  • news pegs – to tie content to the coattails of some big current event, and
  • direct address – we love personal attention.

Another hook he noted was the usage of quotes. I wonder why this is true? Do we surf into sites looking for something that someone other than the site writer has said? That seems so counter-intuitive. Why bother, if this is the case, why not just read a book? I think that the sea of information the Internet represents is an entirely new way of contextualizing experience. I think I’m drawn to quotes, because I want to know why the person selected it. I want to know how this piece of information relates to them, as a person.

Sometimes the web seems like a multi-chambered stomach, were everyone digests things in different ways. Quotes are often like those bits of undigested corn, pieces of reading that persist because of their hardness, their resistance to being broken down any further. This feeds the “short attention span” theory nicely. We pick quotes because we can’t improve on the message they transmit, or digest them further without losing their essence.

But what about the other end of the scale? Why do people spend long periods of time at some sites? Maybe it’s because they take us outside ourselves. The popularity of novels in the romance genre, and the psychological factors that go along with it suggest that we have a need to be transported, to identify with someone we’re not. Perhaps it’s only when you find someone that you identify with that the attention span lengthens. I don’t know, but with increasing access to unique personalities, it seems likely that chances of identifying with someone are greater.

A new link I’ve added to my literary section on the sidebar is Corvey Women Writers on the Web. It documents 1,071 works by 471 women writers whose works were available from 1796-1834. This is only one section of a major library collected by a reader whose tastes fell outside the scope of standard popular faire. It’s a window into a neglected literature, a literature of transport and transformation, not just a literature of correct taste. The drive to find the things that we identify with operates outside the condensation of feelings into easily quantifiable quotes. To see the web as a reducer of attention spans ignores that there are some who do indeed read, and care about diversity and depth. This, is really quite an old thought, buried by the pursuit of the new.