Untangling the Web: 21st-century ADHD

A new Jpost.com column on the ever-changing world of news online: In the sea of iPhones and flashing ads, what is the proverbial Ritalin?

iPhone 4 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Truth Leem)
iPhone 4 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Truth Leem)
On a recent trip to my native Australia, I learned a stark lesson on the effect of technology on human interaction. With an iPhone and an unlimited data package in the room, conversation is compromised. A movie comes up, someone can’t remember the name of that actor, and bam! Out comes the phone, Wild West quick-draw style. What year did that war start? Google it. Which episode of “Seinfield” was that quote from? Imbd it. No need to use your brain, your memory, no time for debate. For the smartphone generation, attention span and memory skills are no longer required.
The truth is that while I don’t (yet) have a smartphone, once I’m in front of a computer I’m no better; I too suffer from google-quick-draw syndrome. While writing this column, I’ve been flipping through eight different browser windows, left three videos loading on YouTube, had work and personal e-mails open, and two gchats and a Skype conversation running simultaneously. Smartphones are clearly not the issue here, they are merely the next step in our technological evolution, allowing us to carry the Internet in our pockets at all times.
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It comes as no surprise then that this behavior is also reflected in the way people get their news online. In 2011, the majority of readers rarely make it all the way to the end of a breaking news article. It seems that we want important information spelled out clearly and succinctly, and preferably all in the first few sentences and with a video to accompany it. On Jpost.com, for example, the average time on site is just over 10 minutes, spread over an average of 2.65 pages. Taking into consideration the fact that readers spend significantly longer on opinion and analysis pieces, the numbers are all pointing to the same conclusion: News readers have techno-ADHD.
Along with the challenges of digitalizing and monetizing the classic print edition, the online journalism industry now has to cater for a consumer who can’t concentrate, and the question that begs to be answered is: What is the proverbial Ritalin?
In his much-quoted 2008 article in “The Atlantic,” “Is google making us stupid?” which he later expanded into a full-length book, American writer Nicholas Carr claimed that the Internet was “chipping away” at his “capacity for concentration and contemplation.”
Along with anecdotes from experts in various professions admitting to their increasing inability to read and absorb books, Carr cites a University College London study which observed that online users “are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”
Carr’s thesis, essentially, is that the Internet is changing the way humans think. If indeed this is the case, then online industries have two options: Beat ’em or join ’em. Put another way, sites have to either provide content that overcomes the persistent inattention and hyperactivity symptomatic of ADHD, or alter their content’s format.
Ultimately, most sites do both, to varying degrees. While online users may have a tendency to get more easily distracted than their news-reading counterparts in generations gone by, if something is well-written, interesting and engaging, most readers are going to keep reading. Sites need to find a balance, by providing quality content and dressing it up in such a way that makes it appealing to the flighty fancies of today’s users.
First, design; the user’s eye must be caught before any attempt can be made to engage his brain. Some sites, such as the New York Times, have appealed to users’ sense of nostalgia by keeping to a classic, broadsheet-esque design, many choose more modern looks, and others, such as the insanely popular Drudge Report, keep sites as clean as possible, using only words and a few pictures to draw readers’ attention. The design of a news provider’s home page is what showcases all of the content on the “back pages” of the site, which may never get seen if the aesthetics don’t appeal.
In another attempt to focus the attention of frazzled readers, US news aggregation sites Drudge and The Huffington Post both recently launched a feature which highlights recently updated stories with colored shading. Here, users don’t even need to skim; they can just follow the color-coded suggestions.
On top of design choices, news sites are also experimenting with the integration of content other than text such as videos, photo galleries, social media platforms and interactive features. If clicking is the online equivalent to the ADHD child looking for new stimulus, then news sites want to provide users with as many opportunities to click as possible, without leaving the site. It also bears mentioning here that most online advertising campaigns are based on clicks – that is, how much exposure an ad will draw on a given Web page. It’s like a strange 21st-century barter system, users like to click, advertisers like to advertise, and news providers try to slot in headlines, bylines, datelines, videos and a paragraph of text here and there so everyone gets what they’re after.
And then there’s speed. The definition of the term “breaking news” has evolved to a point that getting a story or missing the mark can come down to a matter of minutes. Online editors need to have eyes and ears everywhere, to maximize the chances of grabbing the reader’s attention during the few minutes that they’re skimming over headline at the beginning of their work day, in between tasks, or on their iPhone in the queue at the supermarket (for those who aren’t yet shopping online).
The elements which differ the least from traditional print media are headlines and pictures, which are also of crucial importance. Readers have always been more likely to read a story with a catchy headline and/or a good picture, and it’s the same with today’s ADHD news junkie, with the added element of clicking. Even the best-written news analysis is never going to get clicked on, let alone read to the end, if the headline doesn’t catch the eye, give a hint of what the story is about, and whet the reader’s appetite. Ditto for a good picture, even if it’s just a thumbnail image.
The bottom line is that sites don’t need to compromise their integrity to provide news to the concentrationally challenged users online today; they just need to find ways to work with them. If the tendency today is to whip out the iPhone, then news providers should be aiming to develop the best app, rather than to encourage people to buy a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. The new way of thinking and communicating which Nicholas Carr describes, and which shocked me in Australia, isn’t necessarily a bad thing – news sites just need to work with it, rather than against it.
The writer is The Jerusalem Post's Internet desk manager