Reading, skimming, avoiding …

I have been meaning to mention Carole Palmer’s observation that we are seeing ‘reading avoidance’ as an emerging behavior among researchers, as they increasingly depend on abstracts, citations, and other reading cues and clues to ‘avoid’ full engagement with the materials themselves. Here is what I wrote in my recent piece on mobile communications in First Monday about changing patterns of attention ….

The network style of consumption — particularly mobile consumption — calls forward services which atomize content, providing snippets, thumbnails, ringtones, abstracts, tags, ratings and feeds. All of these create a variety of hooks and hints for people for whom attention is scarce. It has even been recently suggested that this pattern of consumption is rewiring our cognitive capacities (Carr, 2008). Regardless of the longer term implications, it is clear that people need better clues about where to spend their attention in this environment, and that this is one incentive for the popularity of social approaches. This attention scarcity is apparent also in the academic environment where a bouncing and skimming style of consumption has been observed (Nicholas, et al., 2006). Palmer, et al. (2007) talk about actual ‘reading avoidance’. Researchers may survey more material, but spend less time with each item, relying on abstracts and other content clues to avoid reading in full.
Nicholas Carr, 2008. “Is Google making us stupid?” Atlantic Monthly (July/August), at, accessed 10 October 2008.

David Nicholas, Paul Huntington, Hamid R. Jamali, and Tom Dobrowolski, 2006. “Characterising and evaluating information seeking behaviour in a digital environment: Spotlight on the ‘bouncer’,” Information Processing and Management, volume 43, number 4, pp. 1085-1102.

Carole L. Palmer, Melissa H. Cragin, and Timothy P. Hogan, 2007. “Weak information work in scientific discovery,” Information Processing and Mangement, volume 43, number 3, pp. 808-820.

Here is what she said in a presentation [ppt] at OCLC last year:

Researchers are rapidly navigating through more material, spending less and less time with each item, and attempting to assess and exploit content with as little actual reading as possible.

2 thoughts on “Reading, skimming, avoiding …”

  1. The discussion of “reading avoidance” reminds me of an “ah-ha!” moment I had a few years ago. One day I got home after spending many hours browsing at bookstores — typically enough, for me — and I thought, gosh, again I’ve spent the day looking at books rather than actually reading. Then it hit me, the obvious but significant point, that of course I had spent the day reading, but just across hundreds of books fleetingly rather than one or two intensively. Why do we call one of these reading, and one not?

    Bookstores (and libraries?) are the book-world equivalent to the Web: generally, places to skim, divert, fritter, connect, talk, buy, socialize, but mostly, not to read deeply.

    Anyway, we might ask, what if we didn’t do all this fast skimming and evaluating, this landscape-scanning? We’d be versed only in the comparatively tiny number of books we have time to read in full, and arguably not know much about the world or about books.

    As Pierre Bayard observes in his great How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, when we talk about books, we are almost always talking about books we haven’t read. None of us has “read” more than a tiny fraction of the book universe, so necessarily that shared universe consists for us mostly of labels, lists, cites, allusions, summaries, reviews, skimming, and browsing. You might say, therefore, that deep reading of complete works is a limit or extreme case, not the normal case.

  2. Thank you for writing about “the attention scarcity.” I am grateful to see another point of view, as I’ve been speaking about, writing about, researching about that word “attention” for more than a decade. I’ve discovered that “attention” is more than a word – it’s our primary need, it’s dimensional as we can see it, recognize it (as you have) and it describes a behavior. The abundance of never-ending new technologies is impacting us in every level of our lives, as we work to keep up, keep ahead and compete – we actually find ourselves with less time, decreased attention spans and more stress. The scarcity you describe impacts our personal lives, our interpersonal lives and our relationships.

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