We’re not reading online – we’re skimming. 

Reading online text picture

“Reading” online requires warp speed! via Lifehacker

I’ve been writing since I was a kid. Before I was filling notebooks with stories, I was filling paper with large scrawling lines of indecipherable letters (and later words) and taking them home where my parents would painstakingly look them over with pride.

As I got older, every piece I slaved over was read by someone. My parents, my friends, my teachers. All in all, it was enough to help build up the naive expectation that everything I wrote would always be read by someone.

But I was wrong and here’s why.

Scanning is the new reading

In 2008, a year after Amazon launched its Kindle e-reader, Steve Jobs noted: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”

He might have gotten it wrong about e-readers (a staggering 30% of all books sold in the US during 2012 were e-books), but he was on track with his point about reading.

The big question for all you article junkies out there: Are you actually reading online content?

According to the data – no, you’re probably not.

The Nielsen Norman Group, headed by usability expert Jakob Nielsen, has been a leading voice in the user experience field for more than a decade. Their research has revealed a lot about web reading and the behavior of online users.

Some interesting findings from their studies include:

To sum it all up, we skim and scan all the wonderful content that someone carefully crafted to find information that catches our attention or relates to the reason we started reading in the first place.

I should be impressed if you’re still here…

According to Slate’s technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, most of you won’t even finish this post (or I’ve already lost you at this point). Manjoo investigated the online reading issue in You Won’t Finish This Article. Using data prepared by data scientist Josh Schwartz of Chartbeat, he explored readers engagement with Slate content to find out if people were reading articles all the way through to the end.

Histogram of online reading habits of Slate readers

histogram of how far people scroll through Slate content.

The histogram above represents the patterns of readers scrolling down in an article. 0% is anything above the fold (no scrolling required) and the 120% represents all the call to actions at the end of an article.

What does this tell us?

Although about 5% of Slate readers jump ship at the start of posts and never scroll down below the fold, there are still a lot of  visitors that scroll through about 50% of the articles they read. The spike in numbers near the end is caused by pages that contain photos and videos. These types of articles, encourage people to scroll through the whole page.

Schwartz also provided a histogram for articles across many sites (not just Slate), but it doesn’t paint a brighter picture.

online reading Chartbeats site data

A histogram of how far people scroll through content on Chartbeat sites.

Although the average point that users scrolled to is deeper (about 60% of the content), about 10% of people never even bother to scroll.

That means if you made it this far, not only have you only read about 20% of what I’ve written, I’m also about to say goodbye to you (unless I add some picture or a funny video at the end). I guess, you’ll have to scroll down to find out if I did.

So, why do we scan?

Like Manjoo, it’s a huge bummer for me as a writer to accept that people aren’t fully reading my work and possibly didn’t even get this far down in my post. Still, I’m not surprised. If I’m being truthful, I’m guilty of the same behavior that annoys me.

I read hours of articles every day, and no, I don’t read every single word on the page. It would be virtually impossible without Robert Scoble’s magical skills, not to mention mentally exhausting.

online reading keanu

We’re talking serious skills.

Accept it: I scan. You scan. We all scan.

So,  why do we do it?

  • Our eyes get tired. Continuous work at a computer tires our eyes out and can even lead to something called computer vision syndrome (CVS). In 2012, Time reported that CVS affects some 64-94% of office workers.
  • People want to feel active on the web. Nielsen’s study showed that users don’t feel productive when they are simply reading. Since the internet is a user-driven medium, people feel like they should move around and click on things.
  • We don’t want to work hard to find information. We’re all usually in a hurry (hey, life’s busy!) so we want to find what we’re looking for in the least amount of time. If we can’t locate it, we move on.
  • Most stuff doesn’t need to be read. Steve Krug claims we’re really just looking for what interests us or the task we’re working on. As a result, everything else on the page becomes irrelevant.

Just because many scan doesn’t mean no one is reading at all

Although many of us are scanning online, it doesn’t mean that reading, in its traditional definition, is over. A more recent Nielsen Norman Group study says that when we find something interesting, we stop scanning and switch to reading.

In the 1980s, psychologist Victor Nell studied the psychology of reading for pleasure, or ludic reading. He found that when people read for pleasure, they read more thoroughly. Even though this environment may be harder to replicate on a computer screen, it can still happen. In fact, this eye-tracking study conducted by Poynter Institute found that online readers were equally as likely to be methodical readers, as they were scanners.

But even if you’re a scanner, I don’t blame you. How could I?

Everyone’s in a hurry, everyone’s busy. Not only that, but we live in an age that encourages and enables us to pick and choose what we want to focus on. I can barely make it through a whole movie without hitting the fast forward. I just skip the parts of the storyline that don’t interest me. The same applies to reading a long article online.

Congratulations! This is the end – you deserve a medal. Or, at least a nap.

online reading bunny gif

It’s hard work reading a whole article.


Do you read or do you just skim? What’s your strategy for tackling online content?

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