So look. I know it’s super trendy to claim that the Internet is destroying our ability to read, but it’s really, really not, and I’m tired of this trope. It’s up there with claims that textspeak is ruining literacy and that we have crossed the Rubicon when it comes to the sanctity of the English language now that the OED has considered adding ‘selfie.’ Language evolves. Language changes. But here’s the thing: People keep reading no matter how language shifts, and how presentation formats vary. It turns out that people are super into reading, which would explain why countless cultures across history have developed writing systems, and how once cultures develop them, they, uh, keep reading. Were people all like ‘oh no, reading will end’ when hides and later paper replaced clay tablets? No. They were like ‘sweet, this is way easier to carry around.’
The claim is that the Internet is destroying attention spans and consuming our intellectual budget with visual media, because we are all too busy watching cat videos on YouTube to pick up a book — and, oh yeah, no one is reading books anymore, so obviously, no one is reading anywhere ever. Likewise, print publications are experiencing big drops in sales, which is clearly evidence that no one reads and no one likes reading and no one will ever read again and basically the entire world is ending.
No. This is not how it works, people, and it’s mindblowingly frustrating to hear these kinds of arguments coming from people who know better. People who love books and reading and literacy and language should know about the long history of the written word and how people interact with it, and they should be well aware of what is happening here. It’s not about the Internet destroying reading, but about the Internet radically shifting the way we consume written materials. And it’s actually kind of cool to watch.
Let’s talk about how the Internet is ruining attention spans and making it impossible for people to read or concentrate on anything longer than a paragraph. If that’s the case, why is there a lively and very active longread culture online? To the point that entire publications are dedicated specifically to detailed, lengthy, amazing pieces that could never actually run in print because they are so fucking long that they would eat up the entire print budget? I am just saying, people, that longreads are something facilitated by the Internet, made hugely accessible by the Internet (except when trapped behind paywalls), and basically not possible in print. You can’t print a 40 page investigative piece with, yes, multimedia elements, even in a well-respected paper or magazine like the Times or The Atlantic. You just can’t. I’m sorry.
But you can run it online — as, in fact, many of these very publications are doing, with the goal of increasing the variety of content they have. Yes, they offer traditional news articles and those dreaded short takes and (ugh!) blog posts, but they also feature long reads, and they’ve really embraced that culture. Too bad no one rea–oh wait, no, the Times would definitely not invest huge amounts of money in developing longreads if they weren’t seeing a significant return on them. Trust me. The Times is a business, not a charity operation. Sure, they’re dedicated to the public interest and to informing us about news and events, but that’s far from the only thing they do, and the bottom line here is economic.
Did I mention that the Internet is also exploding with ebooks? Ebook sales are holding steady and actually rising in some sectors, which is another indicator that people still enjoy reading, and like reading books specifically, though they may be switching formats. So it’s on a screen. Does that mean a book doesn’t count? Because, if so, wow, that’s kind of messed up, people. Ebooks are still books, and the fact that people are into them is another strong indicator that the lust for reading has not, in fact, been slaked just yet. Go figure. People like books.
For that matter, the Internet has really facilitated the growth of fanfic. If you want to sneer at fanfic, I heartily encourage you to show yourself out — don’t let the door hit your ass on the way through. For the rest of us, though, fanfic is a huge and diverse array of written material, some of which is amazingly good, and some of which is also amazingly long. A lot of people read fanfic. A huge number of people. There are writers who enjoy celebrity on the basis of the fic they write, who have huge followings. Individual fics have achieved their own cult status. This doesn’t speak to a culture that dislikes reading or isn’t interested in language anymore. It suggests pretty much the opposite — and shows that organic, amazing communities are rising up like mushrooms to celebrate words in new and exciting ways.
All of this is facilitated by the Internet. Yes, the Internet is absolutely changing the way we interact with words and language. It’s changing English, and other languages. While DARPA and early Internet developers might not have thought it would at the time, the Internet has completely upended the world and we’re still sorting it out; the Internet is not going away. One thing it’s also definitely not doing is killing our love of reading, which is something that will never disappear. We as a species are too curious, too in love with communication, too determined to bridge cultural and experiential gaps, for us to give up on language.
Image: Newseum newspaper headlines, m01229, Flickr.