Friday, December 5, 2008

My Brain on Google: Part One

According to Matthew Arnold, "Journalism is literature in a hurry." As someone studying public relations with an undergraduate degree in English literature, I certainly relate to this statement. I remember taking my first class in the introductory Journalism sequence and being shocked to discover that the style of writing that would have earned an A+ in my upper-division English classes could barely pass for a B. I didn't know AP Style, my sentences were always too long and my word choices too grandiose. I still face the challenge of achieving brevity in my writing today.

Although there is certainly an important value to communicating in concise, easy to understand language when writing for newspapers, magazines, and Web sites, it does concern me that readers are increasingly demanding that content be kept brief and to the point. People are spending more time online reading information, but the style of reading has shifted from delving into long, complex passages to scanning short passages and images.

Tufts University developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf suggests "that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts 'eficiency' and 'immediacy' above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace." The invention of the printing press allowed us to massively distribute works of literature and the invention of the Internet has allowed us to distribute works on a much more global scale and at a lower cost. The question is -- what kind of content are we distributing and what is the thought process through which we take in this new kind of information?

A quick survey of blogs, Web sites and various Web platforms shows that content is usually brief in nature. Perhaps what is most significant is the way that online readers engage with the Web -- even when stumbling upon long prose, readers tend to scan passages, quickly jumping from link to link to access information. Unlike the experience of sitting down to read a singular novel, online readers generally do not intend to read from only one site or to engage with only one topic on the Web. Online content is designed in a manner that propels readers from one site to another, making the term Web very fitting when one thinks about how content is connected.

Easy access to the most up-to-date information has an enormous value and should not be discredited; however, there is also something to be said for the process of digging for information and taking the time to discover it line by line. The ability to concentrate on long passages of prose also seems to improve the ability to hold more in-depth discussions. Perhaps it is simply a matter of style, but I have noticed that the discourse in English literature classes tends to be more philisophical and sustained for longer periods on one topic whereas discussions in a Journalism course are more likely to be objective and rapidly-changing from one subject to another.

A tendency to explore a range of topics and take in small, disjointed pieces of information is not something to be concerned about; the inability to extend a thought-process beyond that, however, is of concern. Due to the fact that communication mediums can influence us as much as we influence them, we should consider what impact the Web has on our minds.

In my next post, I'll explore how the Web is influencing my brain and discuss the Atlantic Monthly article 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?' by Nicholas Carr. Until then, I'd love to hear -- do you think the Web has altered the way you think?


Philip said...

Perhaps the internet has influenced our attention spans. I think many people have trouble getting through pieces of literature. We are so used to quick and to the point writing. Text messaging, Twitter, blogs, newspapers, and many more sources don't tend to be long. we don't read something long outside of class much. I blame the rise of the internet to my lack of an attention span!

Very nice post. It was insightful.

Angela Seits said...


Thanks for commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed my post. I'm not sure if I would blame the Internet - perhaps it has simply altered the way we think but not for better or worse. It may be worth further study to find out if there are benefits to jumping from one idea to another as opposed to maintaining one sustained thought. My guess would be that the positive result is a connection between (seemingly) unrelated ideas...