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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Skimming Strategy

Fantastic article by Nicholas Carr in Atlantic Monthly - Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains.
I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
I know what he's talking about. In the past, I've discussed this as Stop Reading - Skim Dive Skim. He cites a recent study by University College London that looked at behavior of visitors to two research sites. Carr states:
They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.
The authors of the study report:
It is clear that 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.
While Carr expresses concern about the impact that this has, I'm not quite so sure. Yes, we need opportunities to reflect, but for me that's blogging. I'm reflecting on his article as I write. But, indeed, I skimmed through passages.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Tony

This is a strange and paradoxical condition you discuss here. Speed reading from a single text increases both concentration and concentration span (I don’t think it makes any difference whether it’s a hard-cover book or an article on the Internet). These effects are what make speed reading such a useful skill. Skimming and jumping from text to text is a different practice which, by its very nature, precipitates stop-start situations for the reader/thinker.

I suspect that the condition you speak of is brought about by excessive brain activity through this practice, perhaps not unlike, if not the same as, excessive multi-tasking.

A not-so-recent report on improving multi-tasking cites several articles that suggest that the stop-start situation not only lowers depth of concentration but also shortens concentration span – tires the brain if you like.

I’ve not doubt that there are other collateral effects, such as those that interfere with the speed of learning and quality of learning, subjects I’m sure you have an interest in.

C H Green’s recent article, albeit a lay approach to the topic, alludes to the effects associated with concentration span related to multi-tasking.

For me the position is simple. If I want to skim and look for information, it is a concentration task in itself. I don’t use depth of concentration to study the content of what I come across. I catalogue it. My concentration is high enough to do this efficiently, for it is only associated with skimming relevant key words and phrases and listing their sources for later perusal.

I found your article this way. I didn’t stop and respond to it. After I’d noted it for possible interest, I moved to the next bit of data in my RSS feed and continued skimming.

This practice does two things for me. It permits me to prioritise how I use my brain. It also makes me feel good about doing both the associated, but quite different, tasks to do with responding to a post that I find interesting.

Now I am giving your article the full attention that it deserves and writing a comment on it. Once I’ve done it that way, I have learnt more and also organised my own thoughts and beliefs on the subject while writing this – more learning.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

V Yonkers said...

Could this be the TV remote syndrome? I know when my husband and son have the remote in their hand, they'll turn the channel and not even know it! They are not really paying attention, but rather using it as background noise. Is it possible that we use the internet for background noise, either to feel as if we are "doing something" or to avoid doing something, or to feel that we are in control?

Tony Karrer said...

Ken - good point about speed reading, but like you, I don't think they are suggesting speed reading. For me, it's definitely skimming and only actually reading portions that seem to be relevant to what I'm working on or thinking about at the time.

I also am not sure that I believe this is same issue as multi-tasking. If I'm looking for information on a specific topic, likely I'm skimming a lot trying to find bits and pieces to work together around that topic. Each page is a bit off topic, but parts are likely highly relevant. I choose to skim by parts that don't seem relevant. It sounds similar to what you just described as your skimming technique. Is this a known method? Is it universal? How do you mark items for later reuse? Etc.

Absolutely this changes how we consume and very much what gets consumed and our ability to recall or even refind.

I think this is pretty important stuff - see Work Literacy, right.

I hope you'll contribute your practice/method in some way to Work Literacy.

Tony Karrer said...

Virginia - likely in some cases it is being used that way. But likely if you are visiting those research sites, you have something in mind ... although I would guess that many people don't have good questions at the start of research and may not even recognize that as part of their problem.

But the TV remote as analogy is interesting - you definitely consume in a very different way with a remote - as do you with a Tivo (DVR) and a remote.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā korua

@Tony @Virginia - I get the bit about the TV remote and I agree.

But when I mentioned that I felt it may be akin to multi-tasking I was also assuming that the reader wasn't collecting things for a list for later reading and study, but actually trying to assimilate the content at the same time. THIS is what I felt may be akin to multi-tasking as it requires a constant switching (see my previous link to report) of the brain as well as concentrating on the task of doing the searching.

Multi-tasking and its mechanisms are not yet fully understood. But it is becoming more and more evident that engaging in certain types of multi-tasking lowers concentration level for particular tasks.

It is also being more understood that multi-tasking can cause serious stress - nothing really new here - but this too contributes to a major loss in concentration as well as other, possibly clinical, effects.

Ka kite

Tyron said...

I've seen a few articles on this lately Tony, and I feel a lot like you do. I find myself skimming where I did not skim before. One of the things mentioned in an article by Sarah Perez is that the volume of information has forced many persons to naturally scan to keep up. This is the way that I feel. I get 100 emails a day, I read who knows how many websites and articles online, and I still like to pick up the morning paper. It reminds me of that Police song, "Too much information running through my head. Too much information driving me insane." You have to skim, in some cases, to stay ahead of the insanity.

By the way, I attended your session at ASTD and it was great! Thank you.

Tony Karrer said...

Ken - what I've also realized about this skimming behavior is that (without other distractions) often you are going to look at several sources quickly in order to get a sense of the overall space. Reading deeply the first article doesn't feel right in most cases.

Tyron - thanks for the pointer to the Sarah Perez post (and it points to a couple of other interesting posts).

And great to hear that you BOTH came to my session and are commenting. That puts you in the top 5% or so (maybe higher). Hope you will stay in touch.

And, are you trying anything else?