People Don't Read Anymore

I've noticed an alarming trend lately: people aren't reading. Friends have been commenting on articles that I share without actually reading them, and sometimes without even clicking through the link to see the entirety of what I've shared. I know this because their comments reveal that they don't know the contents of what I've shared.

This issue goes beyond just my Facebook friends. I have noticed many other indicators that people aren't reading anymore. Headlines have become punchier and more enticing to get people to click on them. Actual written articles have gotten so short and to the point that they are mere summaries with a link to the full article. There are even less and less substantial articles being written, in favor of the image or GIF-based lists that BuzzFeed popularized.

At work, we were discussing how to help users understand that we are collecting certain data to increase the legitimacy and safety of the site for the users' benefit. The setup we had was a paragraph of information, and it just wasn't getting the point across to the user. My answer was simply "people don't read anymore."

As a designer, the fact that people don't read is a problem I have to solve for constantly. How do I convey a large amount of information visually, with as few words as possible? More often than not, I have to assume that people will not read the details if I don't present them in an enticing, easy–to–digest format. Even that is usually not enough.

This is one reason catchy headlines have become the norm. Ridiculous headlines drive clicks, and clicks equal advertising dollars. Ridiculous headlines are also fun for people to share with each other. "Hey, did you hear about this crazy thing?!" The recipient usually doesn't have to read more than a few sentences, watch a video, and/or look at cute pictures of kittens.

I'm all for sharing cute, funny, exciting things with friends. My concern is how this behavior translates to more serious issues. The recent Israel–Gaza debacle has resulted in a multitude of online chatter in opposition to Israel's activities. It started as a slow trickle of articles that one or two friends had liked, and, within a matter of weeks, has quickly escalated to a large amount of my Facebook friends voicing their disapproval with posts about peace in the Middle East and calling for an end to the unfair killing.

This does not rest well with me. I do not trust that the people making the noise actually know the reality of the situation. The Internet empowers ordinary people with the extraordinary ability to influence large swaths of people. It can be an incredible tool for social change, but it can also reward the loudest voice, which isn't necessarily the smartest voice or the voice of reason.

As I've witnessed this chain of events unfold over the last few weeks, it has made me realize just how powerful the Internet can be as a means of spreading propaganda. The thing with propaganda is, if it is done well, people want to believe it. It is a lie that sounds like the truth. Misinformation can spread like wildfire without check; people overlook glaring inaccuracies to be the first to share the next big thing. Our appetite for instant information is insatiable.

My question is this: if people aren't actually reading and thinking critically about the information that is presented to them before sharing it with others, what implications does this have when there are serious issues at play? What about justice? I just hope it isn't too late for Israel.