The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Friday, April 23, 2004

So I'm perusing a trade op-ed piece by publishing consultant Bert Langford, singing the praises of the printed magazine, as opposed to electronic media. Several very good points about the advantages print has over electronic: Portability, ease of navigation, layout--really nothing new. But Langford made one brief mention, almost an aside, that stood out to me:
I also find I retain paper-based content better than what I read online.
On the face of it, this doesn't make sense. Why should it matter if the words you read are ink on paper, or pixels on screen? It's the same information, and your brain should process it the same way. But I thought about it a little, and wondered if there wasn't something to it, something tied to the implicit perception most people have about permanent versus temporary media.

Simply put, electronic data -- computer-based information delivered through the Web and email, but also user-created with word processing and other applications -- is expected to be malleable. A Word document can be edited, a Web page can be updated and customized, etc. Print data, particularly mass media, is looked at differently: Once it's been committed to paper, it's "done". It's more of a permanent document and record at that point, not subject to further editing or changes. Even if it's a draft, or something as non-critical as a personal email message, printing it gives it a permanence it wouldn't have if it existed only on-screen.

Given this, I wonder if most people don't mentally approach reading, or even visual-input, material according to the medium upon which it's presented. If you're reading something on a monitor, does a part of your brain think, "This is for-the-moment stuff, it's not going to stay relevant for long"? When you read a book, is the message, "This is the finished, crafted draft, it's worth paying closer attention to"? In other words, all other things being equal, does the printed word merit more "stickiness", or retention, on a mental level?

This may explain why online advertising, at least with relatively static text copy, has been to hard to push: It may inherently be at a disadvantage on electronic media. The concept of ad "stickiness" was tossed around a lot during the dot-com boom; maybe they were trying to achieve something that was unachievable. Same goes for e-books, which were expected to take off in a big way, but to date have not.

I realize this probably isn't a universal mental process, and probably is markedly different according to age. I've often looked upon people who print out every single email they get as hopelessly foolish, but following the theory of better retention that Langford mentioned, it could be that there's a real purpose to doing so. Since those same people often print out all manner of Web content for later reading, I think it points to a widespread practice.

What about my own reading habits... Overall, I'm not sure I favor one medium over another. I often find that I can't remember where I've picked up bits of news and information I've read somewhere, and usually there are equal chances that it was via online, print, television or even conversations. I will say, though, that in general, I prefer to read material on the Web that's broken up into shorter paragraphs and sections; this is not unique, and in fact is often cited as the ideal way to present information on Web pages. I don't have this issue in print, for the most part. I guess that indicates a degree of different handling of media by my noggin.