The United States of skimming — and why it matters to politics

We are a nation of skimmers.


Claire Handscombe is an avid reader. She loves books and reads using a variety of digital and print products. Because of her online reading habits, Handscombe has found that she sometimes scans novels while she's reading, looking for keywords, and totally missing what's being said. Photographed in her home on April 1 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Check out this line from a fascinating Michael Rosenwald piece in the Post on the growing dominance of skimming (of which I skimmed a significant portion):

If the rise of nonstop cable TV news gave the world a culture of sound bites, the Internet, [Tufts professor Maryanne] Wolf said, is bringing about an eye byte culture. Time spent online — on desktop and mobile devices — was expected to top five hours per day in 2013 for U.S. adults, according to eMarketer, which tracks digital behavior. That’s up from three hours in 2010.

You -- like me -- probably didn't need that data point to be convinced of the fact that in-depth reading feels like a relic.  I sit at a desk in front of a computer for large parts of every day. In that time, I "read" lots and lots of things. But, in truth, I am skimming them -- sometimes for interesting nuggets of information that might make good blog posts, sometimes for the most tweetable material in them and sometimes because I really need to know why Liam for "Nashville" is now Daario Naharis on "Game of Thrones."

And I am not alone. Whether it's the rise of Twitter (or second-screen viewing), our ever-shortening attention span, cable TV or some other factor (or all of them at once), it's undeniably true that we are now living in the age of skimming.  We aren't in Gary Shteyngart's dystopian future -- if you haven't read Super Sad True Love Story you should -- but it's hard to imagine our time spent online is going to dip at any time in the foreseeable future.

Given that reality, every industry -- from journalism to politics -- that is based in some way on communicating with people effectively will need to change or die. One example from my profession: It used to be that the lead of a story -- the first few sentences or even paragraphs -- were the mechanism by which you drew people in to the larger narrative you were telling. Now, it's the tweet about the story that winds up being the decision point for people on whether to read or not. People aren't willing to spend even 30 seconds reading three sentences from a link they clicked on. They spent 3 second debating whether or not to click the link.

What does this all mean for politics? That simple messaging, oft repeated, is the best messaging.  The more complex the argument you are trying to make, the harder it will be to break through with a public who is, at best, only kind of, sort of paying attention. Now, simple messaging that can fit, say, on a bumper sticker or a 30-second TV ad, has always been superior to something that takes you five minutes to explain to a voter. But, the combination of a declining attention span, the fracturing of the media and the generally low interest that people generally hold toward politics is making the job of those who want us to elect them that much harder. Adapting messaging to this new world -- More 15 second TV ads? More targeted messages to audiences you know want to hear it? -- will be among the central challenges for the men and women who want to be president in 2016.

(And, yes, if you got this far, chances are you skimmed some large portion of this post.)

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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