Via Word Spy:
My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
—Nicholas Carr, American writer and editor, Atlantic Monthly, July 1, 2008
I have seen the point made over and over again, that modern society or the Internet or both has destroyed our attention spans, so that we expect rapidfire information and are unable to appreciate depth or subtlety anymore.
Fact is, for ages prolific readers have taught themselves how to quickly peruse useful information from nonfiction. I emphasize "peruse" because the word did not originally mean "to skim," it meant "to use thoroughly." The "inverted pyramid" of news reporting, beginning with the most important information first and slowly working in details as the story progresses, wasn’t born with the internet.
Nonfiction, which comprises the bulk of the Internet (news, weblogs, reference, guides, directories) should not be any harder to digest than the subject matter itself — the whole point of nonfiction writing is to convey information as simply as possible. If you spend a substantial amount of time reading qua reading, you should either practice your reading technique more or find better material to read.
There’s a long section in Carr’s article on an apparent change in Nietzche’s work after he purchased a typewriter, which Carr uses as another example of technology changing the way we think. Problem is, the typewriter apparently made Nietzche’s work shorter and tighter, the exact opposite of what would be expected when writing was made easier and thus lots of writing was made easier. Indeed, examples abound of teachers forbidding the use of computers or typewriters to write student papers because they somehow make it too easy, encouraging thought-dumping.
In my own experience, dictation (whether by human or computer transcription) has made my own writing shorter and tighter, because it forces me to think out my whole sentences before writing, a technique penalized by typewriters, computers, and certainly handwriting, where, if you stop to think before writing everything, you’ll be there all day.
The above notwithstanding, when writing for the web you should be more brief than on paper. Why? Not because people are dumber the moment the read a computer, but because more people will read your post on the web than would read your article or book. It takes a lot of time, effort, and money to get an article or book into someone’s hands, which shows they’re already invested and interested in the content.
Not so with the web, where people frequently encounter material they certainly would not have sought out and purchased elsewhere. You have to grab those people quickly, since they’re not really ‘your readers,’ they’re people passing by.