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Technology and its Influence on How We Absorb Information

15 Oct 2013

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[Updated 22 February 2019]

There's very little doubt that technology has had a profound effect on modern life when it comes to pretty much every aspect of it. Our work lives are unrecognisable from just a couple of decades ago, the way we learn has changed dramatically and entertainment is wide-ranging and varied enough to keep even the most knowledge-hungry satisfied.

We all learn in different ways and this is something that has been recognised by the academic community for some time, there are four basic ways in which we learn, which gives us four types of learner types:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Read and write
  • Kinesthetics

Knowing what kind of learner you are can help you to come up with the best study plan for you, or help you to adapt your behaviour so that you take in information in the most effective way to suit.

The evolution of information

These days, we have a constant barrage of information coming our way and this has evolved from the early days of storytelling, through to the emergence of the printing press, newspapers, books, television and more recently, the internet.

Whilst it used to be the case that we could take in information at our own pace, the sheer amount that we're exposed to every day in the modern world means that we have to be selective. Nowadays, everything we need is at our fingertips when it comes to researching information and using it. Gone are the days when we're forced to work from library books and trawl through microfilms in an attempt to ensure the information we need is current, now, just some simple cross-referencing can support theories or lend itself to ensuring that thought is stimulated using a variety of mediums.

The modern consumer of information knows this and given the mediums that are available, can be a highly sophisticated learner that needs little in the way of direction. Everything we have is on-demand and in turn this has led somewhat to a revolution in terms of getting people to notice the information we might have to offer.

The modern audience has at its disposal:

  • Online and streaming video via a wide range of sites such as YouTube
  • Downloadable content such as articles, case studies, video, audio, journals, whitepapers and eBooks
  • Online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia
  • Social media
  • News – on TV, apps and online
  • eLearning
  • M-Learning
  • Gaming
  • Access to a wealth of information through search

 Of course we also still have printed resources, as well as DVDs, but these are becoming less relevant to the world on a daily basis.

Nicholas Carr posed the question Is Google Making Us Stupid in an article that went on to discuss how the author has found his ability to perform 'deep reading' affected by the internet. He points out that whilst he used to be able to fully concentrate and immerse himself in a book, this is no longer the case.

“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,” he says.

This has also become the case with many of his 'literary-type' friends he says and puts it directly down to the internet. Whilst this might be the case for some, and the author cites many examples, as a 'literary-type' myself (I have a literature degree) I can's say that I particularly agree, I still enjoy books and lots of them and don't find myself drifting unless the book is dull. However, this could in theory be attributed to the type of learner I am, which is predominantly visual.

I've always skimmed when I read, then go back later and read in depth, if necessary, so for me, it's always been like reading on the web, to some extent.

University College London study

Whilst most of this is anecdotal, both from Carr's perspective and my own, a study from the University College London suggests that how the internet affects cognition is changing. The research found that many of the people that they studied skipped between information sources quickly, skimming as they went and rarely revisiting a site for reference, though occasionally saving a longer article.

“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,” the study said.

This supports the popular theory that internet users have a shorter attention span and for the modern business that has a web presence and carries out content marketing, grabbing the attention quickly is essential.

Attention grabbing content

When creating content and coming up with a strategy then, this means that getting the reader's attention in the first two paragraphs is essential, as the study found that this is the part where most readers make the decision to read on, or move on.

Headlines should be short, snappy and entice the reader to click and then useful information about the rest of the content should be included in the first couple of paragraphs or so. Of course, this also depends on how the study classifies paragraphs, as when writing for the web most decent writers keep paragraphs short, often no longer than about 6 lines.

This is important to helping people to read on the web, as it's easier to skim, with plenty of white space and allows the eye to move easily over the page. Language too is simplified for the web, readability should be targeted to audience so that they are never forced to stop and re-read, as this is likely to make them abandon the page.

Modern consumers are demanding. They want the information, they want it now and they want it to be in a format that they can easily digest. This is one reason that video is rising in popularity so rapidly, it's easy to take in, it doesn't require much in the way of active participation and it's visual.

Bearing all of this in mind, when preparing a content strategy, it's important to make sure that the content is:

  • Highly visual
  • Simple to read, with plenty of white space using language that is suitable for the audience
  • Fact-filled
  • In easy to digest chunks of information

This applies to content for all types of content, including audio, visual and graphical. Getting this right is key to ensuring that your visitors consume the content, stay on the site and return with the idea that it's a useful resource in mind.

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