Digital Proliferation of Text

“We read more now than ever before” – A Brief Argument

Though it indeed seems self-evident that people read and write more now than they have historically, proving this is surprisingly difficult. A study out of UC San Diego notes that, in 2008, 100,000 words were “consumed” by the average American in a single day; and Roger Bohn, a co-author of the study, stated, “Print media has declined consistently, but if you add up the amount of time people spend surfing the Web, they are actually reading more than ever” (Bilton). However, this study takes into consideration all words which pass through media into a person’s sensory environment – meaning every word downloaded in a web browser or an e-mail inbox gets counted (along with print media, of course). As Jakob Nielsen notes in his market research study, web users on average only read about 20% of the text on accessed web pages. Yes, we can determine how much text passes across a person’s screen, but we cannot calculate how much of that text is being read, or whether this reading is in-depth reading or merely skimming.

That being said, the data shows that undoubtedly more text passes before our eyes than ever before, much of it is likely read, and that text is largely digital. The use of texting, particularly in younger generations, is telling of the proliferation of the written word. Aaron Smith, in a 2011 Pew Research Center study, found that 95% of 18-29 year old Americans send or receive an average of 109.5 text messages per day per person. And Michael Chui et al. found, in a marketing research study from 2012, that the average American, during a given work day, spends an hour dealing with e-mail (not counting intranet e-mails, which do not get logged online and thus could not be calculated), and 35 minutes a day reading or writing other textual communications (6). Though much of the text on webpages may not be read, much of it also undoubtedly is, and it is unlikely that the majority of MMS and e-mail text goes unread. Thus, though it is currently nigh-impossible to prove definitively with data that people read more than ever before, it is a widely-held assumption which is at least reinforced by the available data if not proven, and I too share this assumption.

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