“Nobody Goes On the Internet to Read”

“Nobody goes on the internet to read.”

That’s the message an old friend of mine shot back at me after I sent her an article I wrote. She liked it because, of course she did. But getting her to read it — to spend a whopping 10 minutes looking at a computer screen or her phone or whatever it was she was looking at it on — that was a chore.

This is what she said. I repeat:

“Nobody goes on the internet to read.”

As someone who nominally plies their trade putting words and experiences together on the internet, for people on the internet, it was like getting stabbed in the heart with a cutco knife. Actually, no. It was more like getting disemboweled on some William Wallace Braveheart shit. It hurt.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Maybe she’s right. Maybe wherever we are into the lifecyle of the internet — 25 years or something, no? — the place to do hard reading, at least for non-media folks, is still not on the internet. It’s in books and maybe magazines and newspapers, occasionally something short that you can digest on the phone, but meaty subjects, that stuff has no place online.

Surely the data — big data! — would suggest otherwise. People want content. They’re hungry for it. Starving for it. Gimme cookie, gimme content. Content content content. More more more.

But, yeah, I dunno. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe it’s something we just tell ourselves so that we have purpose, so we can keep the checks coming in, keep the lights on, keep doing what it is we do. It’s tough to say.

It’s like, there’s only so much time in a day. People are busy. The average person really isn’t sitting around leisurely just waiting for your thing you wrote, no matter how good it is.

Sometimes on a weekday — during normal working hours — I take my car into the shop or I go into a grocery store or I just walk around aimlessly observing life. And, wow, people are really just caught up in whatever it is they’re doing. I would say on the whole, they have no idea what is really happening on the internet at all. I mean, maybe a little, but not much. Certainly not enough to keep up with the pace at which everything is moving nowadays.

Of course knowledge workers, people who objectively have to spend a lot of time in front of a computer, they might have more time than others to muck around online. But by and large, people, I think, are still using the internet just as a utility.

That’s primarily one of the reasons why “how to” articles are still so popular. People go online when they need help with something. You need a fact, you look up the answer. You need to make something, you look up a recipe. You need to get somewhere, you look up directions. You need to buy something, you look up the product.

But this idea that you can just hit someone with an article out of nowhere about god knows what and have a mass audience suddenly interested, I think that’s probably false. The audience for that is really a lot smaller than we think it is, or at least smaller than many in power would hope.

I get the New York Times delivered on Sunday, because I dunno, I guess I still like newspapers or something. But the reality is, a lot of times I’m busy on the weekends and the paper comes, then it just sits there. I bring it inside and just dump it on a chair. By the time I get around to reading it, if I read it all, I’ve already read a few of the articles I want to read online. The other stuff, it’s an effort to get into it. So time-consuming.

I’m probably the outlier though, in the sense that I do a lot of my reading online. I’m actively looking for things to read, because I’m a heavy consumer of content. I don’t suspect that most people are really like that. In actuality, I think most people are still very passive, and would like to get things fed to them, in easily digestible formats, in predictable ways.

If they are going to sit down and read, they probably are still doing it the old fashioned way, with a book or better yet, a Kindle. Maybe they’ll tackle some big magazine-style piece on their way to work, but even that, I think fewer and fewer people have an interest in. During their commute, they might be more inclined to listen to something than actively enagage in reading because, gee whiz, life is fucking brutal and riding crowded trains and buses is a modern-day form of torture.

So, do people go on the internet to read? I don’t know. But I’m thinking about that a lot.

What do you think?