From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 30, 2016*: How to read a Boidem column.

Occasionally someone stumbles onto the Boidem. It’s happened, though rarely. Actually, the times that I'm aware of are rare. It may happen more often, but I'm only made aware that it has when someone lets me know. From these responses, if that's what they are, I'm able to reconstruct what probably transpired - someone ran a search for a not particularly common term, or searched for a particular wording which I happened to use in a column, and the term's relative obscurity pushed the Boidem's use of it far higher to the top of the search results than might otherwise have happened. Maybe when that happens whoever stumbled onto a column, or a page within a column, devoted a few moments to actually reading it, or clicking through to find a bit about what this is all about.

That, however, is admittedly rather rare. Most people who get to the Boidem (though when we're referring to eight readers "most" is an extremely relative term) click into the latest column via a link sent to them as "subscribers". These people will probably read at least the main page of the month's column, though perhaps they click into one of the first links that shows up in the column, and then from there don't succeed in getting back to that main page. I really don't know, and though I'm sure that I could get statistics that would allow me to see what "readers" actually do, I can't say that I feel much of a need for them. Readers, if there are any, are free to read in any way they choose.

And yet, that still raises what for me is an important question: Has someone who has only read the main page but hasn’t clicked through all the links actually read the column?

The obvious answer to that question would seem to be "yes", though it raises a slew of additional questions that aren't specific to the Boidem, or even to hypertextual writing as a category. When we skim an article have we truly read it? And reading doesn't necessarily meaning getting from start to finish. How thorough do we have to be to prove that we've read the whole thing? And why should we have to prove that? To whom?

Clearly there are numerous sorts of reading. If I say that I read the newspaper nobody expects that I’ve actually read all the articles that appear in it. Novels, on the other hand, are primarily read cover to cover, and everybody knows that Playboy is only read for the monthly interview. On the web, one somewhat strange, but accepted form of "reading" is to write a response.

So if someone reads only the first paragraph of a Boidem column and then says to him or herself that they’ve caught the gist and can safely click onto something else … who am I to say they haven’t read it? And I suppose that that’s the extreme case. If someone is reading a Boidem column and while doing so clicks into an outside link and then finds him or herself falling down a rabbit hole of one link leading to another until the Boidem starting point gets totally forgotten, well, that seems to be a wholly legitimate way of "reading” these columns, even if I’d prefer that each reader remain with me, or with the column, until the last paragraph and/or the last linked page.

If only the first couple of paragraphs get read, BTW, that makes reading the Boidem pretty similar to reading any other web page. At least that's the logical conclusion from an article in Slate from June of 2013. In that article Farhad Manjoo enlisted the aid of the traffic analysis firm Chartbeat to find out how much of a particular article people actually read. The results, if perhaps not surprising, were still more than just a bit distressing. Manjoo, who has many more readers than I do, though he also knows at least some of them personally, reports:

Schwartz’s data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. Schwartz’s data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing.
So maybe the "answer" to how to read a Boidem column is something along the lines of – just like you’d read anything else on the web, less than half way through. Even if that’s the "correct" answer, however, it’s far from a satisfying one. It’s also more the answer to a different question – "How people read on the web", rather than how I think one can best read one of these columns. So my question should perhaps be worded slightly differently – how would I hope that someone reads a Boidem column?

For years I've quoted what somewhere along the line I learned was a quote from James Joyce - that he'd devoted his whole life to writing Finnegan's Wake, and it was thus the least the reader could do. I've used this numerous times, though as a comprehensive search of these pages shows, I've done so only once in these columns. If I'm going to quote Joyce, however, it makes sense to get it right, and at least according to Wikiquote I had it wrong. What shows up there is:
The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole Life to reading my works.
In other words, of course I expect my readers to read the entire column – every last link. Why shouldn't I? True, that's not really practical, but if I was being practical I probably wouldn't devote as much time as I do to preparing and posting a monthly hypertextual column about digital life when with a substantial degree of accuracy I can say that close to nobody reads it, let alone even knows it exists. But it's precisely this obscurity that lets me play around with this. Google has been known to plant "Easter Eggs" which seem to exist primarily in order to offer pleasant surprises to the people who stumble onto them. I'm not in a position to compete with that. I do, however, attempt to plant a few surprises. There have been inside pages where I clearly contradict what I argue on the main page, or at least present a slightly different take on things than what's written there. I don't always succeed in seeing two sides of an issue simultaneously, but when I do I'm happy to have an opportunity to use the "or vice versa" ploy. And though I don't think it has ever happened, I like the possibility of being able to say someone who praises what I wrote in a column something along the lines of "thanks, but you do know, of course, that on a linked page in that column I admitted that I'd changed my mind". That's a dubious pleasure, but I guess it also shows that there's really no correct way to read one of these columns. Which is fine with me.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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