Is social media making me illiterate?

So I had a revelation today. I don’t know about you but I actually really like when this happens. It’s like the clouds lift and the light shines as I realize a tiny bit more about myself that has puzzled me (and usually others) for awhile. I usually have them about my feelings or worries, but this time it was about my inability to read. Just hear me out.

I’ve been noticing over the past few years that my reading skills have been (even less than) subpar. I remember plenty of times in college when my roommate Becky would ask me about an email that we both received earlier that day. Maybe it was about a meeting we both were attending or something, but for whatever reason the information from the email would be mentioned

Either she or I would say the time or place or another important piece of information, and the other would question said information. A second check of the email would always prove that I had read the email wrong or seemingly not at all.

Baby reading gif

You would think that after this happening multiple times, I would learn from my mistakes, read the messages twice or slow down or something. But to no avail, over 3 years later, I continue to misread emails, text messages, articles, etc. It has come to be a joke between my fiancé and I (as it was between my roommate and I) that I have a reading problem or disability or whatever you want to call it.

So in all seriousness, I can read; I am literate. I don’t have a (diagnosed) reading disability and I excelled in school. Yes, I have always had dumb moments where I simply glanced at a note or something and did not actually take in the information on it. But then I started realizing that my reading began to jump all over the place; instead of beginning at the first word on the left side of the top line, reading each word from left-to-right, going from one line to the next, I noticed that I would read the first few lines, skip a few sentences or paragraphs, and then work my way backwards.

What the hell? Why in anyone’s name would someone read like that? This past year I read an article for grad school about the F-shaped pattern of reading web content. This isn’t the article I read, but it’s got the same information…or does it? How much do you trust me now? But then again, according to the studies on this reading pattern, I most likely lost you back in paragraph #2.

F-shaped eye tracking web reading pattern

Super interesting, huh? Do you notice that you do the same thing? As interesting and seemingly innate as this pattern is, that still doesn’t necessarily describe why I would skip multiple paragraphs and then work my way backwards.

And then I realized something. While trying to keep track of a Twitter Talk run by TED-Ed (#TedEdChat), I found myself scrolling down to where the talk began, then reading each subsequent tweet that proceeded it. From bottom…to top. I was essentially reading backwards.

And that’s how it is on Twitter…and Facebook…oh my gosh, timelines!

In timeline formatted websites, new information is at the top and, sometimes, in order to understand the more recent stuff, you need to scroll down and read older posts. Then you work your way back up to the top in order to get the whole story.

Bert Mind Blown

This whole time I just chalked up these issues that seemed to pop up in college to skimming and trying to rush through the documents. And yes, there are times where I actually do know I read something too fast and did not actually take in the information as deeply as I needed to. And I have gotten a bit better at stopping myself, asking whether I could recite this back to someone, and (because usually my answer is a big fat NO) then I go back and reread the information slowly.

But I still think these media outlets that gained popularity when I finished high school have actually been hurting my reading ability.

I grew up without email until about middle school, and even then it was sporadic because not all kids had computers at home, so teachers and schools thought it was unfair to use computers as the main source of communication.

I didn’t have cell phone until I was about 14 or 15. And it was big ol’ Tracfone, only slightly smaller than Zach Morris’ brick of a phone. There was no ‘unlimited texting’ or surfing the web or apps to download. There was nothing smart about it, so just imagine how little I used it.

Facebook didn’t catch on for most of my friends and me until we graduated high school because back then it was still exclusive to college students. So I was 17 when I got a Facebook account.

I didn’t get a Twitter account until I was 21. I didn’t regularly use it until I was 23 (last year).

 *This seems to be turning into a “When I was a youngster, we had to walk 15 miles to school, in the snow, up hill and back…” type thing, so I apologize.*

When I was your age...

For the majority of my life, everything was written to be consumed from the top left-hand side, taken one line at a time, until you got to the end of the page or document. Now that I’ve introduced a different way of gaining information (through Tweets and status updates), I think I’ve messed up my processor. *Insert ‘old hardware, new software’ metaphor here*

Websites are full of content and can be consumed in an infinite number of ways and methods. You can choose to read the status updates, or you can wish someone a happy birthday, or click on the article Buzzfeed posted, or check out your own profile, or look at  your friends newly posted pictures…

But classic novels cannot be read this way; letters and emails don’t make sense if we consume them the same way we consume and interact with web pages. So I wonder: if they have hurt my ability, how have kids growing up with nothing but these kinds of “resources” been affected? And how might this affect them in the future? I mean, is it even more difficult for kids who grew up with this kind of technology exposure from a young age? How do they work with English Literature class readings? How do they cope with passages that are more than 140 characters?

Maybe those classic works of literature will become more and more obsolete as the field of computer science continues to grow. But we still need to have a firm grasp on the ‘old’ way of reading since news and research articles are still written this way and it would become really frustrating if they were written in small blurbs as are Tweets and status updates.

Anyways, now that I think I have a firmer grasp on my issue, I hope I will be more aware of my reading and take care to properly consume and digest information based on the format in which I receive it. No more of this backward nonsense! Does anyone else deal with this problem? If not this specific problem (reading backwards and such), do you notice that you read with an F-shaped pattern as the article states?

Go ahead, leave me a comment!