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Cambridge Festival of Ideas: Is social media killing off book reading?

Tyler Shores is concerned about the way we read and wonders if social media has something to do with it. He’s appearing at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas talking about his research into the impact of social media on people’s reading habits and although not all of it is negative, he has one worry. It’s called infinite scroll.

“The things that I worry about make us especially distraction prone and make us zone out are in what is called the user interface. Infinite scroll is especially pernicious, which is what you find on Instagram or YouTube or Twitter. You can scroll forever and there will be no end. I find that worrying in terms of what we are doing to our brains.

Tyler shores (18494127)
Tyler shores (18494127)

“If I were to give a prescription for how to be a better reader, I’d say really avoid those things because I think they are especially mind numbing. You can just scroll for 30 or 40 minutes and then look up and go: where am I? What happened? That is weird – it is like the opposite of being caught up in a good book. I feel like our brains have gone somewhere else and have been sucked into the rabbit hole of scrolling distraction.”

Tyler first became interested in the effects of social media and the internet on the way we read when he came across an article in the American magazine The Atlantic that asked whether it was causing us to have a shorter attention span.

“This was before social media was huge, but it was about the feeling that people were having a hard time reading longer texts or even enjoying longer texts as much. It struck a chord with me and I was wondering about the future of reading. I can still concentrate but what surprised me was that I was enjoying reading books less and I felt sad about it.”

His research in Cambridge is specifically about how people read digital books compared with print. After talking with many different people about how they read, he has found some interesting results but the answer to whether social media has affected our reading is not simple.

“The short answer is yes it has but the more interesting answers are the how and the why. I found social media might be evolving along with our reading habits, it’s a two-way street. For instance, Facebook recently dabbled in novels with the author James Patterson who made a book to be read in the Facebook messenger app. It has unique engaging features, like the fictional character has their own social media profiles and they post things based on what happened in the novel, and there are interactive maps. I thought, ‘OK that’s interesting’. It’s an experiment but they are trying to use social media as a way to engage readers.”

The New York Public Library also created a series of ‘Insta Novels’ which have animated, moving images.

Tyler shores (18494129)
Tyler shores (18494129)

Tyler says: “I think they look really good but there’s a question of what counts as reading at that point when you are watching basically an animated movie that has words in it. It’s more akin to watching a film with subtitles but you are still reading. You are in this nebulous zone.”

Meanwhile, printed books are becoming more ‘Instagrammable’, with ever more enticing covers that people want to photograph.

“It’s not just what’s between the covers that is important any more,” says Tyler. “Publishers are thinking about making books with the Instagrammable covers in mind.

“Designers I spoke to said it’s not just important to have book covers that look good on bookshelves, the covers have to look good anywhere but bookshelves. There has been a shift to catchy, noticeable book covers with a blockier font that’s easier to read and see on a small screen.

“There’s an emphasis on covers themselves being worthy of sharing. Both publishers and potential readers are very much judging a book by its cover as you can see on the hashtag ‘bookstagram’.”

“Maybe you have seen on social media that people will create these beautiful scenes of reading with the open book and a glass of wine and a candle, a cat and a fire in the background. It says ‘this is the kind of person I am and the life that I live’. The book becomes an object of social capital.”

Tyler discovered that physical books are still desirable as objects, such as the 20th anniversary Harry Potter books with special covers, but that people also enjoyed the feel of printed books compared with reading on a screen.

“What surprised me with my research is the way we physically interact with books still matters – especially the sense of touch, the haptic feedback,” he says. “People say they miss the feel of the pages. Our hands seem to matter more than we realised when it comes to printed books.”

Ditch the infinite scroll if you want to enjoy curling up with a good book (19226605)
Ditch the infinite scroll if you want to enjoy curling up with a good book (19226605)

However, one part of his research gave him hope for the longer read. “We have an appetite for really immersive stories like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter. When we get books that really capture us, we can get immersed in that world. We still like being lost in a story where the characters feel real and the settings feel real – that is still a thing.

“On social media everything is very short and snappy and if that was a major influence on what we like to read, then short stories would be the most popular kind of fiction, but that hasn’t happened. It’s complicated. It feels like social media has influenced books but there is still a place for longer, immersive books.”

Finally, he has one top tip for learning to enjoy longer reads again: find those ‘in between’ moments that you would usually kill with a bit of scrolling and pick up a book.

“The good thing is that we can train ourselves if we want to get more into the habit of reading books. Use behavioural nudges such as instead of keeping our phone by the night stand, keep a book there. Because for the longest time, I used to read my phone before falling asleep, which is really bad for sleep hygiene. Now I read 10 pages of a book as my way of relaxing. Our brain reading muscles may be atrophied from reading social media, but it’s not irreversible. We can start tonight if we want to.”

Tyler Shores will be talking on Saturday, October 19, 11am-noon at the Faculty of Law, West Road. To book, and for other events, visit festivalofideas.cam.ac.uk.

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