The experience of reading online has changed through the years and the whole “people don’t read online” thing may not always be true—if only because the word “online” means something different now. However, as our sources of reading material become more and more digital (real books vs. ebooks, papers vs. websites, notepads vs. tablets or whatever, etc.) we may end up missing one important tool: tangibility.
Maria Konnikova has a great article about it in the New Yorker:
We don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. [...] The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.
Not only we lack a physical contact with the reading material when reading online; we’re also exposed to a constant change of context and layout and design, leading to additional cognitive work:
The font, color, and size of text can all act in tandem to make our reading experience easier or more difficult. And while these variables surely exist on paper just as they do on-screen, the range of formats and layouts online is far greater than it is in print. Online, you can find yourself transitioning to entirely new layouts from moment to moment, and, each time you do so, your eyes and your reading approach need to adjust. Each adjustment, in turn, takes mental and physical energy.
It’s not only reading that gets better with paper: researchers recently reported that taking notes by hands helps long term comprehension and keeps you focused.
Moving forward, though, we shouldn’t be forced to discard either paper or digital: taking the best of the two and create a tangible digital-enhanced experience should be our goal.