According to Pew, 85% of us here in this country read news on our phones. Neiman Labs has done research that shows how differently we read news from computer screen to laptop to tablet to phone. Suffice to say that our attention gets more fragmented and diminished as the viewing port, our screens, and the devices themselves, get smaller. Content meant for short attention spans has to be more addictive. From messaging to email to social to a game to a dating app to ordering dinner after a quick glance at the headlines we can, in a matter of seconds, with the flick of a thumb, task switch faster than news happens. Who hasn’t ridden a commuter train or bus or walked down a city street where phones aren’t plastered to faces and the largest wearable headphones seem to be the newest signifier of our general anxiety to get thumb flicked into non-existence. We get easily bored because our attention has been shaped by the way we interact with the world in these very small devices. We’ve become more fickle, less choiceful and more easily manipulated by the small viewport we hold in our hand. Not because it was meant that way but because that’s the way content had to be designed for small screen viewing.
Watch the way you interact with your small screen. Up and down, scrolling through single pieces of content with your thumb until you land on something that catches your interest for a millisecond and then off again if the typeface is too small and the article too long. Contrast that to the kind of reading on a newspaper where your viewport is two very large paper(!) pages and you are scanning from page to page to land on an article of interest. The difference between both is in the act of seeing. In one your focus is small and narrow and thumb driven while in the other your eyes are moving from right to left scanning much more content across pages. In the small and narrow thumb driven one content is served to you to encourage you to stay. Algorithms like to snack on your behavior and feed you more of what you think you want. Algorithms are written by very clever people to make content sticky. When it comes to news we lose the serendipitous exploration of a newspaper when our focus is so narrow. Because we can move through content at speed we stick to content that confirms how we feel. Our filters are down because our devices have become so personalized and intimate. In our narrow little windows we respond to news that confirms our biases. While content has changed to accommodate our reading habits our devices have physically evolved and will continue to evolve to narrow our focus. Not through purpose or intent but by the very format and physical nature of the devices themselves. Content creators and designers of the physical experiences are themselves consumers and so purpose becomes subverted by habits created by the format of the devices themselves.
Like Alice, we are, on our devices, each in our own Wonderland. We see how small the door is when we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and will risk all to drink from the bottle that says, “drink me”. And we want in. Unlike Alice we can’t seem to wake up from our reveries. We are stuck in a world of Mad Hatters and Cheshire Cats and without knowing it, our habits are shaping our Wonderlands. In our Wonderlands “news” content responds and wraps itself around our behaviors like a warm cuddly blanket protecting us from the proclamation of the Queen of Hearts – “Off with his head!” and we never get to wake up.