Fast information for the fast food generation
Over the past seven years CIBER has been studying the virtual information-seeking behaviour of millions of people from a variety of subjects and countries and has assembled a unique, massive and robust evidence base of how people actually behave on the Web; not how they say or think they behave (the territory inhabited by the ubiquitous questionnaire and most commentators). Self-report data are flawed because people do not remember (or do not want to say) what they do in cyberspace so we should be wary of what they tell us.
However, the evidence we have collected, obtained from the logs of the websites used, certainly supports Nicholas Carr's contention that we endlessly 'skitter' to cope with living in an information rich, boundless and volatile environment. It shows that information seeking is rapid and horizontal as a result of massive choice, unbelievable and direct access (you can search, yourself, anywhere and anytime), a shortage of time and a reliance on search engines. People bounce along the surface, look at a page or two, prefer shorter items to long ones, rarely spend more than a few minutes on a visit and do not often come back (they are promiscuous).
Where we would disagree with Nicholas is whether 'skitting' or, as we prefer to call it 'bouncing' and 'power browsing', is a wholly new phenomenon. The virtual environment allows us to view information usage and seeking and the resulting outcomes in detail and on an unbelievable scale because every action of everyone who uses a site is recorded. However, this was not the case in the physical information environment and we really knew nothing about how people behaved and, in the information vacuum, when someone took out a book or bought a paper, the assumption was that they read it all.
So maybe we were living a lie and now we know the reality - we have always been 'skitters'; the universe of linear exposition, quiet contemplation, disciplined reading and study was just an ideal which we all bought into and (more worryingly, perhaps) developed information services and products around accordingly. The difference is, of course, (and this is where the concerns really should lie) is that the opportunities for skittering are now legion and this has created ever more skittering and the pace is not letting-up. It is whether this is all leading to major changes in the way we obtain knowledge, particularly whether this constitutes a possible 'dumbing down', that concerns us most.
What is certain is that we (young and old; the naïve and those that know better) have taken to fast information as we have to fast food and we are about to face the same consequences. We shall be exploring this further in the Digital Revolution project.