How the Web changes your reading habits

When Ed Chi wants to read, he turns to two of the six computer screens that surround his desk. One is devoted exclusively to e-mail; the other, to the rest of his reading material.

The senior researcher is testing a theory: What if your "virtual desk" was as just big as your real desk? How would that change your behavior? Dr. Chi, of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California, has found out one thing already. Almost all his reading - text messages, e-mails, journal articles, even books - is done on-screen.

Computers and the Internet are changing the way people read. Thus far, search engines and hyperlinks, those underlined words or phrases that when clicked take you to a new Web page, have turned the online literary voyage into a kind of U-pick island-hop. Far more is in store.

Take "Hamlet." A decade ago, a student of the Shakespeare play would read the play, probably all the way through, and then search out separate commentaries and analyses.


When completed, the site will help visitors comb through several editions of the play, along with 300 years of commentaries by a slew of scholars. Readers can click to commentaries linked to each line of text in the nearly 3,500-line play. The idea is that some day, anyone wanting to study "Hamlet" will find nearly all the known scholarship brought together in a cohesive way that printed books cannot.

Even that effort only scratches the surface of what's possible, some researchers say. Since people are still largely reading the way they always have, they ask, why not use technology to make reading itself more efficient?

The reading experience online "should be better than on paper," Chi says. He's part of a group at PARC developing what it calls ScentHighlights, which uses artificial intelligence to go beyond highlighting your search words in a text. It also highlights whole sections of text it determines you should pay special attention to, as well as other words or phrases that it predicts you'll be interested in. "Techniques like ScentHighlights are offering the kind of reading that's above and beyond what paper can offer," Chi says.

While readers might not feel a need to use ScentHighlights with the next Harry Potter novel, the software could help students, academics, and business people quickly extract specific information from other written material.

ScentHighlights gets its name from a theory that proposes that people forage for information much in the same way that animals forage in the wild. "Certain plants emit a scent in order to attract birds and bees to come to them," Chi says. ScentHighlights uncovers the "scent" that bits of information give off and attract readers to it.

If the reader types in "Wimbledon tennis," for example, ScentHighlights would highlight each word in its own color in the text, as search programs do. But ScentHighlights adds additional keywords in gray that the system has inferred that the reader would be interested in (perhaps "US Open" or "Andy Roddick"). It would also highlight in yellow entire sentences that it deems likely to be especially relevant.

To do this, ScentHighlights combines two approaches, noticing how often words are near each other in text and using a technique called "spreading activation." Chi says: "It basically mimics how humans retrieve information." ScentHighlights actually knows nothing about tennis, he says. "It's a purely statistically based technique."

Not far away, in a tiny office in a red-tile-roofed building on the edge of the Stanford University campus, another research group is taking a different approach in hopes of making reading on mobile phones faster and easier.

Analysts expect mobile phones to evolve into a multipurpose "third screen," along with televisions and computers displaying both pictures and text. But the small screen size has made reading cumbersome, as users scroll through tiny screen after screen.

To solve that, BuddyBuzz, a project of a small group within the Stanford Persuasive Technology Laboratory, flashes text to the viewer a word at a time.

BuddyBuzz is based on a reading technique called RSVP (Rapid Serial Visual Presentation) that's been around since the 1970s, says Matt Markovich, editor in chief of BuddyBuzz ( Using it, people can learn to read with good comprehension up to 1,000 words per minute, Mr. Markovich says.

"Initially, it seems kind of awkward, but people warm up to it rather quickly," he says. "It does tend to take all of your attention. But I've found my reading speed has increased dramatically."

Users who sign up can download news from Reuters and CNET, a technology news website, and postings from several popular Internet bloggers. More content is on the way, Markovich says. Users can also feed their own texts into the website and have them sent to their mobile phone, or offer their content to other BuddyBuzz users.

His team, which includes two volunteer programmers and a handful of Stanford undergrads, continues to add more features. Users can set BuddyBuzz to present the text at whatever speed is comfortable for them. The system knows to pause at commas or the end of sentences, just as most readers do. If readers miss something, they can skip back to the beginning of the sentence.

Eventually, the group would like to refine the program so that it can recognize when readers are having trouble with a text and automatically slow down, perhaps when they hit a less-familiar word like "Uzbekistan."

The system does have shortcomings, says B.J. Fogg, the head of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, who had known about RSVP and encouraged the group to apply it to mobile phones. It doesn't work well with numbers, such as sports scores and stock quotes, though it's great for news, or other general reading, he says. "BuddyBuzz is a new type of reading," he adds. "It doesn't destroy any of the previous forms of reading."

Neither ScentHighlights nor BuddyBuzz is commercially available, though a free test version of the latter is available at the BuddyBuzz website.

Literacy score card

Compared with a generation ago, the world is better able to read. The top 35 nations have 99 percent or better literacy. But others lag far behind, especially in Africa. Among the less literate:

• Niger 16.5 percent

• Burkina Faso 24.8

• Vanuatu 34.0

• Bangladesh 40.6

• Nepal 42.9

• Pakistan 44.0

• Yemen 47.7

• Morocco 49.8

• Haiti 50.8

Source: United Nations Development Program

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