Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Chunking certainly has that alchemical appeal that technical communicators seek: A uniform format which “allows users not only to apply past experience with a site to future searched and explorations, but also to predict how an unfamiliar section of a web site will be organized,” according to the authors at webstyleguide.com.

But I wonder.

Have those who advocate chunking as the way to write on the web fallen victim to circular logic? Does chunking work because most people don’t want to read long texts on line; or is it because texts on the Internet are chunked that people don’t want to read long texts?

Webstyleguide concedes that chunking doesn’t work in all cases. “Although short Web document are usually preferable, it often makes little sense to divide a long document arbitrarily, particularly if you want users to be able to print easily or to save the entire document in one step,” the authors say. I’m glad for that concession, because rather than look at chunking as one of the Unbreakable Commandments of the Internet, I look at chunking as a writing style that works very well on the Internet, in those cases when material needs to be organized in a way to make it more useful to users. There is no reason, in my mind at least, to chunk documents we’re already used to seeing in the “long” form: articles, essays, short stories, novel chapters, et cetera.

The Center for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER) at University College London, in a study entitled “Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future,” published in January 2008, calls the preference for short web documents over long web documents a myth. What is not a myth, however, the researchers claim, is that on either short or long documents, most web searchers perform what the center calls power browsing – reading any text, short or long, for a page or two; a “shallow, horizontal, flicking behaviour.” They also surmise reading habits on the Web are not all that different from hard copy. “Reading appears to be only occasionally undertaken online, more often offline or not at all . . . We all do this,” they write, “and there is no reason to suppose that young people read more when they were required in the past to flick through hardcopy journal volumes.” So whether a document is expertly chunked or not, it’s the way people are using the web that has greater impact on what they get out of it, what they’d like to get out of it and what they might find missing than the way information is presented on the web.

So I have a lot of questions about chunking and reading habits.

Most people have no trouble picking up a book and reading quite long passages, chapters, and groups of chapters at a time, without taking breaks or complaining that the passages are too long to read. Is it because reading in such a way is the convention?

One of the strongest arguments I hear from proponents of chunking is that people don’t want to read long documents on the web due to eyestrain, and that for many readers, printing a long document out is their preference (though UCL/CIBER say that printing a document offers no evidence that it is used.) Why do our reading habits change significantly from one medium (book) to another (web), if they do change at all? Are we simply more culturally attuned to reading for pleasure – which implies slowed-down reading – in books, than we are for the web? What of younger generations – are they switching to online reading more, book-reading less? Does it matter?

When I read, what keeps me reading more than presentation is style – the writer’s voice. I look at authors like Terry Pratchett and Kurt Vonnegut, the former tends to write middle-of-the-road length chunks of text, while the latter tends to write much shorter chunks. Then I look at J.R.R. Tolkein, who writes very very long chapters, with only occasional chunking. I enjoy all three of them because they present writing style/voice that’s compelling and that keep me reading. The argument here is that most “reading” that takes place on the Internet is for information, not for pleasure. Then I counter: Ought we not work to make our text/document more engaging, so we don’t have to put up guideposts and flags and little bolded bits of text waving “slow down and read me” tags?

I admit that, on the web, I will skim some material, and find in some material that guideposts like headers, bullets and such are helpful as I search for information. But once I’ve found the information I want, I slow down and read, and I don’t really care how long things are. I don’t necessarily print, then read. I used to. And once I’ve found something I want to read, I’d rather scroll through it, rather than have to click on links to get to the next bit of reading, because that slows the process down. Even with our fast connections today, the amount of info that has to be downloaded with each page is pretty hefty. But it’s become a paperwork storage headache, so now I retain electronic documents, and read them on-screen. Similarly, I’ll do the same with printed material, skim and scan headers and other landmarks until I find what I need, then I slow down and read. The reading habits don’t seem to change from medium to medium.

I’m also curious about something else – does chunking contribute to the phenomenon of people using the Internet for information retrieval, and then relying on the Internet to be their memory, rather than relying on their brains? Conversely – do we have definite proof that reading from hard copy versus reading from the web makes us smarter/retain more information? Right now, it’s a matter of opinion or classification. We don’t remember everything we read, whether it be print or online. We remember what’s significant to us and what we re-read and re-read, no matter what form it’s in. Frank Smith in his book “Understanding Reading,” calls this concept our “theory of the world.” He insists – and from what I’ve seen, I believe he’s right – that we understand better when we read things on which we already have some background information stored in our heads. When we encounter new things, we have to read and re-read and read again, until what we read is internalized. I’ve seen this myself lately as I’ve tried to read The Federalist Papers. The copy I have features summaries of each of these letters in favor of the U.S. Constitution, in what you could call chunks. But I’m finding even these chunks a difficult read, because my background in these matters is thin. The chunking is helpful in a way, but until I’ve internalized at least a little comprehension of the arguments in these papers, the chunks can only serve as guideposts along a long and confusing road.

That brings me to something else: The CIBER study points out something quite interesting and, I think, pertinent to our discussion. Chunking is meant to make documents more useful to those who find them. But the CIBER study suggests the way we search might help – or hurt – us as we try to find things to read. “A persistent theme in the information literacy literature is that we need a fully developed mental map to make effective use of Internet search tools,” they write. “We need not only a broad understanding of how retrieval systems work and how information is represented within . . .databases, but also some appreciation of the nature of the information space, and of how spelling, grammar and sentence structure contribute to effective searches.” A lot of that power browsing behavior, they imply, comes from the fact that people in general have a lot harder time finding pertinent information on the web than they have reading it once they find it.

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