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Form and content

People read differently on screens. They scan, search, multitask, are distracted by notifications. They tend not to pay such close, careful attention, or remain as fully absorbed in a text as they do when they’re reading on paper. And they tend to recall less of what they have read.

So why choose to publish an academic “book” in this form? Not even as an e-book, something which, near-as-dammit, mimics the form of the codex, but which can, almost like the ghost of a book, be acquired instantly through the ether and read, handily, on one of the devices which, for so many of us, are our most constant companions? Or something to be downloaded in pdf form, which could be printed out or, perhaps, clumsily annotated onscreen in Preview or Adobe Reader?

Why make it a different kind of entity entirely: a screen-born work, one that’s resolutely digitally native, designed to be read/viewed/listened to online?

Because this form …

  1. is a natural fit for a body of work on the impact of new media on autobiographical narratives.1 This form fits this content.
  2. offers us the space and affordances to accommodate different authors’ varying approaches: the different ways in which they present their work and the different kinds of work they did.
  3. allows us to include video and audio further contextualizing the writing.

It enables Rebecca Roach to show us How to Read a Chatbot rather than having to tell us how to. It also accommodates more traditional, longer-form essays, as in Alex Georgakopoulou’s Sharing-Life-in-the-Moment as Small Stories: Participation, Social Relations, and Subjectivity. It does so, however, in a way that enables a more copious and fully rounded representation of Alex’s work than is possible in a book: at present – works like Amaranth Borsuk’s 2016 work Between Page and Screen notwithstanding2 – it is not possible to link directly from a codex to any of the online phenomena comprising Alex’s Ego Media subject matter.

Essentially, then, this digital form enables us not to replace telling with showing, but to use showing to add an extra dimension to our telling. It also enables us – and our readers – not only to reflect on “the impact of new media on autobiographical narratives,” but to reflect on how we reflect on that.

Between page and screen – demo

Video 1. Digital Pop-Up Book: Between Page and Screen. betweenpageandscreen.

Source at

The downsides

However, it’s not without its downsides. When we started adding material to the content management system (CMS), it quickly became apparent that there was a tension between accepted best practice in writing for people who read online and the nature of academic writing. Our colleagues at King’s Digital Lab queried whether some of the longer-form project pages might be too long.

So, I experimented with splitting one of Alex Georgakopoulou’s longer essays across several pages. This did not work. From Alex’s perspective, dividing the work across pages created divisions in her argument, interrupting her analysis and the flow of ideas in a way that text flowing from one page of a book to the next wouldn’t have done. Her essays, in other words, could not be broken up in ways that would prove optimal for online reading without, effectively, breaking them.

So, how could we compensate for this?

I wondered initially if splitting the essay text into pages part way through a sentence might work: this would, after all, provide a clear signal that the idea/argument flow continued onto the next page. But – because the text displays differently on different devices, and depending on the text size set by the reader, we would have ended up with words finishing abruptly in the middle of lines – this would not have worked.

So, in the end we did two things. We

  1. created and uploaded pdfs, which means the text from every page can be downloaded, so those who wish to read in the (traditionally) interactive way Naomi Baron describes in Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (“I underline, write notes, draw arrows, attach Post-its” (p. xi)) can print out and interact with this material in this “traditionally” academic way (it’s worth reading this sentence out loud to an archivist or book conservator, just to watch them recoil in horror).
  2. made use of the affordances of the platform King’s Digital Lab designed for us.

Embodied reading

Later in Words Onscreen, Baron describes research conducted (somewhat appropriately) at the University of Reading. There, scholars

explored both how reading speed and the scrolling patterns subjects used when reading on a computer screen affected their ability to answer questions about the text. Those who did best on comprehension tests were the ones who read short chunks of stationary text at a time (pausing to absorb what they were reading) before scrolling down to the next chunk. Reading while scrolling led to worse comprehension. (p. 164: citing Dyson, Mary C., & Mark Haselgrove “The Effects of Reading Speed and Reading Patterns on the Understanding of Text Read from Screen” Journal of Research on Reading, 23, no. 2210-223, 2000).

More recently, the E-READ Consortium3 conducted a metastudy of fifty-four studies (involving more than 170,000 participants) looking at comprehension of “long-form informational text.” They concluded that “comprehension … is stronger when reading on paper than on screens, particularly when the reader is under time pressure. No differences were observed on narrative texts.” And, somewhat counterintuitively: “Contrary to expectations about the behaviour of ‘digital natives,’ such screen inferiority effects compared to paper have increased rather than decreased over time, regardless of age group and of prior experience with digital environments.”4

There are, of course, limits and caveats to these studies. Subjects are not tested in their natural reading habitats but under experimental conditions. They are not reading material they have chosen themselves for a specific purpose that they care about or to discover information about which they are especially curious. And where is the boundary between “long-form informational texts” and “narrative texts”? Is that the difference between nonfiction and fiction? What about narrative nonfiction?

Nevertheless, the evidence that reading long-form, informational texts on screens offers an experience in many ways inferior to the codex is compelling.

This is likely to be down to the way that, as Andrew Piper wrote, “Reading isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies.”5

Despite the difficulties that the famous 2009 Norwegian Medieval Helpdesk sketch (see below) jokingly suggests early adopters of the book might have experienced, we have learned to navigate the codex effectively. Directly after revealing her annotation habits, Baron describes how she tends “to remember where to find what … [she has] read by physical signposts, on the upper right-hand side; on the page with a grease stain from that late-night brownie” (p. xi).

Medieval helpdesk

Video 2. Helpdesk support back in the day of the Middle Ages with English subtitles. Original taken from the show “Øystein og jeg” on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in 2001. With Øystein Backe (helper) and Rune Gokstad (desperate monk). Written by Knut Nærum. Posted by NRK.

Source at

Compensating for the lack of physicality

Along with our designers and developers at King’s Digital Lab, we have tried, as far as possible, to compensate for the absence of the physical interaction and material signs the codex offers.

  • The contents lists in the left column of project pages enable readers to locate material easily.
  • The link icons enable readers to link directly to elements within each page and also signal a reading pause: a beat, the opportunity to take a breath, rather than indicating a break.
  • We have included significantly more visual material than is usual in a contemporary printed book. These images do much of the showing in showing-and-telling. Additionally, they encourage readers to pause, supporting the absorption of text.

And finally…

Two things:

  1. Max Saunders asked me if I thought this publication is creative practice. I’m inclined to say yes. This is an example of the impact of new media on how academics present their work and, to a certain extent, themselves online.
  2. Echoing Clare in Reflection 2: About This “Book”: … We hope reading it is worth the cost to the planet … and also the extra effort involved in reading text onscreen.

Further reading

  • Baron, Naomi S. Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • McCulloch, Gretchen. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. New York: Penguin, 2019.
  • Thomas, Sue. Hello World: Travels in Virtuality. York: Raw Nerve Books, 2004.
  • Wolf, Maryanne. Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. New York: Harper, 2018.

Ginestra Ferraro, the UX (user experience) specialist at King’s Digital Lab recommended the following resources on how users read and consume content online.

Go-to websites

  • Norman Nielsen Group (
  • A List Apart (
  • Smashing Magazine (
  • CSS-Tricks (

How people read online

  • First NNG article (1997) on reading online (
  • Reading on mobile (
  • Short read: “Myth #1: People read on the web” (
  • Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound. (

Writing and designing for the web

  • A List Apart guideline for their writers (and designers) (
  • Writing for the Web (
  • The Psychology of Design (
  • Storytelling (
  • design principles (


  • How We Read (


  • Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Indianapolis, Ind.: New Riders, 2013.
  • Spiekermann, Erik. Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works. Hoboken, N.J.: Adobe Press, 2013.
  • Boag, Paul. User Experience Revolution. Freiburg: Smashing Media, 2017.


  1. Max Saunders et al., “Ego Media,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  2. See
  3. See
  4. See the Stavanger Declaration at
  5. Andrew Piper, “Out of Touch: E-Reading Isn’t Reading,” Slate, November 15, 2012,


  • Piper, Andrew. “Out of Touch: E-Reading Isn’t Reading.” Slate, November 15, 2012.
  • Saunders, Max, Lisa Gee, Clare Brant, Alexandra Georgakopoulou, Leone Ridsdale, Rob Gallagher, Rachael Kent, Alison McKinlay, and Rebecca Roach. “Ego Media.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.