Sitting here with a 100-page document in front of me titled, “Health Literacy Online,” a summary from a huge study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Next to it is an article titled, “Better Social Media Strategy: Show Don’t Tell.” To my left is an article titled, “90 Million Americans Don’t Understand Health Information.”
It’s not that America is getting stupid, is it? (Rhetorical.)
When George W. Bush famously asked, “Is our children learning?” I felt like we’d passed the “holy s**t” tipping point. It was quite stunning that even the president of these United States couldn’t speak English, particularly having listened intently to predecessors Clinton, H.W. Bush, Reagan, Ford, Carter, and even Nixon. Pat Buchanan’s equally famous response to George the Dullard—“Well no they is not”—brought it home to roost. Put in Yoda-speak: “Stupid, America is.”
As a measure of stupidity or lack thereof, statistics for reading have not declined. But therein lies the rub. The frequency of reading may not have dropped, but the word counts sure have. Although people do read, they mostly read online. And online reading versus print is about as similar as Gilbert Gottfried and Nelson Mandela.
Studies say eight of 10 people who read online only scan. And, only 16 percent actually read word for word. Truth be told, the Web is designed for and encourages low information users. Indeed, data suggests that once a word count exceeds 110, the level of engagement drops dramatically. The tail is wagging the dog in a sense, though, because the Web is simply not designed for word consumption in general, whether you’re an idiot or Stephen Hawking. People don’t want to read text on a screen. Next best thing to capture attention? Low word counts, infographics, video, games, promotions, and sweepstakes.
But users tend to shy away from promotional writing versus objective writing, because as they scan they become frustrated with the “cognitive burden” of sorting through what they perceive to be real versus hyped information.
With the advent of Twitter (140 characters), Pinterest (pictures only), gamification (why grab a book when you can grab a Flexiglow Snipa Intelliscope Cyber Gaming Mouse?), infographics (Cliff Notes), and Instagram (hey, a picture is worth a thousand words . . . particularly if it’s color enhanced!), we are encouraging Americans to dumb down ever further. The bad news is that a lot of Americans aren’t exactly starting their dumb down process with a lot to lose.
It’s a lesson for all of us in business creating messaging for customers. K.I.S.S.