Roughly, the finding of the study is this: when readers have the option to retweet a message their comprehension of the message falls significantly. The researchers found that:
…“repost” did not promote but hindered participants’ online information comprehension. Messages that were reposted were more likely to be understood incorrectly than correctly. This finding has overarching implications given that the majority users of micro-blogging sites only read and repost others’ messages (Fu and Chau, 2013 and Kaplan and Haenlein, 2011). …
How much more incorrectly? Students in the repost condition got *twice* as many comprehension questions wrong on the messages they read as the control group, which was presented the exact same messages, with no option to repost.
There’s some caveats here — the participants were reading tweet-sized messages, but only had 300 ms apiece to read them. That’s pretty tight, and it is meant to test their model, which assumes that this is a resource contention issue — if you have to be asking yourself “Should I retweet this?” at the same time you are reading the tweet your cognitive resources are split, and comprehension suffers.
At the same time, this matches the experience that many of us have on Twitter, where one half of our brain in on a loop asking “Is this retweetable?” while the other half deals with the mundane task of, you know, understanding what we are looking at.
The study presents an even more stunning finding (and one I am still not sure I am reading correctly). People in the reposting condition, when presented an offline document after reading and reposting, still really suck at comprehension:
For the offline reading comprehension test, participants were first asked to read an article, “More than a feline: The true nature of cats,” from New Scientist. The article was translated into Chinese with a total of 2176 characters. A comprehension test was compiled based on this article, including 11 multiple-choice questions that all had excellent discrimination values in a pretest. Participants’ scores on the test (0–11) were used as the index of offline information comprehension.
The results? People in the no-reposting group did 50% better on the comprehension test, even though the test was on an offline document with no reposting option.
Participants in the no-feedback group (M = 5.95, SD = 1.23) outperformed those in the feedback group (M = 4.05, SD = 1.99) on offline reading comprehension, t(39) = 3.63, p = .001, d = 1.15.
The authors hypothesize that this as well is due to cognitive depletion of resources — the mind, exhausted from dual-tasking through the repost activity, has less to give the final task.
I find these experiments interesting, even if they are only the beginnings of real research on these issues. From my perspective, I wonder if the cognitive resources issue is only part of it — as I’ve said before in my presentation on the Garden and the Stream, the nature of the stream is it pushes you away from comprehension and into rhetoric. Rather than seeking to understand, the denizen of the modern Twitter or Weibo feed seeks to sort incoming information as right or wrong, helpful or unhelpful, worth retweeting or not retweeting, worth getting into a righteous rage about or not.
Once the information is sorted as foe or ally, witty or dull, etc. we are done. At its most extreme, the stream replaces comprehension with classification, with each decision forming an irreversible ruling on the item, never to be revisited, recombined, reoganized, or rethought. In this race to do this we retweet articles after reading two paragraphs in, and vilify links we haven’t even clicked through. It doesn’t just compete with existing resources — it perverts the questions we ask of what we read.
That’s not in this study’s data, of course, but I think it is consistent with its findings. I look forward to more work in this area.