Virginia Heffernan: The Internet Changed Literacy

During a presentation on the third day of Digital Book World 2016, author and journalist Virginia Heffernan shared her insights on how the Internet has changed our society’s perception of literacy and content, arguing that the way we read today has as much to do with physical books as it does with smartphones.

“Content has moved from meaning ‘literature’ to ‘information’ to ‘content,’” Heffernan explained. “We are disregarding literacy for bibliophilia. We are in hyperlexia. Books show up in chunks on Instagram, video franchises, lectures, and ebooks. We can’t keep our eyes off words.”

“What are we really doing on the Internet?” Heffernan continued. “We’re mostly scrolling through Facebook and Twitter—reading. It’s the kind of reading that’s been devalued.”

Heffernan said the Internet has drastically changed how publishers sell content. She believes there’s a constant “interaction between digital and 3D/analog products,” and that books are branding assets. Just as the Grateful Dead gave their music away for free and made up for it by selling merchandise, Heffernan argued that the same process is going on in publishing.

“It’s possible that Amazon does this [to sell merchandise] too,” she added. “Amazon says people come [to their website] for content and reviews. They get immersed in some kind of experience. In the midst of it, customers even start reading stories on the website.”

That being said, the Internet launched the rise of content marketing, which Heffernan argued feeds sponsored writing.

“There’s a problem in content marketing where the content is the merchandise,” she explained. As an example, Heffernan referred to the fashion industry’s persistence in getting publications to write about their products and events.

“This company moved heaven and earth to promote photographs about the runway and circulate stories,” Heffernan explained. “But the only thing that circulated on Instagram—to everyone’s chagrin—was this advertisement with Joan Didion… It’s a certification of how much you’ve read the image.”

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One thought on “Virginia Heffernan: The Internet Changed Literacy

  1. Paul Vieira

    I think that this was the most thought provocative session of the week, as it made us think about what publishers can do to enhance the culture of the industry.



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