June 24, 2014

Who is Reading This?

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

This is my fiftieth post for the Everyday Sociology Blog. When I first started writing for this site, one of my first blogs raised the question “Who’s Got Time for This?” In that post, I was wondering if I’d have time to be a regular contributor to the site. I guess after three years of writing for Everyday Sociology I answered my own question. However, another question I raised in that earlier post was: “who has time to read blogs?” That question still perplexes me.

I did some research to find out how many blogs exist on the Internet and it’s seemingly impossible to find an exact number.  Estimates vary from 152 million to 181 million to well over 225 million. Suffice it to say there are a lot of blogs out there with new ones popping up every second of the day. The recommended length of blogs varies too, from 500 words to 1000 words (the typical length of my posts) to well over 2000 words.

Let’s assume the typical blog post is 1,000 words, and that there are roughly 180 million blogs out there. If each of these sites contained just one 1,000 word blog each month, that amounts to two trillion one hundred sixty billion words a year! Given that the world’s population is 7 billion, that works out to over 300,000 words per person per year. 

However, not everyone in the world will be reading these words. For instance, we can subtract the nearly 800 million people worldwide who are illiterate as well as the 60% of the world’s population that does not have access to the Internet. If we factored in a number of other variables such as age and language, then the number of words produced each year per person would increase significantly.

Keep in mind, these numbers are just for blogs; they do not take into account newspapers, magazines, books, instruction manuals, contracts, bills, and other words that we come across each day in print and digital form. I’m also omitting another huge generator of words: other forms of social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. According to the engineers at Twitter, there are usually about 500 million Tweets a day (5,700 per second).  The average length of these Tweets is 30 characters which amounts to about six words. That’s another 3 billion words per day.

So this all brings me back to the question of this blog: Who is reading all of these words? For those of us who can read and have access to the Internet, there are literally millions and millions of words for us to read each year. We are awash in a world of words.


As someone who enjoys engaging with the written word, I find these facts and figures to be fascinating. But as a sociology professor, I also recognize the social significance of the written word.

Much of my teaching and scholarship is based on the ideas of critical pedagogy that were developed by Brazilian educator and sociologist Paulo Freire. Freire began his career teaching literacy and the significance of words—particularly their potential to describe and then transform the world—was a prevailing theme in his work.  In one of his many books, Literacy: Reading the Word and the World (co-authored with Donald Macedo), he makes the point that we cannot separate the process of reading words from reading the world:

Reading the word and learning how to write the word so one can later read it are preceded by learning how to write the world, that is having the experience of changing the world and touching the world.

Freire wrote these words long before the proliferation of blogs and social media but his points still ring true. The production of so many words each day, and the subsequent reading of these words, reflects the extent to which we create and recreate the world through language. We use words to describe, emote, express, connect, disconnect, join, reject, endorse, and explain. And when we do all of these things, the social world unfolds before us. In this sense, words—whether they are spoken or written—can be said to be the building blocks of society.

The proliferation of words on the Internet coupled with the high percentage of individuals who are still not plugged in is one of the main characteristics of the digital divide. This divide is a form of social inequality that is not always as readily apparent as racism or sexism. This somewhat hidden form of inequality afflicts those who do not have access to information and communication technologies. As a result, these individuals miss out on the social networks and structural resources that the Internet and other forms of information technology offer.

There are numerous efforts underway to try to close the digital divide and bring the Internet, and the power of words, to poor and unserved communities. These efforts are occurring in the United States as well as across the globe. In fact, the United Nations recently declared Internet access to be a basic human right as a way to promote freedom of expression and access to this valuable resource.

When some of these efforts take hold, there will be more people who will have access to the infinite bounty of words. At the same time, there will no doubt be a corresponding increase in the number of words that are being produced via the Internet and I suspect that words being produced will always outnumber the potential readers.

I may never get a satisfying answer to the question, “Who is reading all of these words?” but with your help, I may be able to gain some insight into title question of this post: “Who is reading this?” So if you’ve made it to this point, please click on this link and fill out a 3 question survey.  It should take less than one minute of your time! Thanks, and I appreciate that you read these 1,000 words.


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