How to Read Words on the Internet

How to Read Words on the Internet

I have written over two million words published on the Internet.

During the last 16 years, I’ve written over 2,000 articles, launched multiple websites (Becoming Minimalist, Simplify Magazine, Simple Money Magazine, Focus on Faith), posted consistently for over a decade on social media, and have also produced hundreds of videos on YouTube.

All that to say, I’ve been around for awhile and I’m proud of the work I’ve put in. I hope it is resulting in a positive difference.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of changes and a lot of websites and writers come and go. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about reading words on the Internet and I’d love to try and communicate them here. As a writer, I hope I can offer a unique point of view.

Every time I publish an article, I receive hundreds (sometimes thousands) of comments and questions and email replies. And for quite some time, I’ve thought it would be helpful to sit down and write out a helpful guide on how to get the most out of the Internet.

My hope is that by doing this, not only will it improve your experience and application for every article you sit down to read; but also that it might foster a more respectful and understanding online community. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Here are 12 things to keep in mind that will serve you well when you read words on the Internet:

1. Not Every Article is for Every Person in Every Circumstance

The Internet is a vast place, and articles are often written for specific audiences. Not everything was written specifically for you or everyone you know. If your first thought when reading an article is, “Yeah, but what about that one circumstance where this might not apply?,” then it’s helpful to remember the writer probably wasn’t writing for that specific person.

For instance, if I publish an article that lists the benefits of moving to a smaller home, it’s aimed at homeowners who live in a home that is larger than they need. Certainly there are many circumstances where a larger home (or any home at all) is the best step forward for a family. But that doesn’t change the arguments in the article—that many of us would benefit from downsizing the size of the homes that we live in.

This can be helpful to remember especially in very unique circumstances that might exist for one person, but don’t exist in large amounts of the population. It can also help save you frustration when reading and help you find the content that most benefits you. Writers tend to write around topics or for people they are personally familiar with in one way or another.

*Sometimes when I write I will include the phrase, “Just to be clear, I’m not talking about ____________.” But almost every article would contain such a long list of exceptions, it’s not feasible to list them every time.

2. Not Every Opinion is a Personal Attack

We live in a world where differing opinions are often seen as personal attacks. But sometimes, an opinion is just an opinion and has nothing to do with you personally.

I once saw a tweet from Jon Acuff that illustrated how people read on the Internet perfectly. The tweet went like this:

Me: I like oranges.
Twitter: I had a bad orange once in 1997, so I now hate you.
Me: I didn’t say every orange that’s ever been was amazing.
Twitter: It was really dry.
Me: I didn’t say, ‘You like oranges.’ I said, ‘I like oranges.’
Twitter: Did you even consider my orange?

There are many people who are just argumentative by nature and the Internet scratches that itch whenever they desire. So they read articles and posts just looking for points to personally argue for or against. I find it helpful when I read argumentative comments in an article or social media post to just assume the person was out looking for an argument that day.

Remember, an opinion expressed in an article is not a personal attack on you and doesn’t always require a response if you disagree. Often times, it has nothing to do with you. Keep that in mind, and you’ll have a more peaceful, beneficial online experience every time.

3. Assume the Best Intentions

One of the greatest blessings of the Internet and social media is our opportunity to read and learn from people we do not rub shoulders with in real life.

And one of the greatest hazards of the Internet and social media is our opportunity to listen to and interact with people we don’t know in real life.

Because when you don’t know the character, integrity, and heart of another individual, and they say something you disagree with, it becomes very easy to just assume the worst about them.

This will become VERY CLEAR over the next five months with the election cycle here in America. People who don’t even know each other will assume the very worst of another human being just because of political differences. It’s helpful to remember there are genuinely good people on both sides of the aisle. In fact, from what I’ve learned living in both deep red and deep blue states, most people want the same problems solved—they just disagree on how to solve them.

I try to remember what Thomas Jefferson said, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Assuming good intentions behind the writer will lead to more productive and respectful discussions. And this applies beyond politics.

4. A Calm Answer Turns Away Wrath

There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

I have used that wisdom, as often as possible, to guide my interactions online—especially on social media. I have been viciously attacked and criticized in comment sections both here and on social media. Each time, (if it is even appropriate to respond), I try to start with a kind word: “Thank you,” “Nice to hear from you,” “I hope you’re having a great day.”

The wisdom that a kind word can turn down the heat of a conversation quickly is timeless and helpful both online and offline. When reading articles that provoke a strong reaction, responding calmly and thoughtfully can diffuse tension and foster understanding. Always start with something kind to say.

5. Not Every Article Includes Every Piece of Information

This is a no-brainer, but it is something that pops up routinely in my email interactions.

Not every article is going to address every scenario or assumption or possible misinterpretation—otherwise every article would get REALLY long. Writers must choose which points to include in an article that argues for the point they are trying to make.

That doesn’t mean they haven’t considered other aspects or scenarios or the practical application steps required to begin living out the purpose of the article; it just means they’re focusing on certain points and one specific goal. Which leads me to Point #6.

6. If You Assume Something is Being Said, but It’s Not Said, Then It’s Just Your Assumption

Recently, I posted a quote on Facebook that said this:

Physical possessions are a burden. They take dollars to buy and time to maintain. They take up physical space in our homes and mental space in our minds. Every physical item around us competes for our attention and adds stress to our lives.

A true statement. But immediately, some of the comments began attacking the quote. Here are a few:

“You’re saying minimalism means owning nothing?”

“You’re saying no possession is ever worth keeping?”

“You’re saying that no possession can ever bring us joy?”

In all scenarios, the answer was no. I didn’t say you shouldn’t own anything. I didn’t say some possessions weren’t worth keeping. I didn’t say our possessions can’t bring us joy or healing or purpose.

I just said that every possession costs us money, requires our care and attention, and adds a bit of stress to our lives. (It’s actually based on a quote from Randy Alcorn that I cite almost every time I speak: “Every increased possession adds increased anxiety on our lives.”)

A 1-3 sentence quote that you read online, or even an 800-word article, isn’t going to address every assumption that could be made about it. So find the value in what’s posted. And know that any assumptions you make beyond the actual words are only that.

7. Apply However You Can

Reading is an active process. We take in information, process it, and determine how it applies to our unique, specific lives. The same is true when reading on the Internet.

Some articles you read feel like they were written directly to you with lots of helpful, specific application points. Others will sound like they are speaking to a completely different person in a completely different phase of life. But almost every article will contain something we can learn.

Our job, as the reader, is to actively discover if the information being presented in the article is A) True; and B) Applicable to my life.

8. Consider the Full Context of a Writer’s Work

If a writer has been publishing books or online articles for years, each piece of their work is part of a broader narrative. Understanding the context within which they write can provide clarity to their articles.

For example, I write often on the topic of rest and finding an unbusy life that is focused on the things that matter. But I have also written extensively on the importance and fulfilling nature of dedicating yourself to meaningful work. When I write about the importance of finding time for rest and solitude and refreshment, for me, it’s always written with the understanding that I’m not arguing for complacency—because I have already presented the value of work in others places.

Long-time readers of a writer may understand that context. But if you are reading someone new, and want to make an assumption about them, it might be wise to dig deeper into their fuller worldview to understand the broader context within which they write.

This can be a very tricky balance for a writer—especially one who has been writing for a long time. It’s not feasible for the writer or enjoyable for the reader to discuss every required element of context. But I try to do my best by including links where appropriate.

Additionally, sometimes a deep-dive into an author’s background or worldview might change your opinion of how they see the world in a broader context.

9. Different Perspectives Offer Growth Opportunities

Encountering perspectives that differ from our own can be uncomfortable, but they also offer valuable opportunities for growth. Instead of immediately dismissing opposing views, consider what you can learn from them.

I like to ask myself, “I wonder how they arrived there and where they see the world differently than me to hold that position?” This approach broadens our understanding and fosters empathy.

Nobody is 100% right about everything. Therefore, every differing opinion might be your opportunity to grow.

10. You Can’t Believe Everything You Read on the Internet

Websites can be faked, reviews can be faked, identities can be faked, news can be faked, photos can be faked, even videos can be faked now. With the Internet available to everyone, almost everything on the Internet can be a fake—sometimes for fun, but sometimes by people with really, really bad motives. Verify, verify, verify.

11. Noone is Perfect—Even If Their Writing Sounds Like It

I’m trying my best to live a minimalist life, but I make mistakes. In fact, there’s probably lots of stuff in our home we don’t actually need. I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of writers—none are as perfect as you might think.

When I read an article about a young mom’s morning routine that begins at 5 am with a kale smoothie, lemon water, 60-minute ab workout, followed by a 5-minute cold plunge—all before getting her kids up for school and packing their organic lunch. My usual thought is, “Waking up early and working out my abs while the family is still asleep really probably would be a helpful way to start my day. But I really doubt she actually does that every single day.” Life just doesn’t work that way.

Now, that’s not to say I can’t still learn something or have that article spark a good idea that I should try in my own routine. I just don’t hold myself to a standard that probably even the author doesn’t.

12. Know When to Take a Break

Anne Lamott once said, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” I think any time we talk about using the Internet intentionally for any reason, we need to be reminded that there is lots of life happening around us when we’re stuck online. The Internet is not life—and that’s coming from somebody who makes their living on it.

By keeping these principles in mind, we can read words on the Internet more thoughtfully and intentionally. And hopefully, we’ll all get better because of it.

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