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Poll: Do you select text while reading?
411 points by cpeterso on Nov 27, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 361 comments
I am surprised at how many people, like me, who select text to highlight what they are reading. Some reasons include tracking your reading position, increasing text contrast, or as an "intra-page" bookmark. If these are common actions, perhaps browsers (or add-ons) can provide purpose-built features for these functions.
Yes, to track my reading position
1891 points
1806 points
Yes, but for some other reason
1297 points
Yes, as a placeholder to pick up reading later
602 points
Yes, to increase text contrast
584 points

When people see that I highlight text while I'm reading, they always want to know what practical reason it serves. The simplest answer is that it kind of helps me track the text, but it's less than that. It also isn't quite just a nervous habit. The only description that makes sense to me is that it feels like a physical connection to the page. More like spinning a pen, or rolling an object in your hand while you think about it. Like the mouse is my fingers and I'm just sort of fiddling with the page, like flicking through page edges of a book just for the feel of it.

Good call. Like how I used to drag highlight boxes on the desktop when I was thinking of what to do next. I never wanted to select anything, I just liked to do it.

I used to drag windows around in a similar manner... until windows 7 decided two or tree back and forths indicated "minimize everything else".

Me too. I desperately wanted to turn that feature off but never managed to find a way. I can't tell you how many times I was just jiggling a window around (usually the browser, while I thought something through or tried to work out what I was going to do next), and all of a sudden my other windows got minimized.

Before that it used to be holding the shift key for 5 seconds while I paused to think. That was especially infuriating if you didn't notice and ended up with 'sticky keys'.

I've replaced the highlight desktop habit with type in URLs and press enter habit. "n<CR>" to get to HN is definitely one of them. But not to get to HN, but just because I'm in deep thought or making a decision.

While thinking of what to do next?

Was this before the internet?

This could probably fill an entire separate thread but I love this thought. I am only just now remembering that I actually used to sit down at a computer and .. wait for it.. FINISH. I'd do something.. be done. Then I'd go do something else.

The computer has become infinite. Yikes.

I remember something similar, though the real cause of my time on the computer ending was because I was on dialup and that would tie up the phone line. This was back when I was much younger and with my parents, but after my family moved all of our phones off the landline and to cellular, we ended up getting a lot more use out of the computer. After all, the computer only had entertainment purposes if you had a movie or a game, and all our games were the single player sort. So, with the advent of the Internet, there were things to do on the computer to pass the time, like browse webrings and forums or try and fail to learn Esperanto (and RPG Maker 95, which probably contributed a lot to my interest in game development).

Before all that, I spent a lot of time climbing trees and wanting to be an architect and writer (the latter of which I've been pursuing for a while now). My brother and I'd drag planks into trees and we'd build little things we called forts and make up our own currencies (using the tabs on soda cans, for example), we'd play with our family's chickens and cats, and we'd grouse about picking up fallen apples (because it was boring) and so on. Odd to think how little of any of that I'd get away with now -- now I'd suffer some odd looks from folks for climbing a tree that looked especially climbable. Really, the computer was just for Doom and Encarta and writing book reports. That's just rambling though and not all that interesting or indicative of any change other than growing up a bit.

Unfortunately, I was a child back then, so my memory of pre-Internet computer use is probably different than that of someone who was an adult the entire way through. Would be nice to see a bunch of people writing about it - not so much about how computers and the 'net changed things, but what they were like beforehand without concerning themselves too much with the difference between now and then.

To be honest, I'm not quite sure. Perhaps it wasn't to do with "thinking of what to do next", perhaps I just made that up in my memories.

However, I have clear memories of dragging boxes back and forth. They are so clear that I even remember inching the edge of the box closer and closer to the edge of an icon and seeing when it would select it. Also, I remember making the box thinner and thinner until it would either disappear, or you would get a single thick line when the dashed lines on either side were lined up with each other.

The only thing I don't remember is why or when I did it :)

Yes this is definitely what I do too. I also tend to repeatedly tap the paragraph on the trackpad, so that fits well with your nervous habit analogy.

Yep, same. Sites that do things like auto-search highlighted words drive me nuts because of it.

Whoah, I thought I was the only one with this problem. Quora drives me insane because of this type of functionality.

ALA New York Times. Although, I checked right before writing this, and it seems they got rid of it, or at least, they replaced it with a not less annoying, but potentially more profitable full page pop-up that forces you to sign up. I wonder if once singed, they have the auto-search. Can anyone confirm?

I'm a subscriber, and clicking works normally when I just checked. It used to create a lookup of some sort.

I run noscript, solves that problem.

And those sites that have popup ads on certain words - so annoying!

Usually that's because you got some adware on your computer.

Not always; Phoronix, for example, has an ad provider which double-underlines some words in articles, with monetizing links.

Those sites bug me too, as a heavy user of highlighting. It also causes me problems reading editable text, for instance in a text editor. Sometimes I'll accidentally click and drag a selection to a different part of the text without noticing. I usually notice, but if I don't it can cause problems later, especially with text that is code, where it can cause mysterious bugs to show up.

Worse: some like Trello do enter in edit mode.

The latest version of JIRA also enters edit mode. It's made JIRA that much more annoying to use for me.

I don't highlight to read, and JIRA's new behavior irritates me. When I need to copy and paste something, having the box suddenly change to edit mode throws me off.

I highlighted your comment about ten times while I read it. Wow.

Heh, same here!

Thank you for explaining it in this fashion. "Nervous habit" and "spinning a pen" completely capture the feeling and reasoning behing why I select text. I usually rapidly select random chunks of text while making my way through a piece. At some level, I think it may also help me stay focused on the page itself (as I have a tendency to get distracted easily).

I feel that is a vary tech-person oriented habit. A gut feeling tells me the poll results will be very different among non techie folks. I remember my parents getting annoyed with my highlighting when helping them read family emails.

As I read each of the options above, I was thinking similar thoughts. It's kind of a text tracking thing and somewhat habitual.

I might highlight one section of text or paragraph and not another. Sometimes I highlight nothing. But, if it is a lengthy bit of text, I often find myself highlighting swaths of text for some reason.

This only applies to when I'm using a mouse.

I find the trackpad on an Macbook encourages it as well. Something to do with the sensitivity makes it possible.

+1 here. It's just fiddling around. And it makes me really upset when I highlight some text and it's really low contrast (like on these HN discussion threads).

I finally understand why I've been doing this. Thank you.

Although I still think the contrast & place-tracking stuff is part of it, I'm realizing the want-to-fiddle thing is a big factor for me too. One thing is that when I use a trackpad (makes it sort of cumbersome to select text), I find myself idly playing with the two-finger scroll, pushing the page up and down even though I'm reading something in the middle of the screen. I think it's the same impulse.

Each sentence or paragraph is another hurdle to clear. Marking a selection provides the satisfaction of marking that I cleared it (and allows me to avoid rereading too much when resuming after an interruption or break).

I get extra annoyed when something prevents this. For example, a PDF viewer that loses a selection on a shift-click, rather than expanding it. I feel this actually increases the effort of reading, by taking away the easy tracking benefit.

Here's another reason / hybrid of a couple. I noticed when reading this thread, I selected your comment and then scrolled whilst reading. Allows multitasking and faster scanning - I'm reading the text as the page scroll and the highlight makes it easier, whilst getting ready for the next section below.

I love this response. It captures exactly why I select text on a page.

In my mind it's much like when reading a book and idly toying with the corner, or shifting position in your hand.

I do see why it's annoying for someone trying to read the same text over my shoulder, though.

Well put. I called it a "tic" in the other thread; this is much more charitable!

Yes! I sometime highlight, but often just hovering the cursor over the sentences even words around, like I am rolling pen or something, shaking legs or body, when I am thinking.

It's subconscience speed reading that we all learned naturally. If you look up the techniques around speed reading, it's basically what we're doing out of "nervous habit".

I've been doing this for about a year and a half now. I noticed my reading speed increased drastically along with this habit. I haven't done any actual measurements, but the speed difference is especially noticeable when I read from paper, or images of text.

The connection to the page thing makes the most sense to me. I used to do this all the time, but since Apple's magic trackpad, I've lost the habit for the most part.

Me too. Ever since I switched, I no longer do it.

I'm curious to know if you use a mouse or trackpad. I get the same connection with the page by twitching the page with two finger scrolling on my trackpad.

I mostly use a trackpad. I interact with what I'm reading by two finger scrolling and tap-tap-drag highlighting.

Yes. I highlight text more with a mouse and do more scrolling on a trackpad.

Being active with my hands helps me pay attention. Doodling while talking on the phone or listening to a lecture are other examples.

That sounds almost exactly like me too. Glad to see I'm not the only one, I have done this since I first started using computers.

I didn't know there were so many others that did this too. My girlfriend always wonders what the hell I'm doing when I do this.

Agreed. Its like I am filtering what I am reading and making sure I read my selected texts twice, it gets into my head right!!

Definitely a nervous habit for me, too. No particular function attached to it.

This is exactly why I do it.

this. finally I can describe it to people.

its called "stimming". i do it too

For a long time the New York Times had a javascript thing that would pop up a dictionary reference for anything you double clicked on. As someone who compulsively doubleclicks to highlight and unhighlight, it bugged the hell out of me.

I'm a programmer and in one of my first jobs the sales guy (who was a nice bloke) double clicked on everything all the time.

This made me think about how he demo'd our windows app, I had to also test double, tripple clicks, double click + drag etc. So I added a feature that on the 'About this product' page added the clicks and double clicks. When it reached over 100 I displayed an animated bunch of flowers.

Many months later I get a phone call from the sales guy, "Hey, monk.e.boy, I'm rehursing a demo and some flowers are showing." I was like, Jeeeesus, 100 double clicks on the most obscure page of our app?! WTF are you doing!

Yes, the New York Times was the worst. In a similar vein, snopes.com also forbids selecting on the page. And when they "fixed" Chrome so that clicking and dragging from within a selection dragged the selection instead of starting a new selection, I died a little inside. Why would I want to drag text on a web page? I guess random clicking and selecting is no more of a useful use case, but I still find myself messing this up.

Why would I want to drag text on a web page

I drag selected text to between tabs to create a new tab with a Google search for that text. I do that a lot.

Do you know about the "Search Google for '%query%'" in the right-click menu?

Thanks for pointing that out (not sarcasm).

Did not (also not sarcasm), thanks.

I also do that. Once in a while you get text with a colon in it, which Chrome interprets as a protocol handler and goes to about:blank. 1 in a thousand but it still gets me often. Here is a test.

drag: thistext

And yes, I've reported this bug.

works fine for me in Chrome 23.0.1271.64 on Ubuntu 12.10

I believe it's Windows only, but I'm not currently dualbooting to verify.

Any idea if this exists for Firefox? I've been looking for it for a while. It's the major feature I miss from Chrome. I've had enough of Ctrl-C, Ctrl-T, Ctrl-V.

Highlight any text and right-click. The third option down will offer to search Google using the selected text (though it probably uses your default search engine, rather than hardcoding Google).

You can also highlight any URL (it doesn't need to be a link, just look like a URL) and tell Firefox to load it by either right-clicking or by dragging it to the tab bar. Try it out on any of the following:


Thank you for sharing this. I didn't know it was an option.

I do that sometimes. That way I can copy something to the clipboard and then drag something else either to a new tab or to another application.

I used Glimmerblocker to nuke all Javascript from the Times because of this. What is it about newspaper websites that encourages what I can only assume are normally rational developers to misbehave so unbelievably badly?

These terrible, tacky tack-ons have little to no relationship to what the developers would do... unless those same developers are also in charge of partner programs.

Exactly, I can't count the times I've butted heads with our marketing, design and business development teams over silly, annoying and outright ridiculous features they had charged us with implementing... before we became a more agile shop these confrontations usually resulted in me having to back down and implement the features because they were pretty much set in stone by the time they got into our queue but now we can often compromise since we're involved earlier in the planning stages.

I wouldn't attribute the change to "agile" ... but would attribute the problem to poor design. Subtle difference, but you get the same garbage in agile stuff - just depends on the PM, really.

No, I don't attribute it to being agile, I attribute it to dev being involved near the start of project planning and having input along the way. It just happened that when the company decided on being an agile shop this happened as well. Sorry that was not clear.

The annoying thing is that these things are often used to stop other developers stealing stuff, like the the disable right click so you can't steal my images.

Someone I know has an old website in flash that he had done that way so people steal the images. When I did a print screen and a 5 second edit in Photoshop he was a little shocked. He's get the site rebuilt in HTML now :)

If it's on the web, then it's gonna get stolen if someone actually wants it. Don't piss everyone else off in the meanwhile.

The New York Times site was why I installed NoScript for the first time.

An IDE that I use at my job does this trying to pull up variable declarations for whatever you've selected (even if its giant blocks of data). I know that feeling.

Totally agree, super annoying. I will highlight and re-highlight a paragraph over and over as I read through it. I'm not sure why I do it, maybe it's my impulse to go faster that I can satisfy by moving my cursor rather than reading more rapidly.

Quora does a similar thing, it's beyond annoying for a fellow compulsive text-selector.

I just spastically double-click words all over the page while I'm reading. No real rhyme or reason to it, it doesn't help me read or anything. It's mostly just an unconscious tick.

As well as double-clicking words to highlight sentences/paragraphs, I repeatedly right-click on any webpage / desktop I am on. A while back I took some time to figure out why I do it and realize that it's an easy go-to for checking performance of your computer (ie system latency). The coolest part about this is that these days all menu items, during peak performance, fade in over 50ms or so and when it beings to slow down its immediately noticeable.

I come from a background of a lot of CLI, especially to remote systems over ssh, and the latency from when i type a character to when it shows up is a really good predictor for the system's IO if its being overloaded.

I guess this is also handy when doing remote desktop or in a VM -- but I never do that.

I too do this, and sometimes compulsively drag large portions of highlighted text around as well. Annoyingly, Opera seems to open in new tabs any links in the highlighted area when the dragged text is released. This has led to me up/down voting everything at various sites on more than a few occasions (but ah, they shouldn't have GETs do anything anyway, I say :)).

Sometimes when you highlight and drag some text, it stays at 100% size so you can fit it exactly into where you dragged it from. If you select too much the OS resizes it to something like 80%. I often get lost trying to get as much as I can at 100%.

Drives my boss crazy.

I do this constantly. I believe it's likely due to my ADHD.

YES thank you, I am diagnosed with ADHD and I have this quirky behavior and many more. If you guys are selecting text over and over, it is very likely (but not always the case--I'm no psychiatrist!) that you have ADHD and should consider getting screened/diagnosed if you haven't done so already. It's nice to know as it is a part of your identity (at least for me it is) and you'll learn to live with the symptoms. I actually enjoy having ADHD and selecting text compulsively :) Consider reading "Delivered from Distraction" by Hallowell.

Cheers, keb0b0

I do the same. But I've figured out it's a leftover habit from the olden days when macs used to crash all the time. I kept my mouse moving to know there was still LIFE beneath that screen. Pointer used to freeze when the system did. God, I'm old.

This gets annoying with sites that have actions defined when you click on words, or bring up a popup window when you click, etc. :(

I also hate when clicking in "empty" space takes me to an advertiser's site.

Oh my god, yes! I am a compulsive margin-clicker. I ostensibly do this to make sure that the browser page has focus, but really it's really just a tick. I love TheOnion.com, but they kill me with their ads-in-the-margins.

What I typically do is fire up Chrome developer tools, and DESTROY the offending node. I find this therapeutic. :)

There was a blow-up-the-page book market posted to HNa while back... you might find some pleasure in tthat if someone can dig it up.

You mean this? http://www.webmonkey.com/2012/07/blow-up-the-web-with-font-b... Yeah, I played with that for hours.

I thought it was just me. Really bugs my wife when she's trying to read something over my shoulder.

I do it too. Some sites (nytimes) trigger actions on the select that drive me crazy. In retrospect, that's probably when I noticed that I was doing it.

I do this too sometimes. Sometimes I accidentally click a link and that is when I notice... otherwise it is mostly unconscious.

Me too. All sorts of weird "OCD" things like that.

I bought a "silent" mouse just so I could do this at work, and borrowed the noisy one for home.

Having recorded myself using a computer and watched it back to analyse my habits, I've noticed that I don't begin highlighting when reading an article but if I consciously highlight part to reread for comprehension (or to look up a word) then this triggers twitchy highlighting for the rest of the piece.

The twitchy highlighting seems to follow three patterns: bored methodical clicking to help get through big dry paragraphs, fast erratic clicking when something is exciting, and sporadic clicking when I've stopped reading to think about something in the article.

When I worked in a high school I noticed almost the exact same behaviours as described, exhibited by students and younger staff. Pretty much all the computery kids were hyperactive click-highlighters and it was only the students who seemed positively uncomfortable around computers who didn't do it at all.

Good response.

That's pretty much my behavior too.

I do it sometimes compulsively, but I think it started for a legitimate reason: clicking to make sure the text has focus. That way when I use up/down/PageUp/PageDown to scroll, the text actually scrolls. If there is a textbox that has focus, up or down jumps to that textbox instead which drives me bonkers.

Also, recent versions of Firefox have a bug where after you bookmark a page, if you've added a tag, the page loses focus and has to be clicked to re-focus (otherwise keyboard scrolling is broken). So far this has never bothered me quite enough to check if the bug was reported.

Edit: Since I cared enough to write about it here, I filed a bug report: https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=815812

If you were on a MAC you would only have to make sure the mouse cursor is over the area you wanted to scroll. :P

I am actually using a MacBook Air, but I prefer keyboard to two-finger scrolling most of the time.

Air arrow keys are half the size of regular keys, which makes scrolling through keyboard even more painful for me. The button is like a single button, and you have to hit its top half or bottom half to scroll.

I had been using two finger scrolling since Lion. But most PC user that tries to scroll a page on my laptop, finds it very difficult.

When I read the title of this post I thought "WHOA, other people do that too?!" and clicked through to take the poll. Your poll is going to have a heavy selection bias towards people who select text while reading. People who don't select text while reading will probably ignore this poll and go read an article on erlang best practices or Paul Graham's favorite color.

I had originally posted a poll with Often/Sometimes/Never answers, but I realized, like you point out, that this poll would have heavy selection bias. So I changed the poll to gather reasons why people select. That's probably more interesting data than Yes/No anyways. :)

The ratio of people that does this is something that you could accurately measure if you have a somewhat popular website. (The reason why not so much, of course. I doubt many people have a conscious reason for this behaviour anyway. I don't.)

Over 30% of people select text while reading. Markerly.com gives publishers a dashboard of text selection and copy and paste trends. We are about to roll out heat maps that show text selection - it definitely tells a story and differs article to article.

Source: I'm CEO of Markerly and I look at this data everyday.

That is a very interesting concept! Can you share how publishers use the text selection feedback to optimize their websites or editorial content? Does Markerly gather all text selection or just text "shared" through Markerly's social tooltip? The former could have privacy or security implications.

Markerly's javascript allows us to collect all text selection as well as text selected and shared. It's all aggregate data, not personally identifiable. You can read about how publishers are able to optimize their content using the copy and paste analytics on this post http://blog.markerly.com/

As a note, this appears to be in response to the top comment on the story "The greatest google mail feature you may not be using" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4838810

The comment complains about the behavior interacting poorly with text highlight reading: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4838940

I love reading (and highlighting to read) these sorts of discussions.

Yes absolutely. I was already familiar with that google mail 'feature' because I/it had unconsciously 'messed up' a couple of my replies before I realised what it was doing (and why).

I select text compulsively while reading. I just double-click whatever paragraph I'm on to make it stand out from the rest of the text, and then just kind of keep clicking. Why? I have no idea, really. Just an odd habit!

This habit is an example of what Chris Noessel calls "One Free Interaction"[1]. Another prominent example is the bounce on iOS scroll views. There seems to be something about being able to fidget with a UI that makes it more comfortable to use.

[1] http://www.cooper.com/journal/2009/01/one_free_interaction.h...

I used to years ago, but eventually wrote a browser extension Paragrasp to do it: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/paragrasp/lhhabjbh... for Chrome and https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/paragrasp/ for Firefox.

I only scroll to read very dense text, like technical docs - and those tend to have the kind of paragraphs that take pages to scroll past.

On the other hand I most often select text at the bottom of the page before hitting Space to advance the page. If you could place a line of highlight across the page before it starts spinning (or jumps) and fade it out gently after - that would definitely be of use.

Or you could think about splitting chubby paragraphs into predictably behaving chunks.

Very nice plugin, thank you.

Thanks! Paragrasp is just what I was looking for (but didn't know it). :)

If I could flip to a reading mode where the center line is the point of scrolling[1] and puts a little extra separation between the center line and lines above and below, I would not highlight. Maybe a subtle greying of the lines above and below.

[1] instead of stopping the scrolling when the first line is on the top or the last line is on the bottom, it scrolls to the middle before stopping.

I only do it when someone else is looking at the same screen as me, and there is a lot of text (not watching video together, but reading article). It's like a highlighter to coordinate reading.

No, but I tend to scroll, so the top of the browser window marks where I should read next.

Ah, I have been looking for this comment. Finally someone else who does this! It doesn't just show me where my current spot to start from is; it prevents me from wasting time re-reading any text that I have already read. Even though this is my most common method, I occasionally use the mouse cursor (without selecting) to keep my place instead, particularly at the bottom of a page where I can no longer scroll down.

This is my method too. It also means that if I am interrupted I don't have to do anything to keep my place, although I still sometimes select text if I want to keep something above it on screen for context.

I think this might go back to our reading habits on paper. I've noticed that many of my friends who use their fingers to guide their reading on paper like to highlight text or move their cursor to mark their position when web browsing.

I've never done that though, so I never felt the need to do so on a computer either.

I answered yes to the first three, because I find myself doing it for a variety of reasons at different times. The most common reason is to keep track of my place when someone calls me or walks in to my office.

The next most common reason is related to the first reason, and it's a shame that I have to do so. When you use text highlighting to track your reading (line by line), it's a sign that the site you're reading has poor typography. Usually:

Measure is too long - when lines of text are long, our eyes have a difficult time "tracking" back to the next line.

Leading is too small - Leading is the space between lines. The space between lines creates a negative void that our eyes follow back to the beginning of the next line. Not enough leading and the line is thin and hard to follow. Too much leading and your eyes get lost in a sea of space.

Even when typography isn't bad I've always had a hard time tracking back to the next line both with text on paper and on screens. My most common use is to highlight one line at a time, although I sometimes highlight to save my place (arbitrary length selection) and sometimes to emphasize a concept out of a larger mess of text (context based selection length).

Usually I highlight from near the middle of one line to near the middle of the next line. If near the end of reading line N I highlight from the middle of line N+1 to the middle of line N+2, I can use the one highlight three times to help me track back: first I track back to the first line above the highlight (N+1), second I track back to the highlighted line (N+2), third I track back to the first line under the highlight (N+3).

Similarly highlighting multiple lines at a time it's easy to subconsciously remember which line of the selection to read next (first, second, third, ...) without having to visually track back, as long as the selection isn't very long (much like how it's harder to keep track of where you are in a longer paragraph).

When the typography is really bad I use readability, although I'm sure I select text on readability too.

After a few days of use, I customized my readability (actually I use clearly now. http://evernote.com/clearly/) style to make highlighted text easier to read. After I moved to a theme with dark background and light text, the contrast between selection text and selection background was annoyingly low.

Yes I do, and I really notice it when using O'Reilly's Safari bookshelf. Whenever you select text it pops up a window asking if you want to highlight or make a note, so irritating! If that mouse is in my hand I always select text that I am reading. I am not sure why. Perhaps it's just a reflex so I can keep track of where I am in the text. With so much noise on web pages, it must help. I'll have to test if I do this as often on other things. I know I have accidentally cut and pasted previous commands in a terminal and have been very upset with the consequences. I'm just sloppy with that mouse and middle button I guess. But those darn new line characters on a paste can be catastrophic.

When using a Chrome browser with adblock and flashblock and HTTPS, and JS disabled, sometimes text isn't where it was designed to be. Sometimes text covers images or runs into other text, and selecting is necessary to be able to read it.

if you cripple the browser, what do you expect? If you disable JS you might as well just not bother with the web.

I understand the way in which I'm hindering the tool I use. I am doing so intentionally.

And I understand that having text cover images in this situation can be described as "by design".

But it's still a case in which I select text.

I select all the time, using either mouse or a keyboard. In addition to the mentioned problems with JS popups on click on NYTimes et al, there is another set of annoyances due to invasive keyboard shortcuts.

I select text from kbd with SHIFT+arrows (up, down, left, right) or CTRL+SHIFT+arrows (left, right) and scroll the page with arrows. I want to do something nasty to the webdev each time I'm on the page which overrides those shortcuts. Especially when it's sth like redirect to other article on ARROW_RIGHT (sigh).

Fortunately I have "Disable JS" button right in the status bar...

TL;DR: do not mess with my keyboard or I will find you!

I need to vote 3 times! I'm a yes to position reading, and place holder for sure... contrast issue is dependent on the regular contrast it doesn't happen often but I do use it that way.

Now I'm a self-confessed habitual selector I feel compelled to say that in no way, shape or form do I select text like some kind of nervous tic. I rarely select text when reading HN comments for example, they're mostly short enough so I'm not going to have to scroll or have time to get pulled on to something else before finishing.

I voted for reading position because that's the one I use it for most.

I highlight text to increase contrast, but only in situations where the "designer" has totally failed and done something terrible like put dark color text on a black background.

Excellent question! I've been wondering this for the past two years...made an annotator based off of this idea.

I found that most people select because they are holding the mouse - they have to use it if they are holding it. Then sometimes you select to preserve your position while scrolling.

This also led me to believe that people digest information in chunks. Highlighted text serves as a "todo" - must finish reading the highlighted block of text before diverting focus to something else.

I am absolutely amazed at the response this poll is getting. You people are a bunch of freaks! ;)

I frequently select text when I need to get up from my desk at home to deal with the kids (and not lose my place), but not to the extent that other here are describing, unless it's the random tick click thing.

I'm sure there's a psychologist in our midst that can explain this phenomenon. But, I'm still shocked that this post has generated this much attention.

I have a co-worker that constantly selects and re-selects text in everything from web pages to Sublime Text. I think he's developed some weird form of subconscious text-selection syndrome. He literally cannot stop doing it even when we bring it up to him.

It's really bad doing remote screensharing because the screen has to constantly redraw.

I've never seen the behavior before. It's quite odd. I never select text except for copy/cut operations.

I never consciously asked myself why I select text, until now. As a result, it wasn't something I did. Fascinating question. It is purely a mouse-driven habit, too, by the way.

I now wonder if all my years selecting text in old versions of Internet Explorer (to see how pages were built in HTML) was partly to blame? This technique was useful to see where clear gifs and other artifacts were often hiding.

I do. But I'm also one of those people that will highlight text in 'real' books using a marker. I read destructively, you really don't want to be the next person in line after I'm 'done' with a textbook.

And being able to permanently highlight stuff on the screen so that when I re-visit a page later and it still contains my highlights is something I miss.

Try diigo for doing that, works well enough: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/diigo-bookmark-arc...

To be honest, never really thought about why I select the text before.

People make fun of me for doing it, but I can't stop. It's the one thing that makes google reader hard to use, because I forget and clicking on a news story makes it jump to the top of the page (note to google reader devs - your thing is awesome, probably needs an update, but GOD DAMN I HATE THE CLICK JUMP FUNCTION)

Science says yes:


More precisely, the paper above ("No Clicks, No Problem") demonstrates that tracking cursor movements provides useful predictive value of reader interest. Selecting text is a special case of this.

On a related note, at least in Windows, when triple-clicking to select a paragraph, immediate subsequent clicks (any number) do absolutely nothing.

This really bothers me when selecting words because sometimes I triple-click instead of double-click by accident, and I want to undo this but it requires waiting.

Yeah, windows multi-click text selection seems completely weird to me, and very frustrating when coming from other platforms...

[Besides the simple "not what I'm used to" factor, any UI behavior that requires waiting seems pretty dubious to me...]

"any UI behavior that requires waiting seems pretty dubious to me..."

Deep down I really agree with that, but I become conflicted when I consider settings with severe limitations that have little else to turn to. For example: the timed hover to select on some Kinect games: touch screens that use longpress as a substitute for right-click; touchscreen keyboards with longpress as a shift-like behavior. It somehow seems regretfully acceptable when dealing with the limitations of a touch screen, single button, or no button environment.

One case where I think it is ok to require waiting are "Ejector seat button next to the radio" type situations where user action could have potentially disastrous consequences: I am glad I have to hold down my power button for some time to force a hardware restart.

1) When scrolling is erratic (due to the mouse, the browser, or what have you) and reading a long article, I highlight a word in the last-read paragraph to allow me to scroll that paragraph up and not lose it.

2) When pages have low contrast, but I don't want to say View / Style / No Style (alt+v, y, n - in firefox), I'll select the whole page.

3) When pages have extra-wide text lines without sufficient spacing between lines (i.e., they do not conform to typographical rules for reading ... for example, Hacker News comments), I'll select individual lines in order to better follow the length of the line.

4) When interrupted in reading a lengthy article, so as not to lose my place, I'll double-click (middle wheel button is keyed to double-click) my reading position to highlight just that word.

Didn't answer, I'd like to choose "Yes, all of the above"

You can vote for multiple options.

Is there a way to see the number of unique voters for the combined "yes" options? Otherwise this poll isn't particularly useful.

Since this poll will have a heavy selection (ha-ha ;) bias towards people who do select text, I figured the reasons why people select is more interesting data.

If there were a way would that make this poll be useful?

I do it as a nervous habit.

I've gone through different phases of this as a tool to fight my ADD impulses. My main reason was to avoid that scenario where I would find myself reading and then snap and ask myself "where the hell am I in this paragraph/page/article?" I highlighted sentence by sentence as I read through, but it results in too many iterations. Then I highlighted whole paragraphs, worked better but reading through blue colored background when there's white background all around it made my eyes drift away to the lighter areas. Now I'm highlighting the paragraph prior to the one I'm in, it serves as a bookmark of sorts. It's still a work in progress but its damn better than not doing it!

> If these are common actions, perhaps browsers (or add-ons) can provide purpose-built features for these functions.

Maybe this is one of those cases where nothing actually needs to be done. Highlighting is highlighting, it works great and fulfills different needs. There are lots of add-ons for focus, black-out, markers and other features, but none is widely used.

In adittion, we are moving towards touch interfaces. I haven't seen anyone frantically touching the screen to highlight text in those; as some have confessed here, I believe this behavior has a lot to do with the mechanical act of clicking, the sound and feedback that for some reason feels good and ends up becoming a compulsion.

> I believe this behavior has a lot to do with the mechanical act of clicking, the sound and feedback that for some reason feels good and ends up becoming a compulsion.

I'm a compulsive highlighter for most of the reasons people have described. I don't hear any sound when I click though, because I use a touchpad with no mouse buttons or clicking (tap to click, tap-tap-drag to highlight, two finger tap to right click, two finger scrolling).

Since I started reading a lot on a touch screen phone I've been frustrated by the lack of easy highlighting, and I compulsively scroll to track my place instead.

I used to scroll. Then I started scrolling so that the line I am reading is always the first line in the window (thus obscuring everything above), which means I can read about tracking downwards, and I don't have muck about with text selection.

Used to select, sorry.

I do it to reduce contrast, not increase it. White on black is awfully harsh. Never use black: http://ianstormtaylor.com/design-tip-never-use-black/

The only time I do it is when the the columns are very wide in paragraph text and flowing from one line to the next is difficult. Sometimes increasing font size so less words fit in a column accomplish the same thing, though.

I am a selector, partly by habit/something to do, and partly to track position, especially in wider formats. Newspapers are in columns for a reason! On one site I frequent, it took me a minute to figure out why I kept going to random other websites. I was keeping the mouse out of the way on the (rather large) margins, and apparently the full screen border ad was clickable anywhere that wasn't the center content column or navigation. Just blank space down the page, but I'd click it to select rows of text, and get carted off to the ad website. I suppose that's one way to monetize a strange habit...

Tracking the reading position with a visual guide is one of the fundamental techniques in many speed reading methods.


Interesting, I would have thought that spending time to constantly mark your position would be detrimental to speed reading.

I was once developing a message board. It had a threaded message model and a high resolution of notifications, so when entering a thread with multiple new messages, the new messages where all highlighted with a different background color.

I implemented a JS feature where double click on a message body would send mark-as-read to the server via AJAX and remove the background color. When the feature entered testing, almost all the testers opposed it, as their behaviour with double clicking to select words or paragraphs they were reading was affected.

The feature was never deployed.

I find myself semi randomly selecting things on pages when I'm reading through something quickly or skimming through a page. If something catches my eye, I'll select it as or before I read it.

I don't do it habitually, but it's invaluable for all those web pages where the author thought blinking yellow text on a magenta background was neat...

[Not just myspace and old geocities sites...I run into this sort of thing all too often, even on "real" (modern, corporate, well-funded, etc) websites. Sometimes it's just that the site designer seemed to be going for some sort of artistic/funky look, but in other cases the site looks fine in ie6 but becomes unreadable in FF or chrome... >< ]

For long articles, or content I really want to digest, I copy the text into a text file in a directory in my home space (with original URL and under git control). When I get to it, I delete the lines I've read, or add notes to follow up with more research or comments. This is all under automated git commits, so I can track my reading backlog at any point in time, and can go back to an article 6 months ago that I may have "deleted" simply by searching my automated commits.

Interesting! I've never heard of this or even seen anyone do it.

I've watched people who do this (highlighting text and moving the cursor around while reading) and it bugs the heck out of me.

I wonder if there's some kind of app to be made for these people, so that text moves around or changes color when their eyes track toward the text. (This would be horrible, to my taste, but you never know)

I worked for a guy who would sit there selecting bits of text on and off while showing me some web page. I wanted to grab the mouse, wrench it from his computer and stomp on it. If it's the kind of thing that floats your boat, fine, to each his own, but don't make other people watch.

Well, it's a nervous habit, so we'd just have to replace it with a different habit. I would probably bite my nails or scratch at invisible zits, or something equally horrible. So it's nice to have the trackpad to contain your nervous twitching.

>I wonder if there's some kind of app to be made for these people, so that text moves around or changes color when their eyes track toward the text.

I really don't think that would help. For me the highlighting is a lot like tracing along text with your finger as you read on a printed page; it gives my eye a visual cue where I'm trying to track.

The issue is that I can read text faster than my eyes can track without wandering slightly and losing my position in the text, so simply tracking where my eyes are looking wouldn't do anything to mitigate that. It'd just end up highlighting where my tracking gets off anyway.

What also makes reading a lot more comfortable is the clipr bookmarklet: http://code.google.com/p/clipr/

I do this, and another "silly" thing I do is when I copy something to the clipboard, I often hit cmd-c three or four times quickly. I don't remember why or when I picked up this habit. I imagine maybe at some point I had a system or program that didn't always register the copy the first time? Or maybe it's just completely random. But I don't even notice I'm doing it until someone points it out and asks me about it.

In the days before mouse wheels, I always used selecting to scroll: If you move the mouse downwards while selecting, you'll start to scroll. This was nice until mouse wheels were invented.

Nowadays I often still click the middle mouse button to enter a scroll mode where there's a cursor with arrows on the screen. Moving it scrolls. Unfortunately this feature was removed in Visual Studio 2010, but an extension brings it back.

Holy fuck, I thought it was just me.

I think I do it more with black on white. I find it difficult to focus reading from a large bright screen.

I do find I end up not bothering to read a lot of articles I'd like to online, end up either bookmarking and ignoring, or just skimming over. Think it's because reading long articles in a particular layout is a chore. A layout browser extension might help, I should give it a try.

see my other post


Sometimes I select text for my own internal emphasis. If I see something important I select it as a way to reinforce its importance to myself.

My God. I always thought I'm just one of those few who do it, be for a reason or without a reason - I just keep on selecting text while reading. And that's why - I ABSOLUTELY HATE those overly smart websites which on any random selection show a 'search/definition/wikipedia' buttons just below my mouse, and on the next select I accidentally press that stupid button!

I do this cause I just like to interact with the graphics. Especially if it's a Mac and you have all those nice quartz effects like when you highlight, then click and drag so that the text is floating above some other part of the screen, disembodied from the article.

I pause to think a lot when I read, so this is just sort of fidgeting while my mind thinks about something, I suppose.

For those using selecting to track reading position, I built a chrome extension that specifically solves this problem.

I haven't started promoting it yet because of a bug in incognito mode but it's available at:


I believe it should be a standard feature on browsers to have some identifier or horizontal line so that when scrolling or page-down, you know where to pick up.

I use highlight to mark the current position that i 'm reading, then mouse-scroll up/down to read some text i missed.

Ideally, i would like to keep the last 2-3 text selections that I made highlighted.

I also hate Nytimes and PLoS for hijacking my selections

Only select a sentence or two when I need to scroll back up and long page and get back to where I was reading quickly afterwards.

I do this too. I also sometimes do it when I scroll down a page to skim the content to see if I want to carry on reading.

The obvious reason that people do this is because of wider and wider screens. Some web pages or applications still show text that fills the width of windows. If you have to turn your head back and forth, then you are much more likely to lose your line on a large block of text. It's much easier to pick out the next line with a line marker.

I'm always surprised people actually use the web browser in full screen. I usually divide my (23" 16:9 2048x1152) screen in at least two, sometimes three "panes".

This is a lot easier to do when using a tiling window manager -- but I hardly ever use the entire screen for the browser.

Still, even with just half the screen -- the browser pane is roughly equivalent to an A4 page -- way too wide for a single column of text -- so on poorly designed pages I frequently end up resizing the window to get a usable line width.

I should add that due to RSI I use the mouse as little as possible, preferably using a tiling window manager like awsome or xmonad, and vimperator for Firefox.

I don't do it all the time, but when I do it's usually to increase contrast, or to mark my place in long text that I'll need to come back to.

I also do it to find the mouse cursor. The text cursor is thin and not always easy to find amongst a large wall of text, so I'll click and start dragging and look to where the page is highlighted in order to find it.

Coincidentally, I know of a new web service (http://amazd.com) that lets you record your highlights as you're reading an article (in the most natural way I could imagine) so you can save the parts that were insightful. That's the only reason I usually highlight text when reading these days.

To be totally honest, it's part tracking my reading position and part to settle my idle hands & pacify my ocd tendencies

I generally use the keyboard to do everything it can on the computer, including to navigate long articles. I use the arrow keys to keep whatever I'm reading near the top of the page. In fact, if there were an easy way to keyboard-navigate the entire internet, short of scrolling around with the arrow keys, I'd never touch my mouse.

I'm glad to see others do this.

I don't think I would use a browser plugin; selecting with the mouse is completely satisfying for whatever reason I do it.

I think it's a way for me to feel connected with the text, too. reading a book, I either trace with my finger or a piece of paper I slide down the page (not word-for-word, but by sentences and paragraphs).

I used to select text much more than I do now. When I was taking the Series 7 exam, I was selecting so much text and clicking as I did so, that the exam software froze (I was about 75% done with the test). Luckily the system reboot didn't result in any data loss- I'm not sure who was happier, the test proctor or me ;).

Based on what people are saying here, I think there are a lot of different styles.

For instance I have a friend who frantically selects and reselects small portions of the text the whole time. I on the other hand just highlight a line and hold shift then down arrow at the end of each line I know exactly which line is next to be read.


In terms of add-ons, I'd really like something that combines the function of a speed reader like spreeder [1] with the "articlization" of Pocket [2].

1: http://www.spreeder.com/app.php?intro=1 2: http://getpocket.com

In an HCI class I took over 10 years ago at university I did an eye gaze study where I was the observee. The professor noticed that I selected text as I went along to help focus on where I was reading.

Good to know that there are others like me out there. I wonder if there are any practical implications for this?

Yeah, it is the same as me. I select paragraph so I can focus on reading it exclusively (among other things).I also didn't thought others did it.

Other than allowing people to select text on your webpage, I don't see any immediate HCI implications.

Constantly. Spastically.

Unless I'm on the nytimes website.

Some HTML/CSS design decisions leave me selecting to read, if not just copying and pasting into a text editor.

I used to do this quite often when reading on a laptop with an external mouse, as an alternative to scrolling, so I could see where I was, especially on single page/printer friendly views.

Having an iPad and doing a lot of reading on Flipboard has "untrained" me, and I don't think I do it anymore on any platform.

This is how I can tell my roommate is reading: he constantly double clicks, probably once every other second.

The top story on HN is about how Gmail only includes the highlighted section of an email in the reply. This is the bane of my life for this reason! Highlight a paragraph to read it, hit reply, and only that paragraph is included in the response. Most unintentionally annoying feature ever.

I would hate it if browsers started getting in the way with my text selection. The best thing about it is that it works almost everywhere.

I don't select text when I read something in the terminal, though, only in GUI applications. I guess I don't like lines being selected completely for some reason.

Compulsively. It bothers other people.

The Evelyn Wood speed reading system recommends using your finger on a page to trace lines of text. When reading long passages on the computer, I achieve the same goal by highlighting. I generally only do this when reading longer content: never when reading comments on HN.

No. It messes with my clipboard, hard. So I try not to do it, I like to have a clean clipboard history for re-use.

BUT: I tend to select-all + copy any text of a form (this comment) before submitting. You never know when browser/back/website/connection is going to abandon you.

I just do it as habit. It's hard to pick the category from those above. It's probably a combination of "to track my reading position" and "to increase text contrast" but I don't consciously set out to do either of those. It's really just a harmless habit.

Anyone highlighting text for the contrast will love this Chrome extension: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/hacker-vision/fomm...

I don't, and it bugs the hell out of me when I'm sat reading with someone else who does. Nothing more distracting than them going nuts with the mouse while I'm trying to read.

I get why people do it, but sheesh, take your hands off the mouse for a minute, it won't kill you!

I never even realized I did this until my wife asked me what the heck I was doing one day. I'm still not sure why I'm highlighting all the time, but sometimes it is to keep my place when I scroll the page. Other times it is completely subconscious.

No, but I do scroll the page up, so that the line I'm reading aligns with the top of the browser viewing area.

Some sites nowadays add a floating header to the top of the page that changes size as you scroll down which is super distracting when reading the way I do.


but i'm surprised nobody brought this up yet: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-us/firefox/addon/reasy/

you select text and it turns it into some speed reading format. tiny plugin and plain awesome

Interesting, I've been developing a very similar idea independently.

I was shocked to find out after my Google interview that you can see your collaborator selecting text in Google Apps. I was nervously selecting wafts of text constantly throughout the whole thing. I never heard from them afterwards :/

I never thought about highlighting text to increase contrast. Is there some way to change the default selection text color and background color? I would love to make the selection background color black to really max out the contrast.

Restless fingers. The other people in my office must think that I'm playing games all day, considering that the uninterrupted rapid-fire stream of clicks I produce when my hand is on the mouse is indistinguishable from playing an FPS.

I used to.

But I stopped selecting text right after... perhaps I began using a WebKit based browser. Sometimes, text selection in WebKit based browsers looks ugly and weird compared with that in Firefox, however, these browsers are just damned fast.

I picked placeholder but I also just randomly select as I go along sometimes with no reason at all. So I kind of track my position but not really because I can track it fine without it but do it sometimes randomly anyway.

I sometimes do it when fast-reading through something and click on some sections (single or multiple words) which got my attention. And then I read on.

It helps me to keep things in my short-term memory or to actually extend my short-term memory.

I thought I was the only one who did this. Interestingly, I do it much less when using the Clearly Chrome plugin from Evernote. https://evernote.com/clearly/

Good observation. Same, though I've always used Readability instead of Clearly.

I do it. It does not help me in any way. It annoys people reading with me or sharing my screen. It baffles even myself. But by god, I cannot help it.

Have you tried selecting text and doing circles or rectangles? Amazing satisfaction!

I'm a heavy trackpad user, I'll scroll the window to the text I'm reading. Even if I'm half way through the page, I'll scroll the next paragraph to the top of the window. That's how I "record" my reading position.

I do it all the time. Also, when using Safari, I often pinch in and out while reading. The rendering gets blurry until I lift the fingers, and the moment the text is crisp again, I feel certain satisfaction.

Yes, to track my reading position, but only when I'm exhausted.

I doubt I'd have enough brain juice left at this stage to remember to use an add-on.

But it would be nice for very large texts, sparsely read and on normal attention conditions.

Not only that but I also click randomly as well. This can get me into trouble, particularly on sites which have giant "background ads".

Notably, I don't do this at all with trackpads, only when using a mouse at the desktop.

I have on occasion, just when the text is one giant wall, I start having a hard time finding the next line without re-reading the line I just read. If I highlight the previous line I know not to read it.

I tend to use it for sites that have low line-heights. Like this site. The wide page and low line-height make it really hard for me to read. For reading content I'd say a min of 160% line-height.

I've been using Readability a lot for the last one year. FYI, using it ever more after I discovered that you can send the article to kindle with the stoke of a few keys (mine is Shift+Control+K)

Sometimes, when the paragraph is wide, it's hard to continue reading on the same line and that interrupts and slow my reading down. I do it so that I stay on the same line. Sort of like a ruler

Does anyone else want to answer "Yes" for all of those reasons?

It's such a relieving feeling when you realize that you are not alone.

Yes, completely. Usually to track what I am reading or to change the colour, but sometimes for the same reason I draw random boxes with the selection tool on my desktop.. because I fidget.

I do it primarily as a way to track my place in the text when I scroll down the page. Or because, forever multitasking and getting distracted, I need a way to remember where I was up to.

I just randomly select blocks of text on the screen. Usually text that I am not currently reading. I don't scroll, I don't use it to highlight where I'm reading. I just do it for fun.

I don't do it when I'm using a trackpad, but I do when I'm using a mouse.


> Yes, as a placeholder to pick up reading later

This is my answer, and it's a habit I picked up while using Skype, since they don't track my position very well when new messages comes in. (OS X)

Easiest way to read my comments on HN. After I've been down-voted.

Back when I used a mouse, I always worried that my compulsive selecting drained my mouse battery faster than it needed to. It probably added a lot to my WhatPulse stats as well.

I typically don't UNLESS I'm on wikipedia...It's way too common for me to look up one article and end up with 10 or so tabs of different topics/words from the first article...

I do it as a nervous tick. It consumes me as OCD usually does.

Sometimes I highlight from the middle of one line of text to the middle of the next line of text, trying to get the start and end of the highlight to line up exactly.

We've all heard about the multitasking-induced attention problems. I tend to select and deselect text frequently as something to keep the ADD part of my brain busy.

Only when I am changing font sizes on the page, to bookmark where I am. Browsers tend to jump around an article when you do this and it's easy to lose your place.

I occasionally do, but some spam-happy sites will pop up all sorts of crap when you click on their page. So I'm fairly cautious about where I'm willing to click.

I "select all" on pages that use bright on dark text, e.g. yegg's and jwz's blogs. Otherwise they are virtually impossible to read for longer than a minute.

Usually - when I'm reading - I don't have my hand on the mouse... Just they keyboard, so no... Funny how many people do... It would seem distracting to me.

No, but I obsessively scroll down so that the paragraph that I'm reading touches the top of the viewport. The last few paragraphs become a pain of course.

I don't at all, but I still think it's a very interesting concept I'd love to see taken further. I almost felt bad hitting "No" because of it.

Maybe I'll become a convert.

Peer pressure in action?

For me, it's just been a habit since immemorial times. Growing up in the 90s, I had access to Win95 from the start, and I can't remember not doing this.

When I'm reading something really intense, it helps me focus -both visually and mentally, on say two or three paragraphs at a time, before moving on.


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