When published writing started moving from print to digital, there were a lot of growing pains. Rules that had been developed over years of printing suddenly had to be reconsidered in terms of digital readers. At first, it was little things like the number of spaces after a period. (Because typewriters didn’t always strike a page cleanly, a practice of putting one space after a comma and two spaces after a period was adopted to make it more clear which was intended. Digitally, that was more clear, but the extra space added to the file’s size.)
But then it became the formatting of the text. In print, paragraphs are indented at the beginning. Digitally, this isn’t as easy as it looks. Again, the spaces necessary to indent the first sentence of a paragraph increase file size. But more importantly, browsers and e-readers need code to tell them to display a paragraph correctly, and coding can be a little terrifying for the average writer (and misinterpreted for fun and profit by every browser out there). When it became clear people reading digital material preferred a bit more space in their reading material, the problem resolved itself by making non-indented paragraphs with spaces in between to help separate them the norm.
And that’s really what a lot of the struggles surrounding the move from print to digital has been about: negative space (in this context, “white space”). Looking at…well…anything for a period of time can be draining on our energy, our eyesight, and our attention span. White space gives us a chance to take a break from whatever we’re looking at. But we interact differently with print than we do with digital, so our white space requirements differ depending on what we’re looking at (although I am seeing more print books that have dropped the second space after a period as printing devices have become more effective).
The change in paragraph markers (indentation versus extra spaces between paragraphs) is just one example of ways that we have adapted text-based content to provide the right balance of text to white space for digital environments. but it also explains why we learn a different set of rules when moving from one environment to the other. Ultimately, it’s about providing the best, most comfortable reading experience for the viewer in their chosen environment.