When do you give up on the AM radio? If you are a baseball fan and your team is clinging to a one-run lead in the ninth, you may hang on through static so bad you are not sure who is up at bat in order to get the result. If at the time you are driving with someone in the passenger seat who doesn't much care, you're likely to get a major argument (even the dreaded "we'll read about it in the paper tomorrow"). Whereas, if the reception is clear, then she (I'm being autobiographical here, I admit) will listen, because it's easy, and even enjoy the ballgame. Just add noise, however, and watch her hit that search button.
Similarly, when you read the words at many web sites, there is such a deep, distorting filter between you and the content that you give up. The presentation encourages skimming and moving on, not an investment of time and energy in learning what the author has to say. But if the designer succeeds in making the text look good, people will read it.
An interesting example: Joe Gillespie's Web Page Design site includes a number of essays on different aspects of the subject, including his experience in producing the London Electronic Daily Telegraph, my favorite on-line newspaper (despite its conservative politics). He set it up with a table of contents at the home page, from which he expected readers to select their particular interest; your basic hyperlinked text. To his surprise, many people wrote to tell him they read his essays straight through, and requested 'Next' buttons at the end of each piece. He responded, noting somewhat quizzically that many of us seem to be hooked into an old-fashioned linear model.
Joe is too modest.
He made a site that is both interesting and easy to read. So people read it.
Mind you, if his were the only source for some tip you needed to make your page look good, you'd skim or search, grab the data and run. Fair enough. The point is that the aesthetics help. They won't make a dull text vivid; but bad presentation can certainly make a vivid text dull.
(I've got a nerve, don't I? Setting myself up ... oh well.)
Going back to the radio metaphor: Words on the web are never going to have FM clarity in the present technology screen limitations more than just HTML constraints ensure that but they don't have to be buried in static. Some of the noise comes from poor reception that can be fixed by repositioning the antenna (see Tune Your Browser) while some comes from lousy transmissions, as though KNBR were inadvertently broadcasting on 681 instead of 680 (I am not sure if the analogy is quite appropriate, but you get the point); and some of these fuzzy broadcasters seem to think it doesn't matter. Hey, Giants fans are going to tune in anyway, right? They can figure out what's going on at the ballpark. And if they want better reception, let them turn up the volume.
Put like that, it sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?
Worse yet, imagine broadcasters saying there's no point in having FM at all, because people don't really need to hear music clearly over the radio, and words come across well enough on AM. Absurd? This actually happened. AM Radio hit the big time in about 1921, and cleaning up the signal became a major priority. FM was invented in 1933, and was immediately recognized as providing superior clarity but the radio industry refused to use it. It was 1941 before the first commercial FM station went on the air, and 1983 before the number of FM stations overtook the number of AM stations.
It would be tragic if something like that happened to the web. The lack of attention to typographic detail in early versions of HTML is, to put it politely, extremely unfortunate (see my rant for a stronger opinion). And the more people accept the result as 'good enough', the longer we are likely to be stuck with the limitations we have.
Of course, if the information is important enough to you, then you will reach through the fuzzy filter of bad presentation and get it. There is no denying that it is wonderful that I can read the newspapers of both London and San Francisco every morning; or find out within minutes of installing a dodgy upgrade that other users have suffered from the same bug (it's not me, and it's not my machine!); or find technical papers I didn't even know existed The exciting tools of hyperlinks, search engines and so on mean that the web is already a great source for finding information; isn't that enough?
Information is useless unless you can absorb it.
And if it's hard to read, then it's hard to absorb.
The point of good typography is that it is invisible. Perhaps that is why not enough attention has been paid to the aesthetics of presenting words on the web; it's a subtle issue and much of the effect takes place on an unconscious level. Typography is about making words easy to read. Cleaning out the clutter that comes between writer and reader. Making the ideas, the facts, the opinions, even the poetry it presents more accessible.