Nicholas Carr has famously and devotedly worried that our ability to engage with and concentrate on long-form content is being impinged by the Internet’s short blasts of information — the Mama Bear’s “too cold” is being defeated by the Papa Bear’s “too hot,” to adopt a more infantile comparison. And the contrast between short-form and long-form content has led to a popular extrapolation — that our brains are changing in response to shortened attention spans, multi-tasking, and rapidly shifting information landscapes.
The Internet has certainly created a plethora of telegraphic communication approaches, from URL shorteners to Twitter to Facebook statuses to RSS feeds. However, Carr’s belief that the trade-off has been around long-form content may require some modification, at least if you choose to believe a thoughtful and persuasive essay by Clive Thompson in Wired:
. . . this endless fire hose of teensy utterances means we’ve lost our appetite for consuming—and creating—slower, reasoned contemplation. Right? I’m not so sure. In fact, I think something much more complex and interesting is happening: The torrent of short-form thinking is actually a catalyst for more long-form meditation.
Long-form content seems to be more available as academics and others have access to publishing tools, growing even longer as it persists and even gains ground, while short-form content is exploding in popularity.
What seems to be disappearing is moderate-length content — the “just right” Baby Bear of the content world. In other words, we’re losing the smartly written news digests like Newsweek and TIME, the thousand-word articles, the 10-minute summaries.
This trend seems to be seeping into scholarly communication as well, with the increasing use of bullet-point “take home” boxes in print and online journals, shorter versions of articles like BMJ’s Pico, the brief reviews at Faculty of 1000, and the overt utilization of acronyms in studies to increase their soundbite quality. Meanwhile, scientific and review articles are increasing in length online, with datasets, longer versions, and extra images, videos, and tables.
Baby Bear is being pulled apart.
New content forms tend to miss the middle, as well. New interactive features at some journals take longer to complete than a single, dense article, and many new video pieces tend to run for 15-30 minutes or longer, most likely longer than it takes to read a comparable article. Meanwhile, blurbs and excerpts dominate home pages, search results, and the like.
There are many factors driving this trend toward either long or short content:
- Devices are being built to miss the middle — iPhone for short bursts, iPad for long reading sessions
- Lifestyles are too extreme for high-end information consumers — they have a frantic pace followed by purposeful downtime
- Search engines reward short information strings and metadata and links, while there is nothing but upside for running long
- Usability studies of reading online have created more awareness of the user and uniform responses among providers than print probably ever did, and much of what we know indicates that tighter content presentation is better
- Media shifts have allowed writing to find a more natural length — we’re not writing to fill space between ads or to fill pages; we’re writing as much or as little as we need to, not writing to length
- New technologies (Twitter and Facebook, especially) have made brevity the soul of wit once more
I’ve noticed this same trend in my own life. I use the short-takes of Twitter and Facebook and online headlines to create awareness, catch the gestalt, or get a brief chuckle. But I’m simultaneously cultivating a set of long-form readings from other sources — books, long essays, thoughtful reviews, large reports, white papers. What’s missing is the middle.
Thompson notes the same thing happening even in blog posts:
This trend has already changed blogging. Ten years ago, my favorite bloggers wrote middle takes—a link with a couple of sentences of commentary—and they’d update a few times a day. Once Twitter arrived, they began blogging less often but with much longer, more-in-depth essays. . . . One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.
Looking back at the early days of the Scholarly Kitchen, just a few years ago, most of the posts were medium length entries, a few paragraphs mostly, some extending to more than a handful. Now, our posts are longer by a fair measure. Meanwhile, our Twitter sidebars and the blog’s own Twitter feed provide the short-form outlets for our bloggers they crave.
Perhaps the Goldilocks definition of “just right” wasn’t important or accurate after all, but a consequence of print constraints. Now that those constraints are falling aside, we’re finding that either we can say things very briefly or want to explore things deeply.
Maybe it was only a matter of time before Baby Bear’s porridge wasn’t “just right” anymore. Or maybe that’s a dish we’ll start to crave again soon enough.