Short is the new long

“The general point is this,” writes economist Tyler Cowen, the infovore’s infovore, in his 2009 book Create Your Own Economy:

When access [to information] is easy, we tend to favor the short, the sweet, and the bitty. When access is difficult, we tend to look for large-scale productions, extravaganzas, and masterpieces. Through this mechanism, costs of access influence our interior lives. There are usually both “small bits” and “large bits” of culture within our grasp. High costs of access shut out the small bits – they’re not worthwhile – and therefore shunt us toward the large bits. Low costs of access give us a diverse mix of small and large bits, but in relative terms, it is pretty easy to enjoy the small bits.

The current trend – as it has been running for decades – is that a lot of our culture is coming in shorter and smaller bits … To be sure, not everything is shorter and to the point. The same wealth that encourages brevity also enables very long performances and spectacles … There is an increasing diversity of length, but when it comes to what is culturally central, shortness is the basic trend.

I think Cowen’s analysis is essentially correct, and he’s certainly right to point out how the cost of information influences the consumption of information. (There’s also neurological evidence suggesting that, when confronted with a diversity of easily available information, our brains will prefer to sample lots of small bits of new information rather than focus for a long time on something more substantial.) If you look at the statistics of information consumption, you see considerable evidence of this decades-long trend toward ever bittier degrees of bittiness. Measures of the average length of pretty much any cultural product – magazine and newspaper articles, TV news segments and soundbites, books, personal correspondence, commercials, motion pictures – reveal a steady and often cumulatively dramatic compression in size. Studies of reading and research behavior also suggest that we are spending less time with each passing object of our attention. A survey by library sciences professor Ziming Liu, published in the Journal of Documentation, found, for example, that between 1993 and 2003 – a period characterized by a rapid shift from print reading to screen reading – people’s reading habits changed substantially, with a rapid increase in “browsing and scanning” and a falloff in “in-depth reading.”

More recently, we’ve seen a particularly dramatic compression in the average length of correspondence and other personal messages, as the production and consumption of Facebook updates, text messages, and tweets have exploded. This phenomenon, it would seem natural to assume, is further accelerating the bittiness trend.

But that’s not how the technology writer Clive Thompson sees it. As he describes in a new Wired column, he has a hunch, or at least an inkling, that the rise of Facebook and Twitter is actually increasing our appetite for longer stuff and, more surprising still, making us more contemplative. Even as we ratchet up our intake of “short takes,” he argues, we’re also increasing our intake of “long takes,” and the only thing we’re consuming less of is “middle takes.” “I think,” he writes, that “the torrent of short-form thinking is actually a catalyst for more long-form meditation.” Thompson never describes precisely how or why this catalytic action, through which the swirl of info-bits deepens our engagement with longer-form material, plays out, but it seems to involve a change in how society makes sense of events:

When something newsworthy happens today—Brett Favre losing to the Jets, news of a new iPhone, a Brazilian election runoff—you get a sudden blizzard of status updates. These are just short takes, and they’re often half-baked or gossipy and may not even be entirely true. But that’s OK; they’re not intended to be carefully constructed. Society is just chewing over what happened, forming a quick impression of What It All Means.

The long take is the opposite: It’s a deeply considered report and analysis, and it often takes weeks, months, or years to produce. It used to be that only traditional media, like magazines or documentaries or books, delivered the long take. But now, some of the most in-depth stuff I read comes from academics or businesspeople penning big blog essays, Dexter fans writing 5,000-word exegeses of the show, and nonprofits like the Pew Charitable Trusts producing exhaustively researched reports on American life.

The logic here seems murky to me. Pointing to a few examples of how some new sources of long-form writing have emerged online says nothing about trends in consumption. As Tyler Cowen suggests, it’s a fallacy to assume that the availability of long-form works means that our reading and viewing of long-form works are increasing. As Cowen points out, reducing the cost of information production has increased the diversity of the forms of information available (across the entire spectrum of length, from the micro to the jumbo), but we have gravitated to the shorter forms, not the longer ones. Even on the production side, Thompson is probably overstating the case for length by highlighting new sources of long-form writing (eg, the blogs of Dexter fans) but ignoring the whittling away of many traditional sources of long-form content (eg, popular magazines).

None of this means that Thompson’s optimistic hunch is necessarily wrong – I personally hope he’s right – but it does mean that, in the absence of real evidence supporting his case, we probably shouldn’t take his hunch as anything more than a hunch. Up to now, the evidence has pointed pretty strongly in the opposite direction, and it remains difficult for me to see how the recent explosion of micro-messages will catalyze a reversal of the long-term trend toward bittiness.

Thompson ends his column – itself a “middle take” – by pointing to the recent development of online reading tools, like Instapaper and Readability, that, by isolating digital text from the web’s cacophony of distractions, encourage deeper, more attentive reading. I agree with him that the appearance of these tools is a welcome sign. At the very least, they reveal a growing awareness that the web, in its traditional form, is deeply flawed as a reading medium, and they suggest a yearning to escape what Cory Doctorow has termed our “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” What remains to be seen is how broadly and intensively these tools will actually be used. Will they really mark a change in our habits, or will they, like home exercise machines, stand as monuments to wishful thinking? (To return to Cowen’s point, availability does not necessarily imply use.) My sense right now is that they remain peripheral technologies, particularly when compared to tools of bittiness like Facebook or texting, but it’s not impossible that they’ll become more popular.

In the course of his argument, I should note, Thompson does offer one piece of seemingly hard evidence to support his case. It concerns the length of blog posts: “One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.” As it turns out, though, this “survey” – you can read it here – is pretty much worthless. It consisted of a guy asking four bloggers to list their five “most linked to” posts and then calculating the mean length of those 20 posts (1,600 words). This exercise tells us next to nothing about online reading habits, and it’s a stretch even to suggest that it shows that “the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones.” Indeed, if you look at some of the long posts highlighted in the study, they actually take the form not of “deeply considered” long takes but of cursory lists of short takes (representative title: “101 Ways to Build Link Popularity”).

What was most interesting to me about Thompson’s reference to this survey was the implication that he considers a 1,600-word article to qualify as a “long take.” Perhaps what Thompson is actually picking up on, and helping to propel forward, is a general downward trend in our expectations about the length of content. We’re shrinking our definition of long-form writing to fit the limits of our ever more distracted reading habits. What would have once been considered a remark is now considered a “short take”; what would once have been considered a “short take” is now a “middle take”; and what once would have been considered a “middle take” is now seen as a “long take.” As long as we take this path, we’ll always be able to reassure ourselves that long takes haven’t gone out of fashion.

5 Comments

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5 Responses to Short is the new long

  1. Great Post Nick. When I read Clive’s article, I thought some of the logic was a little shady as well. My own experiences are that people in my cohort tend to read less, not more and when they do read they are almost always “scanning and browsing”.

    But this has transferred itself to other areas of our culture too hasn’t it? Companies are not longer wiling to have in-depth debates over anything in meetings. The standard response, at least according to my friends, seems to be “let’s take this offline” or, even worse, some high level point that is difficult to combat. Are details leaving corporate boardrooms in favor of the superficial soundbyte as well?

  2. Long intakes v/s Short intakes….

    This benedict fight will completely out of trend in further 5 or 6 years, as web cacophonies will be brought considerably under capitulated format.

    Most probably, what i’ve experienced, i’ve been always jerking out with long format read out. Fankly speaking, i don’t like long output of short intakes. Web is smart way to wiring with latest crumps of global posture. Even if we linked to prints, web is also playing out equal role in transcendin our competitive thinking in every kind of genre.

    Reproducing long texts supported of short gulps, might encrypt anti-overwhelming flip flops.

    All-in-All this piece of brief is pondering the latest occurred phenomenon of reading with slight v/s reading with lump…..

    I m personally amazed by your accenture and also like your refferels towards modern voluptuous catalysmic events of web technology….

  3. Problem is the short bites clog up the system too much for most people to take the long ones. However, most people just liken talk of this new way of digesting information as “I remember when…” old-timer talk. I try to make my students aware, yet they’re still more likely to have read the 3-page article I’ve assigned than the 20. Sure, students have always been lazy but this is the first generation to have to deal with constant status updates buzzing their jean pockets every few minutes. Red Bull for the attention span ensures that even many of my friends leave the TLDR comment on my Facebook updates informing them of a new post I’ve written. Wasn’t I just complaining about those damn kids today?

  4. richord

    I wrote this on a train ride yesterday before reading this article. Of course it’s completely unscientific and unsubstantiated hallucinations but it’s short!

    Data Zombies

    Everything you read tells you data is growing at an exponential rate. We will not have enough storage for all the Facebook, tweets, twitters and blogs. How will we find and organize all this data? How will we access this data and how will we consume this data?

    I think it’s already too late. We are being consumed by all the data. Slowly and insidiously like Zombies, data is consuming our brains. Useless facts are being stored in our brains causing entropy and chaos.

    Ipods, Ipads, IPhones and the increasingly nefarious Androids are the vehicles by which data gets into our brains. Slowly replacing our personalities, beliefs and finally our ability to operate. Surround sound enveloped us in multidimensional messages and now 3D will penetrate our brains through the visual cortex.

    In the office, the Internet, Google, and e-mail are taking over our brain cells. But don’t worry about business intelligence since it’s just an oxymoron. BI was itself consumed by an earlier generation of Zombies from data warehouses

    What should you do? Well I will be writing a book and developing a set of governance policies to help you prevent these Zombies from consuming your remaining brain cells. There’s still time so stay tuned and listen to the subliminal messages you hear while reading this article.

  5. Funny that a mainstream economist wouldn’t also think that you get what you pay for.