There is a wide-spread perception that in our bit-size world deep reflections have fallen out of favour. Clive Thompson in a Wired post begs to disagree:
By Clive Thompson – December 27, 2010 | 12:00 pm | Wired January 2010
Illustration: Thomas Ng
We’re often told that the Internet has destroyed people’s patience for long, well-thought-out arguments. After all, the ascendant discussions of our day are text messages, tweets, and status updates. The popularity of 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.
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 long take also thrives on the long tail. Whereas a tweet becomes dated within minutes, a really smart long take holds value for years. Back in the ’90s, my magazine articles vanished after the issue left the newsstand. But now that the pieces are online, readers email me every week saying they’ve stumbled upon something years old.
The real loser here is the middle take. This is what the weeklies like Time and Newsweek have historically offered: reportage and essays produced a few days after major events, with a bit of analysis sprinkled on top. They’re neither fast enough to be conversational nor slow enough to be truly deep. The Internet has essentially demonstrated how unsatisfying that sort of thinking can be.
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. Why?
“I save the little stuff for Twitter and blog only when I have something big to say,” as blogger Anil Dash put it. It turns out readers prefer this: One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.
Even our reading tools are morphing to accommodate the rise of long takes. The design firm Arc90 released Readability, an app that renders website text as one clean, ad-free column down the center of your screen—perfect for distraction-free long-form reading—and it got so popular that Apple baked it into the current version of Safari. Or consider the iPad: It’s been criticized as “only” a consumption device, but that’s the whole point; it’s superb for consuming long takes. Instapaper, an app created by Marco Arment to time-shift online material for later reading, has racked up nearly a million users with hardly any advertising. “It’s for reading,” Arment says, “when you’re ready to be attentive.”
Which, despite reports to the contrary, we are. We talk a lot, then we dive deep.