How tweets and the web can boost the power of long-form thinking: My latest Wired column

Wired magazine just published my latest column, and this one is about the relationship between what I call “the short take” — the enormous ecosystem of rapid-fire, teensy status-updates and tweets — and the “long take”: Deep, long-form writing and thinking that takes weeks or months to produce. I argue that the explosion of short takes helping catalyze new interest in long takes, and that long takes actually thrive on Internet.

The column is below, with some bonus material at the end that I couldn’t fit into the piece itself:

The Long and the Short of It

by Clive Thompson

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 turn it around and 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.

Some extra info: It also appears that the most-tweeted-about blog posts also tend to be somewhat lengthier. Glen Allsopp, who writes about viral marketing at his ViperChill blog (and who did the blog survey I cite above, finding that the most-popular posts averaged 1,600 words in length), examined a few of the most-tweeted posts at 10 geek blogs. He found that these posts were, on average, 1,118 words — and 1,342 words if you look specifically at posts that are “text-focused” (i.e. not relying heavily on pictures or graphics to make their point).

A question: When I set out to research this piece, I tried to find a serious scientific study that examined the question of whether the length of a blog posting affects its popularity. I couldn’t; this is either because no social scientist has looked at it, or (probably more likely) that I didn’t happen upon any such studies that exist. If anyone’s seen research that looks at this, let me know!

(That awesome picture of the dog reading is a Creative Commons-licensed image from the photostream of Steve Eng!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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