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Brevity is brief: The obsession with soundbites will end

July 7, 2017

As a Journalism graduate, I have been taught that in the digital age, we must adapt to the fact that the average person won’t spend more than 15 seconds reading a website. The thinking is, if readers don’t engage with long form, we should stop writing it.

There are a few obvious problems with that assertion. First, a website’s high bounce rate may indicate a failing of search engines, not content; people navigate away because the article doesn’t directly answer the short query they typed into Google. Sometimes, a simple question has a simple answer, or you only have time for the basics right now, because you’re in the the middle of a conversation.

That’s the essence of mobile information; you can become informed an details, in bits and pieces, instantly. This only improves the quality of conversation. I remember when people used to flounder around, saying “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I heard… [cue conspiracy theory / common misconception / rumour / urban myth]…” Now we know, within seconds, what is generally recognised as true.

In no way does this process of fast information gathering diminish the importance of long form writing. For people who seek it, they are directly looking for nuance and background information, which journalists in the digital age must continue to provide.

Just because a person streams oddities from Buzzfeed, that doesn’t mean that’s all they do. Guardian readers are still Guardian readers, even if they have shifted online. The convenience of digital news in no way necessitates that all the readers will instantly become slack-jawed, attention-eroded zombies.

I predict that the tendency of people to spend so little time reading means less than we think it does. It’s unlikely that the world’s readers, the intellectually curious, are becoming less so, just because of social media. It is more likely that the world’s non-readers – the partially literate and the less well informed – are beginning to engage more, now that it is easier for them.

These are the people who, given the choice between reading an A4 page and not reading at all, would choose nothing at all. On the other side, for the world’s readers, a reduction in verbosity is positive; it means that a A4’s page worth of content is kept at A4 length, because it is concise and not full of waffle.

It was more common, once, to read pages and pages of not-getting-to-the-point. One fact of the digital age is that the sheer amount of media makes it ultra competative, something generally recognised to improve services. You can spot an inept writer, storyteller, investigator, or teacher within a few sentences; you can also tell if someone is hyperbolic, overly partisan, bad at reasoning, or has an obvious conflict of interest. The difference these days is that you are by no means obliged to continue reading.

The substance of that argument can be found elsewhere, from someone whose approach you find prefereable. This may mean that people suffer from browsing homogeny, whereby they no longer expose themselves to different viewpoints, but rather keep to their own sociopolitical group, only reading what they already agree with –.aided in part by algorithms that show you what you want to see.

However, there is potential for a mature mind to locate and consume more valuable information, written more concisely.

Concise must not be confused with short. A long book which is to the point is still concise; it is long because it contains a great deal of information. That does not mean that any part of it contain extraneous detail. Some subjects are just complex, and many people seem unclear as to how complex most topics are once you peek under the hood.

The popularity of sites like Wikipedia are changing that. It becomes immediately apparent that, literally underneath the basic information, is a whole history of context. What is Wikipedia? I would argue that it is journalistic long form, written by professionals and aided by writers. Much like specialist news organisations.

While we go through this process of change, people who would otherwise choose to read nothing at all can just about be encouraged to read tweets. The overall content consumed by a person who only reads bitesized chunks may actually be considerable; they may unknowingly consume 800 words simply from scrolling down a Twitter feed.

Depending on the feed, they may absorb a large number of outlooks, perceptions and surface information, despite browsing homogeny. Yet still, for most people, sooner or later, this is not enough. When a discussion takes place full of information and outlooks you have never heard before, the natural response is to look them up, at least to see if there is any vague merit to them.

And where is this information? In long form, posted online. It’s in the Huffington Post and the Guardian, not on Facebook and certainly not on Snapchat.

Probably more by accident than deisgn, Twitter is effectively a warm-up act. It is a way of coaxing people who are disinclined to read right now into reading for much longer than they intended. It is similar to how a couch potato is more inclined to begin vigorous exercise if they have been led into doing some light exercise first.

A natural inclination towards the path of least resistance can be undercut by digital trickery, including the ever-dodgy click-bait. Tired of this stream pile of fresh cattle dung, sooner or later, audiences start looking for real information – from a solid source, not one filled with junk, adverts and potential malware.

As a result, I predict that this is only the beginning; that engagement with long form will actually increase in the future as the semi-literate and non-critical become more literate and more critical as a result of being softly introduced to complex topics via the mess and noise of Twitter.

Twitter is an immature place, which makes it a development hub. Just as teenagers usually go though a certain number of predictable phases, people who for various reasons haven’t been exposed to advanced forms of the written word, to complex thought or to complicated topics, have to start somewhere.

This increased engagement by the default non-engaged seems likely to lead to overall higher engagement. This, in turn, will decrease the power and necessity of ultra short-form media, as people start to notice that comment sections and social feeds are poor ways to absorb information: abrupt, adversarial, lacking in informed reasoning and the basic prerequisite of time – time taken to read, understand and absorb before sharing one’s thoughts.

We can already observe it happening. Many people of my generation are moving away from social media and avoid reading comment sections because they know they will not see anything that is particularly worth their time.

At a certain point in any individual’s intellectual development, it becomes apparent to them that there is very great value to top-down media consumption from a trusted source; that person, if they are good at their job, has been paid to take the time to understand the information and present it to you.

They may be a professional with many years’ experience. Anyone can see that the value of that person’s experience far outstrips the wisdom of the crowd on topics that are impossible to understand without proper study. Economic policy cannot be learned in tweets.

Mass short form is a phase, firstly for an individual, and secondly for society in general. New media will always have its uses, but it cannot replace the more traditional style of journalism, because it relies upon it.

Twitter’s power to share information is dependent largely on link sharing, otherwise the tweet is considered unsubstantiated. What are they linking to? Traditional journalist long form; verified information from a trusted source. Anything else is likely to be widely rubbished.

The message to take from technological changes and their effects is that the journey is never over, but rather, always developing. Certain systems will undergo radical change, with the aim to eventually improve them. During this process, some of the old practices will resurface, in new forms – investigation, for example, which is actually made easier and richer, thanks to the internet.

It is always premature to state that such-and-such is dead or dying. Traditional journalism cannot be claimed to be dead, because death is permanent, and we simply don’t know what the future will hold. It can only be claimed to be dormant. Even that cannot be claimed conclusively yet; I for one see more traditional journalism now than I ever did in the days when print news dominated.

So, the news is not on physical paper any more. So what? The change from bits of tree to bits of silicon bears no inherent significance on the direction of the medium, in and of itself. Journalism is still about investigation and clarification for the public good.

What social media has done is highlighted that not anyone can be a journalist. Loudly claiming things and writing dramatically are behaviours that are simply not valued, in any true sense, and therefore have a shorter half life than the fundamental principles of long tried and tested systems.

It is only because Joe Public think that traditional journalist outputs are contributing to this fatuous trend that they are, in droves, doubting its authenticity. It seems to me that the inevitable response to this will be to return to top-down educational form, and a shift away from a weak, PR/politician-esque “everyone’s view counts” attitude.

After all, it’s not as if politicians are any more popular than the mainstream media.

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