You might’ve heard a lot about how content presented on the web is changing. And yes, it has changed dramatically since its inception. Journalists and bloggers alike have figured out that user behavior on the internet is dramatically different than how one would approach content in the physical world.
Nicholas Carr of Wired Magazine wrote in 2010 that the internet is rewiring our brain — that hyperlinks, for example, although at first lauded as tools to further help us understand content, has actually been a factor in creating distractions. This is how snackable, short, to-the-point content became dominant throughout the web.
Navigating linked documents, it turned out, entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats—that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension. A 1989 study showed that readers tended just to click around aimlessly when reading something that included hypertext links to other selected pieces of information. A 1990 experiment revealed that some “could not remember what they had and had not read. – Wired
So instead of hyperlinks liberating us users from the lack of content, we’ve become inundated with them with countless links dispersed throughout the content here and there, ultimately making us choose whether to click on them or not — thus removing us from reading and actually engaging with the words.
Now, because we’re living a life where forms of media try to grab your attention, our attention spans have gotten considerably shorter — phone LED notification goes off, it vibrates, a notification goes off on your computer screen informing you that there’s a new email in your inbox, an instant message pops up on your screen, push notifications tell you the latest on Twitter. We can’t pace ourselves anymore — like when we sit down with a book, free from these distractions. Rather, our lives are determined by little flashing lights on our phones.
Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe. – Wired
Websites have been hopping on this trend for a while now. Taking Buzzfeed and Business Insider as examples, most of their content (their most shared/ most viewed) is presented in short, snackable formats, where readers spend less than 1-2 minutes reading it, then they hop over to similarly formatted posts, spending another 1-2 minutes (or even less!), and so on. It’s gotten to the point where long form has become aggregated, (TL;DR) and presented in shorter points, removing higher engagement entirely, which is something that Business Insider does quite well — like this post, David Remnick, Ira Glass, And Friends Explain Why Longform Journalism Isn’t Dead. (And they’re all media-heavy journalism!)
Twitter (and to an extent, Tumblr) is at the forefront of micro journalism and micro news. With a limit of 140 characters, Twitter threatens to make our attention span even shorter, not to mention limit our filters (or spell check) and our ability to discern good and bad content. Blogging is still about speed, and has largely gone unchecked.
wearing a good smelling colon today
— jake (@callmeshitto) November 21, 2013
I miss smelling my Grandpa’s colon :( — Andrea (@PinkLipschitz) November 19, 2013
BREKING: Michael Skakel freed: Kennedy cousin gets $1.2 million bond after 11 years in prison. http://t.co/7BFnoR0lF2 — New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) November 21, 2013
One of the hardest things in life is losing a parent, don’t take them for granite. You’ll regret it
— Emma Bourque (@EmmaBourque) November 22, 2013
But, in spite of all of this, long form has been steadily growing.
Even on Twitter, #longform is a frequent and widely used hashtag, with popular Twitters like @LongReads updating every hour. Apps like Instapaper help save content for users to read later — which has since taken off with the mainstream use of e-readers and tablets. These devices have changed (rather, are changing) how we’re interacting with content. It should be mentioned that a majority of people feel uncomfortable with reading long form on a computer screen, which drives people to read content on a portable reader like the iPad or the Kindle, which led to long form content presented in pages on web pages, but that has since changed, as people save them to read for later.
People are using tablets (and smart phones) to read content during breakfast, their commute, and right before bedtime. With the advent of bigger screen, high definition screens, the portability of phones, e-readers and tablets are changing user habits. Add in apps like Instapaper, and that increases the likelihood of users reading long form content.
Google has also stepped in and has started to, since 2012, promote high quality long form reads over aggregated content. Their new algorithm helps readers find in-depth articles that are thought-provoking, over shorter, more hits-driven headlines.
Even Buzzfeed, the champion of listicles and bite-sized, feel-good content hired a long form editor (Steve Kandell, former EiC at SPIN) and has started their own long form vertical, Buzzreads.
Publishers like Atavist only publish longform reads, and contrary to popular belief that long form readers are dwindling, Atavist has done incredibly well, securing over $3 million in funding whilst also featuring notable clients like TED Books, The Paris Review, and The Wall Street Journal.
And now, because content is better cached by search engines, users are more wary of what exactly quality journalism might be. And it’s this filter perhaps, that drives users to share the content and to further their brand on social platforms; which is the case with curators, who cultivate taste and start trends.
Long form is far more in-depth than ever before, with annotations and commentary, and even hyperlinks (although, it’s argued that it detracts from the content, but how else would you be able to understand what exactly the Senate Historical Office does in an article that documents the sex-crazed senators of the US?). And the ability to shift time using apps like Instapaper or ReadItLater only serves to help long form content survive. This movement, so critical to the “resurgence” of the long form, is largely in part, due to tablets, which, as explained above, provides a comfortable way to consume content from virtually anywhere — the bed, the couch, the bathroom, the train, the bus, the plane, all without being connected to the web. Tablets, in fact, may just be the “savior” to this false trend of the “death of long form journalism,” but it was only a matter of time that people adjusted to the move from physical to digital. And it seems that long form is here to stay.
TL;DR not everyone wants to read bullet points.