Nothing costs enough here.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

The problem with the Web’s “tl;dr” culture (if you’re wondering, “tl;dr” means: “too long, didn’t read”, usually followed by very short summary of the content it’s referring to) is that it assumes that reading should be without cost. Everything should be delivered in bite size pieces that you can digest in an instant. If it isn’t then it’s the fault of the content–it’s just too long to cater to our tiny attention spans.

This attitude towards content originates from the birth of television. The TV is a medium that by its nature can only transmit short bursts of information, as a rule no longer than an hour, and oftentimes shorter than that. Additionally, this information must require no prerequisite knowledge so that each self contained hour can be consumed by any audience, irrespective of what they already know or don’t know. This is essential if you don’t wish to alienate audiences and thus limit the size of your market. Of course this leads to short and basic content that cannot escape its own artificial restraints. And so this content must somehow grab the attention of the viewer and keep it for a short period of time, usually by blowing news out of proportion, presenting sensationalist claims or simply through entertainment.

This TV culture has now translated onto the Web, which unfortunately has a lot of text–a medium not ideal for quick consumption. Pictures or videos help remedy this problem, but sometimes text is the only desirable option. In these cases the reader with attention deficit is forced to plough through an article, all the while complaining before they finally reach their goal at the end. They assume that this reading is some sort of unnecessary chore that prevents them from reaching their goal immediately, from assimilating the information they want in an instant. It’s the sort of outlook that’s derived from consuming content for the sake of consumption rather than for any particular goal, much like people that watch news today for the sake of “staying informed” rather than to actually learn something of value–it’s a ritual to kill time.

But reading has a cost, a cost you have to pay if you want to get something in return, and oftentimes the greater this cost the more is given. In the case of a “tl;dr” the cost is still there, but someone else has paid it on your behalf, and what was purchased also fell into their hands, not yours.

May 2010