This Is Not A Status Update: I Am Committed To The Long Form


Interesting piece of research out today from Pew Internet and The American Life Project which shows that longer forms of online writing are giving way to micro-blogging and status updates:

Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher for Pew and the lead author of the study, told the Associated Press that the ability to do status updates had “kind of sucked the life out of long-form blogging”.

Although there were modest rises in the numbers of people blogging who were over 30 (yup, that’s me) the number of younger people, the numbers in the teenage bracket has halved and – perhaps more concerning – the number in the 18-29 bracket has fallen by about 40% in 2 years. As the BBC report on the news put it:

One student said teenagers had lost interest in blogging because they needed to type quickly and “people don’t find reading that fun”.

Should we even care? Perhaps not. But I do have some concerns which take in some wider issues of online reading – ie, we are becoming no more than scanners. We rarely take the time to read in depth, but immediately want the precis. Perhaps it’s due to a fall in quality over the years, but I’ve noticed less and less comments on my blogs – and on other people’s too. With changing reading habits people are less likely to sit down and read an entire newspaper or magazine – and this must have long term influences on the depth and breadth of our understanding of issues.

If the generation following us to no more than write about their immediate feelings in a series of status updates, we risk seeing a group of people who have a narrower view of relationship and self-awareness. And if these people are decreasingly interested in reading anything over 100 words, it is also unlikely that they will write anything over that length either. Especially if they can’t type that quick.

Who knows, this could be made better or worse by the introduction of devices like the iPad: a great ‘output’ device – but not a proper writing tool. But with a screen large enough to read more comfortably on – though a processor fast enough to encourage flicking.

Perhaps you’ve not even got this far, but if you have, you might be interested in a post I wrote a while back reflecting on Clooney’s film Good Night and Good Luck – and the parallels with the dumbing down of TV that that explored.

As for me and this site, I’ll carry on writing longer stuff. Why? Because, as the adage goes, you write to discover, not to reveal. And I’m not going to find out much about myself or my faith in 140 characters.


15 responses to “This Is Not A Status Update: I Am Committed To The Long Form”

  1. I love the opportunity to combine the different ways of communicating and publishing. On one hand I love to read and write blogposts that are longer and thoughtprovoking – like reading newspapers or books. On the other hand I love something in between blogs and twitter – like posterous or tumblr – where quotes are found or videos are shared – this is like reading a magazine to me. And I love twitter too (or status-updates on facebook), sharing links, thoughts and emotional-ad-hoc-statuses, that are more focused on this short dialogue parts like talking to a fellow while brewing coffee. For me its the mix of these different ways of communicating that is valuable. The point on this issue – as I suggest you are making too – is to not get rid of long posts, books and longer conversations for the sake of the short chat-like-conversations in our lives and communication.

  2. well I feel chastened into being brave and leaving a comment – not sure why I feel so shy about doing so! but anyway… good post, I think it is rather worrying, for the reasons you describe – and I see those tendencies (to scan, to have read something) in myself, definitely.
    and about writing to discover – that’s absolutely it!

  3. I too feel the need to leave a comment and say, though I rarely comment, I do read to the end! However, I am 31! Thanks for your thoughts; and the diverse input, which I would not have time to source myself, but which I look forward to when it drops into my inbox πŸ™‚

  4. Good to know people are out there! And for those who want some ‘long form’ on the variable length form of poetry, Katherine’s musings on her journey through a poetry Masters are brilliant:

  5. I’m out there too!…I like this post – thanks.

    I’m concerned about the education system’s role in this – that it can lean too much towards entertaining the youngsters. I’m not advocating a return to dull rote learning or suchlike but my relatively recent experience of the education system provoked worries regarding its pace (amongst other things). It all seemed so fast and snappy. Whilst this may reflect the current ethos of society and thus provide a useful grounding for existing in such a society I’m neither convinced of its wholesomeness nor of its endurance. Western lifestyles are based on the availability of cheap energy and thankfully,(I really do mean that to a great extent), that’s headed for the buffers.

    Can I award myself a bun? I also read the ‘Wires and Lights in a Box’ post πŸ™‚

    “I am happy to read an in-depth magazine article of a few thousand words, but find it hard to concentrate on screen-based writing for very long. In order to stay in tune with the issues, I have to do more than browse some blogs and/or news sites. You never get below the surface, and are constantly drawn to click away for entertainment if you do.” – This is precisely my experience too. And I’ve noticed that my tolerance for reading at length on a screen has diminished as I’ve aged.

  6. Like Alice I felt compelled to comment. I read most every post and found the topic very interesting because right next to your tweet announcing the post was this link from another person I follow:

    I also wonder if our obsession with the “short form” can be extended to almost all areas of life. I especially am thinking about our short-sightedness regarding life in general. We pursue instant gratification but in most cases that gratification is both short lived and empty. Fast food, our attitude towards the environment, pornography, finances and community/social relationships are just some of the examples I was thinking of.

  7. Kester, Thanks for this post. I think the observations you and your sources make are spot on. As Marshall Mcluhan would say, “we become what we behold,” and “the medium is the message.” The ways we communicate certainly do indeed shape the way we view the world, relationships and our faith.

    If you havn’t read Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps you should check it out for sure! Drawing on Mcluhan’s work, Hipps points out how in the electronic age we live we are becoming a “tribe of individuals.”

    I think it’s important to understand that new technologies or “mediums” aren’t necessarily good or bad, but they are NOT neutral. They do have power to change us. I commented on my friend Callid’s post on this subject, check it out.


  8. both Clare and Jesse have a very good point regarding Flickering Pixels. As Clare said, she cannot physically handle extended reading from a screen which is because the constant refreshing of a screen has been shown to fatigue our eyes. As Jesse points out, the medium is the message. In this case the medium is something that is flashed on a screen for a fraction of a second, just long enough for our mind to capture what it was, then it disappears again. But this got me to thinking is this the same or different than the natural world?

    In the natural world we look at something and it looks like it is not changing (just as the screen looks like it is not changing) but in fact when you break it down to its constituent parts often times there are molecules that are reacting and changing just at a very small and often very slow level, unless you go even further to the subatomic level at which point the electrons are flying around and very quick speeds. Not really sure what this all means, but the other comments just got me thinking.

  9. I guess what I am trying to say is that twitter is more of a reflection of the way things really are than we might want to believe πŸ™‚

  10. Good thoughts here, and very Interesting thoughts about pixels and molecules. I guess my response would be something to do with stability. Printed texts, while still molecular, require no external power to continue to function, while digital media does. Kindle is e-ink, but without power cannot turn a page. This may be poor conjecture, but it may be that the inherent stability of printed matter reduces anxiety – it’s not going anywhere so we can relax in our reading. Whereas status updates are highly volatile – constantly refreshing and requiring a working net connection to be available to us. This is a form of stress, I find.

    Moreover, it can only be within the long form that nuance and comlexity can be explored. So existing within short forms reduces not only depth of understanding, but the level of richness in a communication, and thus a relationship.

  11. Acetate Monkey

    Ha ha! Really interesting post and comments, but I’m amused that this post seems to have goaded us into commenting and commenting more than 140 characters (to disprove the e-apathy):)
    I find your posts really interesting Kester and read them probably too in-depth (I got chastised at a speed-reading course recently for spending too much time and not reading more efficiently).

    I’ve always like printed media because it feels more ‘real’- it doesn’t change when the power goes, it is felt by my hands as well as seen by my eyes, it is not back-lit. All these things make it more tangible to me. I can also see the edges of its dimensions which somehow makes it more dealable with. E-writing can always be connected to something else by one click and although in some sense bibliographies and refs do the same thing in articles, the fact that you have to go and get the next thing helps to contain it. In short I feel more in control of the medium when I can see it doesn’t make up all my world: I can hold it, I can file it, I can shred it. Not very eco-“right-on” I suppose, but I find research easier to do by scanning a page that takes up a small part of my visual field than sitting with it taking up all of my screen.

    I wonder what people thought at the invention of the printing press. How the ‘modern generation’ of under 30s were high speed printers & readers who didn’t have time to carefully write out their text by hand.

    “existing within short forms reduces not only depth of understanding, but the level of richness in a communication, and thus a relationship.”

    I think of status updates as the equivalent to meeting friends and acquaintances in the pub. Some of the responses to my “how are you” will be “fine” and I’ll accept that expected social shorthand and glide on. Other friends I will want to take aside in private and say “what did you mean by fine?”. Isn’t that what the message bit of Fb is for? Like/comment on some status updates, discuss others in private at a greater depth of understanding, level of richness in a communication, and thus relationship.

  12. I’ve followed this conversation with interest, with an eye to my own reading & writing tendencies, but also in regards to the habits of the under-30s, and especially teens. Not only are fewer of them blogging, but in my experience (as the mom of a teen & observer of his “tribe’s” habits) they don’t even make much use of status updates. In engaging technology, by & large, they’re looking for interactive tools–largely chatting & texting. While there are significant limitations to techno-mediated relationships, I find it interesting that this crowd is (anecdotally, at least) leaning away from uni-directional communication.

  13. Holy crap I can’t believe i read that whole thing. I need a nap

  14. “it may be that the inherent stability of printed matter reduces anxiety – it’s not going anywhere so we can relax in our reading. Whereas status updates are highly volatile”

    I guess what I was trying to say is that with a wider perspective all matter is highly volatile. It is a good bet that the printed copy I have of your book will disintegrate sometime in the next thousand years. In this way the stability is an illusion caused by our short life spans. The highly volatile status updates just remind us that everything is meaningless, utterly meaningless, so enjoy your pointless life anyway.

  15. the more connected we are the less we really connect eh?