Appetizers or a whole meal, or both?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Some writers and readers opine that our attention span for long-form journalism has declined. Instead of in-depth analysis, we are hooked on flurries of tweets and status updates to keep us up to date on the latest news item flying around the Internet.

In January’s Wired, Clive Thompson writes that these brief interchanges do keep us engaged in  an up-to-the-moment process of gathering news. He further suggests that they prompt us to be more interested, not less, in pursuing long-form discussion on important topics. Tweets should and do lose their value in minutes, while longer articles take longer to produce, and should hold up in readability for months or years.

Will Wlizlo responds in the Utne Reader. He writes, “It would seem that painstakingly-crafted essays and deeply-researched journalism stand no chance in this hyperactive environment.” But he and Thompson make a distinction between fleeting thoughts broadcast on social media and the carefully developed and articulated writing of longer blogs, which also have a popular following. Wlizlo points out several tools freely available to help readers sort through the noise on the web. Some have been mentioned previously in this blog but are worth repeating. Wlizlo writes:

A number of websites and applications cater to voracious readers. To make lengthy reads easier on the eyes, the bookmarklet Readability eliminates advertisements and sidebars from websites, giving you a clean column of text right down the middle of your computer screen. Come across a provocative article that you just can’t squeeze into your lunch break? Instapaper allows you to store and save profound writing for later perusal. Finally, Longreads is an aggregator that links to the web’s best creative non-fiction and investigative journalism.

Each of these web tools is easy and quick to use. I wonder if we are really more fast-paced and distractible than our predecessors, or whether our new technology just works differently. The challenge is to learn to use technology for deeper, not more superficial, access to information, people, and places. Social media are definitely one such mechanism as long as our nourishment doesn’t end there. We shouldn't stop after the appetizer course.

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