TL;DR

Those letters are internet shorthand, not for, “Transgender lifestyles; Dominican Republic” as you might expect, but for, “Too long; didn’t read.” It’s the battle cry of the short-attention span, the post comment meant to be critical, but instead illustrating the missing depth of the commenter. “Reading is hard,” it says, “You’re expecting too much of me!”

A recent article in Slate talks about this at length, albeit with no small amount of self-aware irony. Chartbeat is a service that analyzes internet-traffic, and they produced several graphs that show just what kind of behavior people had when visiting sites. Long story short: the graphs show a lot of immediately lost interest, and a lot of people who never read to the end of an article. Frequently, the response to such info is that web content should be short, and from the standpoint of someone who frequently crosses the 2,000 word mark, I should be scared.

I’m not; I know a little more about data analysis than that, not to mention perspective. Think of it in terms of TV; how often does anyone turn it on, select one channel immediately, and watch the program until the end? Even if we go for the archaic idea of reading books, how many people do you know that start and finish a book in one sitting? Does this tell us that humans overall are unfocused and scatterbrained? Or simply that we have unrealistic expectations of attention-span and information absorption, not to mention priorities such as eating and stopping the kids from shellacking the cat? (No, that’s not internet slang for anything. I don’t think.)

There are some significantly wrong assumptions to be found as well. As writer Farhad Manjoo says:

The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page.

Manjoo has fallen for the average fallacy, as if there is anyone, much less everyone, who can be considered average. “You” are tuning out, and “people” rarely make it to the end of a page. Utter unmitigated horseshit. Everyone is different, and no purpose is served by lumping every visitor to a site into one single amorphous entity. You have your own interests, as do I, and they don’t agree on every point, so simply taking an average of the two of us on any given page, we might make it 50% through – that doesn’t mean we both gave up halfway. I stayed to the end, and you flittered off like you usually do…

One must consider that content is not often structured for long-term visits. Let’s look at Slate’s own page featuring the article itself, color-coded to make it more eye-catching to separate the content according to focus. This is what the page initially looks like in my native screen resolution (which may not be typical anymore,) emsmallened to fit the blog format:
SlateWindow
The stuff highlighted in blue is direct article content – what anyone has come to see, based on any outside link. Green denotes the illustration, connected but not really content – a lead image can be a teaser or visual aid to the content, but most often (like here) it’s simply intended as eye-candy to help promote interest. Red is completely unrelated junk, stuff that leads the viewer away from the content. All of this is, naturally, without scrolling, one of the factors mentioned in the surveys – a certain percentage of people leave without ever getting beyond the info seen here. So that’s less than 10% solid content, just the title for shit’s sake, and a photo competing with all the crap on the side. This might be better if a compelling photo was chosen, instead of this lame stock agency placeholder to fulfill the editorial idea that there must be a photo. If you found the article unable to hold your attention, this is no surprise, because the page is obviously designed to to emphasize everything but…

Worse is that Manjoo really hasn’t written a profound article – basically, the title is supported and little else. Sites that base their content on a minimum number of articles (especially in certain categories) and some misperceived need to produce new content end up with a percentage of uninteresting dross. Manjoo injected a little humor within, but never got to an insight or hook, despite the clear possibilities of the topic. To be fair, Slate’s editors had some hand in this, and for a site this size that’s not insignificant – Manjoo may not even write like this on his own. Regardless, it means too many articles that don’t go anywhere – which means that anyone staying until the end is more wasting time than demonstrating their exemplary focus.

No site is going to grab and hold everyone’s attention, and this says nothing useful in the least about either content or human tendencies – if you’re like me, at times you’re interested in one kind of content, but other times you couldn’t care less. You might, hard as this may be to believe, treat most web content as passing time, falling below many other of life’s pursuits in importance, which means you’re willing to interrupt perusing a website for just about anything else. And you may be loathe to admit it, but you might just not give the slightest damn about celebrity gossip, despite the bare fact that we’re supposed to enraptured by such as a species. You’re wrecking the curve by doing so, and you bear this on your own conscience…

That hints at an assumption made too often, the idea of selective sampling. The “TL;DR” commenter might stick in our head, partially because it’s such a shallow response to any article, but also because it’s an exception – which belies the statistical significance. We might also see, perhaps much more frequently, the long measured responses, the political diatribes, and the related personal recollections, but these aren’t half as much fun to talk about, even when they overwhelm the short-attention-span nitwits by a factor of five or more. Anyone can opine that YouTube comments are a sign of de-evolution in our species, but this must be weighed against sites where the discussions are lengthy, reasoned, and civil.

As for me? I… write what I want to, and feature what I want to – it is a blog, after all, which translates as thinly veiled narcissism. If anyone else likes it, great! – kindred spirits and all that. I may not hold the attention of anyone who watches reality shows, and I would be proud of this. The result might be low hits or high ‘bounces’ or whatever, but the point was never to be one of the crowd, vapidly (and vainly) aiming for some average ideal – variety is generally a nice thing, no? Anyone can chase statistics all they want, especially if they believe web content is supposed to make money, and true, a lot of content could be vastly improved. But doing so with a solid perspective is probably much better than misinterpreting survey results to believe that humans are turning into twitchy neurotics or something.

Damn. Failed to bring it in under a thousand words…

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