On Estimating Read Times

what we sacrifice when we quantify reading

By Mike Pepi

Look above you. No… a little farther up. To the right. Part of Medium’s clean, simple format includes an estimate of the time required to complete the author’s article.

Journalists and writers have always had word counts, and few would refute the Bard’s famous dictum “brevity is the soul of wit.” But is estimating the required time to read an essay something different? Is it something new and particular to how we consume writing online? And what might it mean for the reader?

While Medium is blazing a trail for how we write and read on the web, perhaps we could take a closer look at what happens when we publish the estimated read times for articles.

Are we witnessing the quantification of the product of digital writing? If we are, then it is perhaps a side effect of the swift mill of content, one that must churn each day to satisfy the idle browsing and scrolling. It switched the writer from humanist to technician. We seek “content,” a word whose definition has shifted from being something that was in opposition to “style” or “appearance” but now seems ever more intertwined with the spectacle of how we share and consume.

When you present the reader with such estimates it subjects the reader to a sort of “ROI” of time in an attention economy. This then leads us to a second, larger shift: one in which we assume that everything we read has a single interpretation, a uniform nugget of truth that can be consumed just as easily as getting to the bottom of the page.

It surrenders us to the tyranny of busy. The whip smart demographic that read the whip smart contributors to Medium are certainly juggling other things. And nothing is more polite than being respectful of your guests’ time. But sites that estimate the read times know their audience is coming to their site with this calculus in mind. They add this assurance to ward off the reader’s suspicion that this will not be worth their time.

We want to maximize time-on-page, we want to reduce the bounce rate. We want to connect, not with the reader, the human subject—who has thoughts, feelings, biases, ideas—but with the human browser. It is the rise of the “click-through as subject” and the “page view as audience.”

The practice suggests that writing is supposed to be read once, understood, and then discarded in a digital dustbin. It suggests that the primary point of writing is for the work to be shared, received, and processed, which is quite different than being read, understood, interpreted and lived.

This may be a hangover from the tech world. A realm in which, to use one example, there are queries that are part of programs, each which take time to run. The retrieval of data is an exact affair. Queries that are optimized and efficient run faster and are sought after. It keeps the user happy. So too with writing. Keep the reader happy with an efficient retrieval of information.

But back to “content.” For a significant portion of the tech set, writing is a way to influence an algorithm, even if that is the nebulous human algorithm that constructs the impressions of influence. Writing is a means to create a brand, one that could launch thinkers to panel discussion circuit, or could influence other “thought leaders.” More and more writing is pulled away from the disinterestedness of the so-called “fourth estate.” When we estimate the read times for articles, we can’t help but accelerate this flow.

Does it not exert pressure on the writer? How does it affect the reader? Is she keeping score as she scrolls down the page? Is he measuring the deliverability of the promised moment, calculating the reveal, or is he lost in the narrative, reveling in the text, in its turns, arguments, and free play?

Should you expect something in those three minutes? Remember, we engaged in a contract—and the terms were defined. The length was courteously related to me as a measure of time.

One used to walk down the block to the newsstand to purchase a magazine in print. The transaction occurred across two currencies: space and money. You paid for it, not only in the time it took to travel to the newsstand but with the money you earned. This is not a paean to print. I too get most of my reading done online. But today it seems that is our attention is all we have to give. It is enough for us to have spent time on a page, and for us to navigate away with the badge of having completed the piece. And this has repercussions for writers and readers everywhere.

When we publish the estimated time it takes to read an article online we foreclose on the project of inquiry that started journalism, the humanities, and poetry. We succumb to the prediction of Marshall McLuhan, who said: “for tribal man, space was the uncontrollable mystery. For technological man it is time that occupies the same role.” But what this practice obscures most is that the true product of having read an author’s work is always still yet to come.