What if we didn’t have writing that took longer than 8 seconds to read?
Time magazine featured a study by Microsoft suggests that anything that takes more than 8 seconds to digest may be losing favor in society’s increasingly shrinking attention spans.
And not too long ago Facebook executive, Nicola Mendelsohn, suggested that writing as we know it is dead and writing for content in short, easily digestible pieces for visual media is the new form of writing. “Writing for videos”, she said, is our future.
So, the question of whether or not there’s a place for more traditional longer form, complex writing or content in today’s world has come up — yet again.
Still there? Just checking. Surely my 8 seconds aren’t up yet.
Since Facebook’s edict, there have been a few people who’ve provided a neat rebuttal, including one from Ann Handley.
And almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post titled “Is long-form writing less engaging?”
Now, I’m not here to re-hash what I said in that post, but I thought it might be fun to do a little thought experiment.
Let’s take a second (maybe 8, if you have them to spare) to imagine a world without longer form content (more complex than, you know, tweets and FB posts).
Let’s begin with education and the early stage development of childkind.
First thing that comes to my mind: the consequences of a lack of textbooks and literature in schools.
No more boring chapters explaining history, chemistry or math. No more having to read the entirety of Moby Dick or Shakespeare. After all, you could really sum up a lot of that in a picture and a one liner, right? Now, we could heavily lean on visual and audio learning, keeping our lessons short and digestible. That’s a solution.
That doesn’t sound so bad until you take more than 8 seconds to really think about it. What happens if there’s a general lack of in-depth specialization on topics. What if you didn’t teach children how to deep dive into a particular topic with patience and interest. What would happen if whole generations lost the ability to fully empathize or absorb past culture because education became cursory and merely a shallow swath of the ‘highlights’ of human knowledge. (So sorry, I believe that sentence takes longer than 8 seconds to read). If you weren’t encouraged to read textbook chapters on organic chemistry or read the full history and stories of Mark Twain, would you be inspired to learn medicine, engineer new molecules to cure disease or empathize with a human condition outside your own sphere of life?
But no worries, at least we’d still have haikus.
So okay, let’s put aside what early stage development might look like without long form content.
What about writing in the professional sphere?
What would academia and the world of research look like? As I touched on briefly above, it’s possible human education would exclude the value of paying attention to detail through patience and diligence, so I wonder how far science would really go without the amount of time and effort scientists and researchers put into reading, understanding and writing about their work and sharing it with others. In fact, getting papers and studies published is currently a huge incentive for people in academia to do diligent work, push the boundaries of their field and contribute to our society’s knowledge.
But on the bright side, no more words you can’t pronounce. Antidisestablishmentarianism anyone?
And what about the writer? I’m all about the evolution of diverse storytelling that our world has gone through. Using different mediums to express your story, your idea or your message has been an amazingly inclusive and explosive way to increase creativity in recent years. But for the sake of the experiment, let’s discard long-form, complex writing as an option.
No more ‘books’. In this world, storytelling may be visual or auditory, but words would take a backseat. Perhaps people would stop communicating with words. Perhaps something similar to emoji would be an international standard way of communication in this world. And hey, how we write WILL evolve — that’s a given. But how would we express nuance and complexity not available through simple images and sounds? How would we immerse ourselves in an idea, a story or really develop our sense of empathy, dreaming about experiences other than our own and exploring the bounds of the human condition that only the cultural exchange in literature can really give us?
What is the point of this rant? Maybe I’m just trying (as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur) to tell the rest of the world that we’re not all so insular to believe that a company’s success in disrupting an entire field or way of life is an invitation for making broad claims about the future of society.
The hopeful turning point…
Funnily enough, this train of thought leads me to believe that even in the above thought experiment, in that imaginary world, we would create a language with complexity in meaning and syntax regardless. Because, really, what are words, but the evolution of the human need to express a language in a medium that transcends present temporal situations and face to face communication. Language and words have proven throughout our entire history to be the foundation of advancements in civilization. Words and technology go hand in hand.
I believe the writing of the future may have to be just as complex as what we have now, if not more so. Maybe instead of a Roman alphabet, we’ll have a telepathic one — who knows!
Now if you’re looking for data on short vs. long form content or video vs. non-video content, there was a brilliant social media research study done in 2015 that found that video content does quite well (perhaps why Facebook is making its claims). But it also shows that long form content seems to be more engaging than short form content. And that on average, higher shares are correlated with higher word count.
Incidentally, that claim is further down in the article linked above so you will absolutely need more than 8 seconds of attention to get there.
But whatever the trends, doing the thought experiment on what our society would look like without deep and long writing tend to reassure me. Even if videos takeover as the main form of storytelling. Even if the written language evolves into emoji-like alphabets. Because we can’t escape writing, no matter how much we evolve. It’s just too important for our language, for infrastructure, for specialization in any field and for long run innovation. And yes, it most definitely is crucial to our own continued development as humankind.
I think by now, my 8 seconds are up.
Keep calm and write on.
Ready to finish writing that project? Join the goal-driven writing movement here.