Why I Believe in Text
The future of text on the worldwide web
Dear tech trendsetters,
I don’t think text is dead on the interwebz because I still believe in the power of words. Hear me out. This goes beyond strong convictions.
Writing is the purest transmission of thought. Writing makes knowledge dissemination possible at scale.
Text can convey ideas with a precisely controlled level of ambiguity and precision, implied context and elaborated content, unmatched by anything else. It is not a coincidence that all of literature and poetry, history and philosophy, mathematics, logic, programming and engineering rely on textual encodings for their ideas.
In a conversation with Michael Sippey, he called text “counter trend.” Counter trend but not dead. Text is counter trend in a world of fast consumption and production. True, the bleak reality is tech trends are moving away from text towards photos and videos. I get it, people like pictures and videos because they are easy to consume on a phone. My Facebook feed is dominated with photos and videos. Pure text posts pale in comparison to bigger and shinier photos and videos. If all you see are mostly photos and videos, it creates a prevalence effect that primes you to share less text.
Writing text is hard.
Text takes more thought and time. Writing is an inherently vulnerable act. If I share a piece of thought in writing, there is nothing I can do to enhance it. If people don’t engage, like, and comment on my writing I can’t blame it on the wrong filter. If people don’t like my writing, it’s personal. Writing text is hard. The uncertain engagement and lack of text editing tools make it the most vulnerable, raw, and naked medium of all.
There are numerous websites, either stand-alone blogs (Slate, The Awl, The Toast), or those connected to print publications (The New Yorker, The Offing, The Atlantic), that demonstrate that long form writing can and does succeed on the internet. However, the recent shuttering of popular sports-and-culture blog Grantland speaks to the precarious nature of their existence. If text is to survive on the internet, sustainable structures need to be implemented to support it — and that’s what I aim to do.
The problem is scale. A larger, general-interest site can’t be built purely atop longform, because longform takes time — both for writers to produce and readers to read. Therefore, as both Buzzfeed and Gawker realized early on, well-done longform could be the steak, but it couldn’t be the meal. (Grantland perhaps realized this too late.)
— Todd VanDerWerff
The next step is to have publishing and blogging platforms introduce “medium form” structures. Formats like Medium’s responses help you get your point across in faster and more lightweight manner. There has yet to be a widely adopted writing format that is medium form, under 2500 characters, can be read under 5 minutes, and designed with constraints for brevity. I see great potential for fast, medium-length, text sharing on the web. The format can be written in an abstract form where the user is constrained by a character limit under 2500 (approximately three paragraphs). Constraints in writing structure can breed innovation and concision. It also solves the blank canvas problem where people are intimidated by a never ending blank text editor.
Gone are the days of 10 minute long reads like http://longform.org/. People are producing and consuming content in shorter, quippier, digestable ways (listicles, Buzzfeed, Twitter, theSkimm etc). As a writer, I find this paradigm shift towards short form text both fascinating and scary. The scroll can be your friend when you write long prose (Source: Michael Sippey). Now people just stop scrolling when your content doesn’t catch their attention in the first 30 seconds.
The market for text is larger than ever
People are still reading and producing text more than ever. Facebook, Messenger, Whatsapp, and iMessage indicate that the demand for text in messaging and commenting is exponentially increasing. People are just writing and consuming text in different ways.
For a social network to cater to as many people’s needs as possible it needs to provide a spectrum of sharing as diagramed above. No one sharing format can perfectly capture one person’s identity or needs. There is an amalgamation of personas within social networks. Snapchat is for fast, casual sharing in real time; Instagram is for beautiful images + text to capture your best moments; Notes and Medium are for deeper and richer storytelling when you want to get your points across. For a healthy sharing ecosystem you need a wide spectrum of sharing from lightweight to heavyweight richer storytelling.
Christiana and I broke down the sharing ecosystem by content types and depth of expression. Depth of expression is how much emotional content you can convey in one post. As you progress to the right of the spectrum the content format becomes more meaningful and deeper in expression due to a combination of text and multimedia stories. When I see a singular check-in or Snapchat, I get a glimmer of a person. When I read a note or Medium post, I feel connected to that person and know how they think.
The future of writing is going to be Text+
Text’s linguistic sentence structure adds unique organization to other media. When it comes down to telling a story in visual, video, or written form it is all about flow and organization. The ability to communicate with simple words to complex sentence structures to paragraphs offer an unique advantage for text to be a flexible and modular media that organizes photos and videos into a multimedia story.
Text is the most flexible communication technology. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, when there’s a picture to match what you’re trying to say.
The future of text is going to be text+ (text + multimedia e.g. photos, videos, gifs, podcasts etc). In a mobile first world coupled with our shrinking attention span, readers and users want text+ for a faster, more immersive, gratifying consumption experience. Multimedia stories are the future of text. For rich storytelling to have the fast consumption of videos and it photos, it also needs to be interwoven with the depth and organization of text. It’s not going to be enough for Medium to be just text + photos. The Atatvist Mag does a great job embedding rich media into longform content. Now anyone can generate Pulitzer-winning content on par with “Snowfall”, which is powerful. The Atavist is democratizing high brow publishing to the masses. You don’t need programmers or photo editors anymore to produce high quality long form content. Publishing platforms like Facebook Notes, Medium, and the Atavist empower anyone to generate publisher-par content.
Text Conveys Emotional Depth
I question a world and system that overweighs “fast food consumption” over “slow food consumption”. Text is slow food because it takes longer to produce and consume. Like fast food, fast consumption fills you up fast but doesn’t do much for you. In a world where we measure user satisfaction and trust, we neglect the very basic metric for “connectedness” between users. NPS scores mean nothing if your users don’t feel connected to each other. I want to see companies adopt a metric for “connectedness” measuring how a reader feels towards the writer after reading a story. We should measure how you feel after reading a post. Did it make you feel more connected to the writer? Was the 1 minute you spent reading quality time? How does 1 minute of cat video trade off with 1 minute of reading?
Most importantly, text conveys a certain emotional depth that is not possible in photos and videos. People write during heightened states in their life like when Sheryl Sandberg wrote about losing her husband (I broke down reading her beautiful and poignant post) or when Mark Zuckerberg wrote about the miscarriages he and his wife Priscilla experienced before Max was born (very few people talked publicly about the pain of miscarriages until Mark’s text post). Writing helps us share our pain and heal together by connecting others to us through shared humanity. Through writing we find out that we are not as alone as we thought about our hardships. Writing is a conveyor of vulnerability and brings people together.
You can get to know someone through their writing. Writing makes me feel like I know someone like katie zhu before meeting her. From reading Katie’s Medium posts, I felt like I knew her and skipped the small talk when we met in person. We talked about everything from our shared love for writing to love-hate relationship with SF to internet ethics to cognitive diversity. We started on what would have been a fourth or fifth conversation level all thanks to me reading her writing. Writing connects people because it provides a deeper understanding of someone’s psyche, their beliefs, and their values. And that is a powerful thing in a world with so many disparate beliefs and divisiveness in political and religious factions. Writing has the ability to help you understand the other side’s opinion and dismount hidden biases.
Your product is only as good as the amalgamation of the people who use it. Content changes on the web but products that build deeper, meaningful connections between people will be lasting.
Let’s not get caught up in a “fast food consumption” world and forget that the internet can also be place for permanent, deep, and meaningful expressions. And this is why I believe in text. Text is not over yet, it’s just the beginning.