In Defense of Essay-length Online Writing

Brevity is the soul of wit. True enough. But, information that brings us to a more enlightened approach to understanding the world often needs to “play out” in a substantial interaction of ideas, a “testing” of logical thought-processes as relating to concept and interpretation, an essay. There has long been a presumption that online writing must be brief, due to the “above the fold” bias of attention-span deficient online readers, but I would argue that the medium is actually ideally suited to something very different.

The traditional newspaper or magazine has a limited amount of space, as well as the physical constraints of materials used, weight, shipping, cost, etc., that necessarily interfere with the length and scope of materials contained within. And yet, one can often find far longer profile or investigative pieces printed in the pages of The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair, than one tends to find on even probing, serious investigative online publications.

Indeed, traditional print news sources are often the most reliable sources of lengthy, in-depth online writing and analysis. The paradox here is that the online medium lends itself to length, as costs for storage and “global distribution” are so low as to be almost zero for any given article published. What we do not have is an established tradition of treating web media as primary sources for serious journalism and cultural analysis, and so we have not come to devote our attention spans to reading the fullest, most in-depth writing available online.

There are legitimate reasons relating to both craft and content for longer, even meandering essays. An essay, as such, is an experiment with an idea, or a series of ideas, a rehearsal of thought-processes and rhetoric, aimed at behaving like a forum for exploration of related themes and the testing of certain challenges to a central thesis or guiding set of principles. This is a vital part of our literary and philosophical collective endeavor, as a species, as a civilization, and the online medium is ideally suited to “give place” (a phrase taken from the Spanish language) to that rehearsal.

One key drawback for realizing this special quality of the online medium is end-user interface: the conventional laptop or desktop computer monitor does bias the reader toward a chronic confinement to “above the fold” content. For whatever reason, the human intellect is less willing or less able (probably due to an instinctual bias toward efficiency in gathering information) to locate links and media that occur outside the main featured areas highlighted by above-the-fold or page-load site layout. As one scrolls down, sidebar content is increasingly “buried”, harder for the loosely attentive eye or impulsive browser to locate.

But hardware is being developed that will better harness the capabilities of the website format for long-text reading. E-paper technologies and ultra-thin full-color monitor designs are evolving to a point where letter-sized single-sheet edge-to-edge panels will be able to store massive amounts of data and present book-length documents in a much more physically and visually comfortable format. This will allow web-pages to evolve, to develop better approaches to the end-user interface issue related to buried marginal content and scroll-to-read obstacles.

If it were possible to actually “sit with” a long piece of writing, the way we do with magazines and books, online writing would be better able to start exploiting the vast storage and distribution potential of the medium. The idea of a limitless archive of globally available information, a sort of library of Alexandria to the nth degree, would be more relevant to our use of the web, and browsing the web for “information” would be simultaneously more serious, more entertaining, and more educational.

Publishers need to consider that high-quality, full-length online content not only has a real commercial potential for the future, given the evolution of e-reading technologies, but that paper and publishing are also evolving to integrate such new functions, so that publishing as a whole will benefit broadly from embracing such advances. That embrace needs to happen in such a way that quality of content, democratization of production, free flow of imformation and author’s rights, are all central to the way these new publishing formats develop.

In the meantime, the web is now mature enough that it is in fact the primary source of information about the world for millions of end-users. If we can take seriously the idea that this is not a fluke and that human beings are not from this point forward condemned to gravely limited attention spans, then we can work on finding ways to make essay-length, contemplative writing more of a fixture in online publishing.

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