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The Short-Is-Swell Movement in Digital Communication

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Most of us lead busy lives. Errands to run, people to see, messages to send. i mean tiny msgs without commas & forget periods cuz no time 4 that

This inexorable trend toward ever briefer-faster everything (snip, cut, snip snip) is both a national embarrassment and a disgrace. Period.

Unfortunately, we are in the thrall of digital media, which almost always favors speed over depth. Morning till night we bow low before the prodigious (quasi-religious?) powers of our smarty-pants devices, so glowy and touch-sensitive.

The result is plain to see. We’re losing our ability to reflect. The operative command today is “Give it to me short, condensed, or fast.”

Hardly any segment of our popular culture has been spared. Books, magazine articles, TV shows, even advertising copy and instructional manuals — all are shorter these days. Six-second videos playing in a continuous loop are hugely popular on smartphones. TV news reports are supplemented by scrolling tickers. Amazon.com has an entire section devoted to “Best Sellers in 15-Minute Short Reads.” In live theater, a new genre has emerged: 10-minute plays and musicals. I’m only mildly surprised that no one is insisting Twitter reduce its 140-character limit.

It would be hilarious were it not true, but some youngsters evidently find even texting too arduous. They choose instead to share thoughts in the language of sequential emoji. Ah, the young! So … visual. So … utterly defeated by the tyranny of Silicon Valley.

But so what? Why not cut to the chase? Well, no matter the prevailing sentiment, sometimes less is not more; sometimes it’s just less. If we were to adopt a national tool, I submit it would likely be the scissors.

If we were to adopt a national tool, I submit it would likely be the scissors.

When shrinkage becomes strategy, as it has in these matters, the underlying message to consumers is unequivocal: Deeper, nuanced content is essentially a waste of your time, so don’t even bother.

Am I being unnecessarily grouchy about the drift toward less? On the contrary. I contend a high degree of grouch is required.

The other day, while ruminating about all this, I reached out to Richard Watson, author of Future Files: A Brief History of the Next 50 Years. “Any chance that our aversion to, say, immersive reading is just a temporary cultural blip?” I asked.

I could almost hear him sigh. “I fear the further erosion of sustained, focused thought,” Watson answered.

Improbably, the short-is-swell movement recently gained an unofficial mascot — none other than novelist James Patterson. Yep, that Jim Patterson, best known for producing blockbusters that are ground out, nonstop, as if manufactured in a frankfurter factory. He has launched BookShots, a publishing imprint devoted to novels that can be read in two hours or less.

Patterson says the conceit behind BookShots is that they will skip “the boring parts.” He has got an ally in fellow writer Jesse Kornbluth, whose novel, Married Sex: A Love Story, came out last year. “Publishing has been trying to commit suicide for all the decades I’ve been writing, and it’s finally making progress,” Kornbluth told me (appropriately, in a text message). “One good reason is the belief that the public wants novels thick as doorstops, but they don’t. My ideal reader for Married Sex would open the novel as the plane lifts off from New York and finish as it lands in Los Angeles.”

If all this wanton pruning troubles you, I’m sorry to report that the situation may grow gloomier still. A Facebook executive recently predicted that, in five years, the site’s newsfeeds will be almost entirely filled with videos — because users vastly prefer video to actual, you know, words.

It’s not easy, but I’m resisting the temptation to conclude this column with a sad-face emoji.

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