The New York Times article on Twitter co-founder Ev Williams titled “A Founder of Twitter Goes Long” is about not so much the length of pieces people publish at his new venture, Medium, but their relevance. Williams, like the rest of us, is tired of being inundated with crap–especially purposefully disinforming crap. (He’s particularly unhappy, reportedly, about the Internet lies that disrupt the otherwise coherent arguments about the reality of climate change.) In the article, Williams is seen as “joining a mini-movement to celebrate long-form expression at sites and apps like Longform, Longreads and the Verge.” But while those other sites mentioned embrace longform as part of the chemical make-up, Medium does not. It even says so. Sometimes, the site says “not to long, not too short, just medium.” Yes, the first line of Medium’s About page seems to put Twitter (and Facebook) unapologetically in its sights, as it claims distinction to be a place “where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends.” But it’s a line further down the page that touches on the harder question Medium really has been built to address: “how do we increase the depth of understanding?”
That has been the nobler part of journalism (and writing in general) since Thucydides probably. The other part is the desire to influence– less value neutral than the noble desire to inform. Influence is the part of journalism that Rupert Murdoch is famous for, like media barons before him as far back as the Fourth Estate has had skin in the game. Influence is what Internet disruptors of climate change evidence seek and wield–without much of a desire to increase depth of understanding. But none of this has anything to do with length. Fact is, an exhaustive John McPhee or Janet Malcolm article clocking in at 20,000 words might not be as effective in persuading people of the truth as something more concise and hard-hitting. (And despite their length, articles by these titans of longform are still necessarily subjective treatments.) There is room for long and short, surely. But how many people have time for both? It’s easy to read Ev Williams’ turn toward more substantive writing as a reaction akin to what J. Robert Oppenheimer experienced–oh no, look what I’ve unleashed on the world. But it’s not length Williams is after–that’s a misconception. It’s substance, relevance, truth and something like egalitarianism. The egalitarianism part will be put to a thorny test: anybody who’s ever heard a boring storyteller go on at length will recognize that all voices are not created equal. Or at least they haven’t been equally honed and developed. (In October the second most popular story on Medium, despite its search for depth of understanding, was Why You Should Have a Messy Desk. Hint: Einstein’s desk looked like his hair.) In the Times, Ev Williams says “I want to give rationality a fighting chance.” It’s commendable and what every billionaire should do, but it won’t come from making things longer. Information packages have been shrinking steadily for centuries (see Dickens, Grisham) and the contraction hasn’t been measurably detrimental–indeed general knowledge in the population has exploded (Broad literacy itself is, in fact, a relatively recent historical reality.) As the trend continues, the information simply has to get smarter. It’s clear that 140 characters is too little room for substance, and that the long read–for all its virtues–has a built-in penetration problem due its powerful enemy: time. If only there were something in between…say, 2paragraphs?
Note: Both this writer and 2paragraphs have happily published articles on the Medium platform. And tweeted too.