How to Succeed in a TL;DR Culture


TL;DR – when attention spans get shorter, we can either accommodate this by going short ourselves, or we can do the opposite and go deep.

Our attention spans may or may not be getting shorter – the evidence is pretty mixed at the moment.  But one of the symptoms of shorter attention spans is the Too Long: Didn’t Read (TL;DR) idea – the meme that gets pulled out whenever someone is yammering on online.


There are two possible responses to people avoiding stuff that’s too long:

  1. Go short.  If everyone wants short, snappy ideas packaged up in easy to read formats (list posts!), then the way to reach everyone is to go short.  If that’s where the masses are, that’s where you need to go.
  2. Go deep.  The other option, of course, is to do the opposite – go deep instead.

This thought was triggered while I was reading Seth Godin’s colossal book This Might Work/This Might Not Work, which was one of the rewards in his kickstarter campaign for The Icarus Deception.

Seth Godin Behemoth


He called it the behemoth before it had a name, and it’s a good example of going deep.  It collects probably a couple thousand of his best blog posts, and it puts into one gigantic 800 page book – and you better make sure you bend your knees and keep your back straight when you try to lift it.

Of course, he’s also gone the other direction, and put a bunch of shorter eBooks through The Domino Project.  His argument there is that the 250 page book is an artefact of the financial constraints of publishing physical books.  Books have normally been about that long because it’s an economical number of pages to print, and it’s about what people expected for their money.  But as we shift to digital, and pricing is back in play, neither of those constraints holds any more.

You get an advantage when you go to the extremes – short or deep.  The behemoth points us to a third option too: go special.  But average is pretty dangerous.

As readers, we face the same choice.  We can give in to TL;DR, and skip the harder stuff.  Or we can go deep too.

Godin tells this story about one of my favourite writers, David Foster Wallace:

A guy asked his friend, the writer David Foster Wallace,

“Say, Dave, how’d y’get t’be so dang smart?”

His answer:

“I did the reading.”

No one said the preparation part was fun, but yes, it’s important. I wonder why we believe we can skip it and still be so dang smart.

So maybe the opposite of TL;DR is I Did the Reading (IDTR).

I Did the Reading

The challenge with going short is that this is the world of the outlier – it’s a blockbuster business because you’re aiming for the masses.  In news, this is where the Huffington Post has gone.  The newspapers that have managed to stick around have been in niches, like The Financial Times, or they have made a point of going deep, like The Guardian.

The same thing is coming in higher education.

For a long time, if you were an academic, it was fine to be average – in fact, most of us were.  But the same changes in technology that are wreaking havoc with newspapers, book publishers and record labels are changing the environment for education as well.

In this environment, average is really dangerous.

The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) represent the advent of education as a blockbuster business.  Now, instead of having 25 or 100 students in a class, we can have 1000s.  That’s a big change.  We’re still working out how MOOCs should be structured – just recording lectures combined with assessment lacking any depth at all is a lousy model, even though it’s currently the one receiving the most hype.  This is the go short option.

Ultimately, the way forward has to be a system that is built for this technology, like the Connectivist courses put together by George Siemens and Stephen Downes.  This is the go special option.

There are business model issues here as well – MOOCs don’t make much money – a feature for Siemens and Downes, who value access, and a bug for those that are trying to use them to get rich.

Eventually, this will get sorted, and MOOCs will be the blockbusters of education – they will fill the “Head” position in this graph from Godin:

long tail profit pockets


What’s the go deep option?  I think it’s probably going very high touch.  This can be small team experiential learning, or small seminar/workshop classes, or something else that has a very low student/teacher ratio.  And the teacher won’t teach – they’re more likely to be a coach/mentor/facilitator.  This is region 2 in Godin’s figure – the niche.  Region 3 is the long tail, the area where someone makes a little bit from lots of transactions across a wide range of products.  I’m not sure what this would be for education.

The interesting thing here is that being an academic in charge of a MOOC and being an academic in charge of a high touch small class both require skills that the current “average” academic doesn’t have at all.  The squeeze here will be on people that are just regurgitating material that has been put together by others.  You’ll either need to generate new knowledge and be great at communicating it to live in the blockbuster section, or you’ll need to be good at the high touch work that goes into niches.  Both require your own deep knowledge and great communication skills.

TL;DR is definitely a part of our culture now.  I’m not sure that we need to give into it though by going short.  If that’s what everyone is doing, then there are some real advantages to going deep.  That’s a pretty good way to be remarkable.

And if you made it all the way to this line of the post, now you can say IDTR!  At least, some of it…


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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7 thoughts on “How to Succeed in a TL;DR Culture

  1. The David Foster Wallace quote mentioned preparation. Isn’t a key question, preparation for what? If you only need broad strokes of knowledge or simple trivia for small talk fodder, then why waste time going deep? I sometimes find that I as a presenter/ coach am uncomfortable delivering or sharing deep content. It feels out of sync with our culture. But when that content is of critical importance to a learner’s ability to perform well, a tolerance…dare I say hunger… for deeper learning emerges. How do we respond?

    Thank you for your thoughts about what go deep learning might look like.

    • Thanks for the comment Erin. I do think that you have to have a purpose defined. That said, if you’re working on something worth doing, then going deep is pretty important.

      I understand what you’re saying about presenting deep content. So here’s a question – would you rather avoid depth, have everyone “enjoy” the talk, but take no action, or is it better to go deep, have most of the people tune out, while 1 or 2 completely resonate with what you’re saying and then do something about it? The choice isn’t always so clean – I can’t necessarily turn off 90% of the students in my class – but I do think it’s worth thinking about…

  2. Good post Tim. Although I do have a small issue:

    People often confuse density with profundity. They wear their obscurity as if it was a badge of honor; as if the fact that they are so completely unintelligible makes them that much smarter.

    One of the things that has really surprised me in my own writing is how little length matters. If you make it user friendly, with a headline that shows a clear benefit and an opener that interest the reader and make the text manageable—avoiding huge blocks of text and inserting landmarks—people will read even long posts.

    I agree with Wittgenstein’s point that if you can’t communicate something, you don’t truly understand it. So maybe David Foster Wallace was not just smart because he did the reading, but also because he did the writing and took the time and effort to produce work that others wanted to read.

    – Greg

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