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:
- 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.
- Go deep. The other option, of course, is to do the opposite – go deep instead.
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?”
“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).
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:
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…