“How much money will you make writing this article?” he asks. EVEN DRUG LORDS DREAM OF LONG FORM
— Caitlin Flanagan (@CaitlinPacific) January 10, 2016
Over the weekend, Rolling Stone released an interview between Sean Penn and Mexican drug lord ‘El Chappo,’ which was immediately and soundly mocked on Twitter. Users took to the platform to post screenshots of long phrases of (grammaticallyﾅum, adventurous) text from the article. These sections of text exceeded 140 characters, making a screenshot necessary to post it in full. This kind of practice, which is common on Twitter, is one of the reasons why Twitter is reportedly considering changing the defining feature of its service: the 140-character limit.
When the news dropped that the character limit would increase to 10,000, Twitter users freaked out. Understandable, seeing as the 140 limit is the defining feature of the conversational and fast-paced nature of the platform. Basically, everyone is afraid of reading tedious rants spelled out with extra characters. But long form doesn’t have to be tedious and, contrary to popular belief, long form isn’t necessarily a deterrent for readers with short attention spans.
The case for long form
Digital marketers have been making a case for long form content since 2013. The appetite for substantive, quality posts is there — something that the most popular and innovative news services are noting. Vox, The Atlantic, and Buzzfeed all produce in-depth features that provide nuanced and detailed examinations of topics, rather than brief pieces that skim the facts. Blogs like Tumblr and Medium demonstrate the value in investing in the ‘slow content movement.’ Within media, there’s a definite shift toward covering the entire picture. What’s interesting about the switch is that real storytelling is winning out over quick hits. Here’s the thing — people don’t want to feel like they’re reading the equivalent of a Slapchop commercial. We are inundated with advertising, so anything that appears to be selling more than informing comes off as cheap or hacky.
The other obvious benefit to long form is that search engines have picked up on the hacky-ness, or sometimes otherwise lacking, shorter content. They prioritize well-crafted material that engages readers. From both a reader and search engine standpoint, a lack of details has become suspect.
Twitter and long form
Ironically, Twitter’s 140 characters could be considered part of the reason why long form is now more popular. Aside from forcing brevity, the 140 limit creates real-time updates, a level playing field for speaking in a public forum, and along with that, access. Pieces, like the Sean Penn article, can be discussed and dissected for their merit, and that discussion includes writers, editors, and subject-matter experts. The desire to read up on a topic, in all its complexity, comes partly from these kinds of conversations that point out biases and blindsides in standard news stories and poorly researched accounts.
Furthermore, Twitter has given voice to groups of people that have traditionally been excluded from public discourse. Black Twitter, #BlackLivesMatter, and a number of feminist causes have all used Twitter as a launching point. The existence of such groups online pushes content to be more inclusive and more representative, and often, more detailed. On The Atlantic, long essays like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘The Case for Reparations’ have become typical. More than ever there is an appetite for the ‘real’ story, whatever that may be, that encourages users to spend more time with sources.
What this means for brands
While this might seem like it doesn’t matter for brands, it does. Vox has been pushing to deliver content to users in innovative ways, and as their CEO Jeff Bankoff noted in an interview with TechCrunch, there is an opportunity in digital media:
‘We know somethings as a fact. Globally there is a $250 billion advertising market of which 70 percent is really built on brand buildingﾅ the top of the funnel, to use the marketing jargon. If you look at the web, which is a $25 billion slice of that pie, 80 percent of it is direct response—it’s searchﾅ it’s bottom of the funnel stuff. So there’s a big market opportunity there that hasn’t been captured. Where is all the brand building going that we had seen previously in magazines and newspapers and even in broadcast going to go, as consumers turn their attention to digital media? We believe there’s a big opportunity there, but someone has to actually go after it—someone has to bring the quality back.’
People are more knowledgeable and are able to do more research. A large portion of this research is done via search, and people are more critical of the results. Online behaviour has adapted to an influx of information to spend more time with longer, quality content — if you want your audience’s loyalty, you have to earn it.
Twitter has always been a platform that embraces long form, but it’s done so by allowing its users to easily link and endorse outside sources. While Twitter obviously wants to appeal to a wider audience and keep users on its site, it risks alienating its biggest users. The fact that even Twitter — which has based an entire platform on brevity, created online communities using 140-characters, and has spurred the evolution of online language to fit such constraints — is considering abandoning the central feature of its service in favour of longer content should give you pause.
It’s time to embrace length rather than shy away from it. Like Jeff Bankoff said, ‘someone has to bring the quality back,’ and it might as well be you.
Photo: “2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) – 30” by Nic McPhee