Saturday, November 24, 2012


I have never been a huge fan of brevity.  I realize concision is all the rage these days, that we need to say what we want to say in 140 characters or less.  When I started this blog, Blogger was, along with Myspace, probably the dominant platform by which people shared their ideas with the world.  Other nascent social media sites such as Xanga and LiveJournal saw users who would often pen lengthy missives.  Now, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr encourage, if not mandate, users to boil their thoughts down to terse communiques. 

But it's not just in the online world that I am conscious of the favoring of succinctness. In a series of vocations I have had in my life, I have been made constantly aware that boredom is the enemy, that if I'm not "to the point" with what I want to say, my audience will tune me out.  This is always difficult for me to accept, since I came of age in an environment where I didn't realize that tuning out was even an option.  When you have four television channels, channel surfing gets old fast.  When you can't scroll through or click on items that provoke interest, you simply read pages in order, in their entirety.  When a sentence you have just read doesn't make sense, rather than click on to the next thing, you go back and reread the sentence multiple times.  When a song you don't like comes on the radio, rather than switch channels (which often seems more trouble than it's worth when you have to tune a dial), you suffer through it until another song comes on.  And when a teacher is in front of the room talking, there is no phone for you to resort to, so you might as well pay attention.

This is not to say that I haven't now, to some extent, embraced the culture I now inhabit.  I don't read nearly as many 19th Century novels as I used to, certainly not nearly as often as I scroll through my Facebook feed.  I am committed to posting something at least semi-lengthy on this blog once per week, but I post on Facebook several times a week (in light of my frustration with character limits, though, I still limit my Tweeting).  And I fully appreciate the ability to not suffer through bad songs.  Likewise, I no longer feel the need to listen to awful TV sports broadcasters, since I can watch a game while following stats or having message board conversations online.

But I do worry that our media is leading us to a more superficial existence.  I know that I'm not the first person to express such a worry. And yet, I wouldn't regard this move toward "the shallows" as an entirely recent phenomenon.  I fully realize that an irony in the above paragraphs is my suggestion that the mid-2000s web and the media of television and radio represent the "good old days" of human engagement, of lengthy discourse.  I do think it's true that the web today is more "shallow" than the web ten years ago, and that the cable TV multiverse is more "shallow" than the network TV of my youth, but of course I recognize that the discussion is relative.  My understanding is that when Ralph Waldo Emerson toured to give lectures in the 19th Century, he would speak for hours.  Likewise, preacher's Sunday sermons could last the length of today's football games.  But something happened to our collective attention span long before anyone knew what a "world wide web" was.  The Internet was not the first invention to encourage people to devote less time to engaging with depth.  More than 100 years prior, the telegraph may have been the first invention that incentivized brevity in communication.

Actually, I would argue that the invention of the newspaper headline, which wasn't until the late nineteenth century, represented a notable new idiom. Book titles in the first couple of centuries after the printing press were notably different than titles today--they weren't rhetorical in the sense that they didn't attempt to inspire purchases.  Authors strove to truly summarize the contents of the book, which usually meant long (and by today's standards unwieldy) titles.  And for a long time, newspaper articles appeared without a headline attached.  But since newspapers were regularly produced and eminently disposable, writers and editors realized they were competing for a potential reader's attention.  The complexity of any news story was compressed into a few mere words; one could regard headlines as the first tweets.  Or perhaps a better comparison would be what some have referred to as "click bait."  Long before people relied on a mouse to navigate their consumption of content, headline writers anticipated the mentality that would drive people to engage or disengage.  And of course, the famous "inverted pyramid" of newswriting helped to condition people to expect an instant pay off in return for attention.

So now given the century long move toward shallowness, I don't hold out hope that we can put the genie back in the bottle.  But I wouldn't mind seeing, on principle, headlines that don't give us what we expect.  In 1986, a magazine editor somewhat famously declared that he found the most boring headline ever in the New York Times: "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative."  I'm not sure if that particular initiative proved to be worthwhile or not, but I know that if the Canadians ever came up with an initiative to do away with headlines entirely, I would find that worthwhile.


Blogger Suzanne B. said...

I enjoyed reading your blog. I also enjoyed your rhetorical choice for an "UNTITLED" title.

11:14 AM  

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