TL;DR = Too Long; Didn’t Read.

The world wide web, with its power to seamless connect people to information and other people’s shared thoughts and opinions, is arguably the best thing that has happened to the world in the last 30 years. The world wide web is also arguably one of the worst things that has happened to the average human’s ability to focus on long form content (video, print etc.) and to deep dive into specific details of a topic.

In the world where all content had to be funneled through either radio, television or print, content distribution was essentially controlled by big corporate gatekeepers in the form of network and publishing executives. The world wide web broke this, see my previous post on ‘the great commoditization of distribution’.

With the internet came democratization of content and platforms. We live in a world where anyone with a connected device can create content that has the potential to be distributed to every other connected consumer in existence. The barrier to content creation and distribution that existed in the old order has been shattered, consumers now have the same amount of time to consume increasingly more pieces of short and long form content, so much so that we have platforms like Youtube where users are uploading 300 hours of video every minute.

The problem here from a consumer’s standpoint is that although the amount of content in existence is increasing at an alarming rate, 1 day is still = 24 hours and human attention is zero sum resource i.e. every minute spent focusing on Snapchat is a minute not spent focusing on Youtube.

So how are consumers reacting to all this?

With so many content creators vying for our attention, we have unknowingly become powerful summarizing machines. This is good for our sanity, but ultimately problematic for a number of reasons that I think have also become a lot more pronounced to me during this election season. We opt for highlights, and content creators and media savvy political campaigns are effectively exploiting this. We often form opinions simply from reading a catchy headline without reading the content, or from watching a video clip in isolation and out of context.

An example of something along these lines I saw recently was where Donald Trump told a bold faced lie about how Obama was screaming at a protester. The thing is, Obama never screamed at the protester, on the contrary, Obama surprisingly called out 3 reasons why supporters should respect the protester. Trump here was relying on the fact a huge percentage of the people who consumed the lie he told would not do any verification beyond just taking his word for it. In fact Trump was so confident in the TL;DR generation’s inability to use readily available search tools for content verification that he even even challenged his supporters to go study the video clip for themselves, knowing fully well that the majority would not accept his challenge.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately from a personal context, trying to figure out how my internal summarizing machine is shaping my thoughts and beliefs. How do I stay in touch with new media platforms without losing my ability to go deep on long form content that can provide a stronger foundation on which to build my thoughts and beliefs? A couple of things I am trying to do better to help fight my internal summarizers ability to control me — this is not an exhaustive list:

  1. Google search is my friend. This is particularly important in the context of social media platforms like Facebook, where there is a big risk of simply believing everything that people share from strangewebsiteiveneverheardabout.com. Chances are that if a crazy sounding story with global impact is true, a simple google search will probably show multiple credible sources carrying the story or debunking the story (for false stories).
  2. Ignore clickbait article headlines. This tends to be incredibly easy for me to do when it comes from strangewebsiteiveneverheardabout.com, or websiteassociatedwithusingclickbaittopushanagenda.com that messes with our internal summarizer.
  3. Read more books and other long form content by domain experts in topics I care about. Because of the explosion of short form or highlighted media, there is an increasing tendency to think that we are now subject matter experts on every topic under the sun after reading a 4 paragraph long blog post on why Obamacare sucks, or reading a NYT article on Benghazi, or hearing Donald Trump talking about trade with China.

The first two are pretty straightforward to do, the third is a little more difficult to integrate into a life with fixed time but increasing content, although I believe it is probably the most important point and will hopeful ultimately higher levels of clarity to my thoughts and discussions in the long run.

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