TL;DR: The Problem With Long-Form Publishing Plays

Last week, our writer Devin Coldewey wrote a 3,000-word essay on Google+. It got 114 comments. Comment numbers are a wildly inaccurate metric for popularity in general – some posts get 100 comments because they’re poorly written, sensationalistic, and/or just strike a nerve – but in this case 114 is a good number for a long piece on a relatively boring subject. On the same day we posted a video filmed inside Dropbox HQ with a 298-word post attached and a post about 99dresses that topped out at 501 words. Those got 18 and 41 comments, respectively. I could probably dig into our metrics, but you could argue that all three of those posts were interesting to our audience and that, on a comment-per-word basis, Devin had to write 26 words to get one comment while the Dropbox post needed 18 words per comment. The 99dresses post had 12 words per comment. It’s inexact science, to be sure, but bear with me.

What did we prove? Not a damn thing. That’s what’s a bit disturbing about all of these “long-form publishing” plays we’re seeing popping up on the Internet these days. The latest is PostDesk, a site that, according to Betakit, will “give absolutely anyone with a desire to write – whatever their background – a platform in order for them to get the exposure they deserve.” Another play, one that looks decidedly less catholic in their acceptance of any old drivel, is Matter. But both use that buzzword – long-form – with the intimation that “short-form” is somehow bad.

That’s the trick. Long-form is no better than short-form or tweets or image tumblrs. All three can be equally good or equally bad. I can argue that Devin wrote too much – and maybe Eric wrote too little – but the effect in terms of views, comments, media sharing, and general “pleasure” gained from the consumption of this content is approximately the same. A short story that holds your interest can be as powerful as a Stephen King novel, although you may not feel you’ve gotten the same “value” out of reading The Lottery than you would reading some hunk of text like Under The Dome. It’s all about time and attention, and no one has any of either.

The problem you face with long-form sites is the problem you face with most sites: to gain traffic, in a general way, you have to write a lot. And I’m not talking about a lot of words, but a lot of subsequent posts. A fresh page is what most people flock to, and arguably, there can be too much of a good thing. But the low-hanging fruit in the blog world, something that no one wants to talk about, is that you really have to publish a lot to gain traction. Sure if you’re a Gruber or a Dash or a Scoble you can maybe squeak by with a few posts per week, but that’s a lot different from one big post every five days.

I worry that the assumption that people are clamoring for long form writing is incorrect. The main mission of most web browsing sessions – to dick around on the Internet – points directly to the value of brevity. To say people are looking for the gravitas in their writing through length is akin to telling a Shakira fan they’ll really like Joanna Newsom – after all, Newsom is just a female singer who sings longer. Like Shakira but inherently “better”.

There are two consumption cases for long-form writing. The first is “free-time” reading that can be online or offline and this encompasses the mass of potential “long-form” pieces including multi-tomed volumes of fiction or non-fiction. In a world where there are no physical pages, everything longer than a few thousand words is long form.

Then there is the “dicking around on the Internet when you should be working” use case, which is decidedly harder to crack. Too long and you’re bored, too short and you cry “link bait.” That’s why you have Instapaper – it’s a graveyard for things you don’t want your boss seeing you read at work.

Obviously there are other markets for long-form writing – journals, trade publications, magazines – and we’re not talking about those. We’re talking about organizations that aim to make what amount to podcasts in print – one good story a day or week, written well, and well edited. The world is clamoring for that, they say, and I agree – to a degree. The world is also clamoring for pictures of Levi Johnston’s new girlfriend, and they’re clamoring for a 1,000-word screed against/for Obamacare. The world is too much with us, late and soon, to quote a noted aquatics enthusiast.

I worry that what we’re seeing is the next, misguided generation of “magazines.” The idea is that you pay a small amount for a 5,000-word piece, stuff it onto your e-reader for later, and then don’t read it. Rinse. Repeat. I also worry that what they mean by “long form” is long-winded, interesting only to a chosen few and valued by nearly none. The idea of long form reeks of a sort of school marmish attitude that all of the short form content we are consuming is junk. Arguably, this is often true, but it’s not anyone’s place to tell us what to consume, right?

It is noble to want to fix online journalism. It really is. But I worry that in the fixing, we’re going to move too far from where online publications – like this one – really shine: producing a little something for everyone, occasionally producing a real gem, and generally pushing the conversation forward on a number of important topics on the day. You rarely, if ever, can pull off all three when your goal is to hit some “long-form” tripartite target of length, readability, and topicality. You can try, sure, but you often fail.