It’s no accident that editor Liz Danzico and I came up with the idea for and launched A Brief Message this year, of all years. Brevity is a meme with a lot of currency today. You can see it not just at our site, where the design opinions and the reader responses run no longer than two hundred words a piece, but at completely different sites like Twitter, Pownce and Tumblr too, where the economy of words is so sparing that it might take hours before you come across a sentence with a fully formed subject-verb-predicate construction. Similarly, Very Short List offers a kind of editorial curation that, in years past, might have run much longer than its two- or three-paragraph average length. Think Suck.com
People’s attention spans are shorter, for sure, but there’s an argument that, by accommodating shorter attention spans, sites like ours are only compounding the problem. Some people, in fact, find the whole trend alarming (a prominent design writer whom we invited to contribute to A Brief Message politely replied, and I’m paraphrasing, that he was ‘against everything we stood for’). And if you look at an outlet like Brijit, even champions of brevity like myself might give pause.
Get Paid for the Words You Don’t Write
Brijit, whose name is apparently a playful variation on “abridge it”, is attempting to turn brevity into a business model. The site encourages users to write summaries of long-term content — pulled mostly from mainstream media sources like The Economist, Wired and, yes, The New York Times — in an open competition. Sort of like The Week as powered by users. If the site’s editors decide your 100 word distillation of, say, a several thousand word-long investigative piece in The Times is the best summary among those submitted, the site will pay you a small fee for publishing rights.
Whether it’s a workable model or not remains to be seen. Personally, I think the only sustainable fuel for a site like this is a solidly formed community; and as we saw with Netscape’s attempts to transform audiences into motivated community members through financial reward, money is not necessarily an effective binder for that.
Replacement or Enhancement?
Still, I wish them luck because I do believe there is a place for this kind of summarization. In effect, this new flavor of brevity is a natural point on the continuum between full-length content and the staccato abstraction of tags and folksonomies — it sits between the two as a kind of narrational metadata. For people who are frightened by its potential to displace long-form content, my take is that brevity is just another use for the original text, another way of transmitting the same core ideas. Much as the act of describing a terrific article you read in the newspaper is no replacement for the article itself, but rather another path that that article takes to disseminating its ideas.
In a sense, that’s the way we look at A Brief Message: as a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to bigger ideas. Get hooked on the short version, get deeper into the long version. Admittedly, we can do a better job at drawing explicit links between our short-form pieces and actual longer-form explorations of similar ideas, but the potential is there, at least, and we’re beginning to establish the foundation for that to happen.
In fact, that’s the way I like to look at this kind of short-form writing in total, and it’s exactly why I don’t think authors or editors should be frightened of it. If it’s the ideas that count, then this new brevity is actually a method of propagation, rather than displacement. That is, it’s not a substitute for reading the original text, but rather a substitute for not reading it.