Too Long. Didn’t Read.

 

I’m traveling in Europe, and find that the combination of iPad + free wi-fi means that I end up reading the entire NYTimes and WSJ and Financial Times. At home, at most, I’ll skim all three.

Skimming, in fact, is the subject of this excellent piece in the NYTimes Sunday edition.

It’s a culture of skimmers and skippers, according to the author, and I think he has a point:

It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything. We pick topical, relevant bits from Facebook, Twitter or emailed news alerts, and then regurgitate them. Instead of watching “Mad Men” or the Super Bowl or the Oscars or a presidential debate, you can simply scroll through someone else’s live-tweeting of it, or read the recaps the next day. Our cultural canon is becoming determined by whatever gets the most clicks.

In his 1987 book “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” E. D. Hirsch Jr. listed 5,000 essential concepts and names — 1066, Babbitt, Pickwickian — that educated people should be familiar with. (Or at least that’s what I believe he wrote, not having actually read the book.) Mr. Hirsch’s book, along with its contemporary “The Closing of the American Mind” by Allan Bloom, made the point that cultural literacy — Mr. Bloom’s canon — was the bedrock of our agreed-upon values.

That’s true on both sides of the political aisle, unfortunately.  Sometimes I’ll talk to fellow right-ish folks and I’ll be astonished at the way the conversation veers from facts and verifiable events to other, more superficial, things like “how this is playing in the media” and “the public image” or something.  Meaning, don’t distract me with facts.  Let’s talk about something more impressionistic, like “how it’s all playing with the voters.”

How do we know how anything is “playing” in the media? When did we all become media experts?

It reminds me of a time I was behind the one-way glass at a focus group conducted to evaluate the prospects of a new television series I was doing. “How did you like the show?” the group leader asked a woman in her mid-fifties.

“I think people in my demographic will like it a lot,” she replied.

“No, I mean, how did you enjoy it?” the leader asked again.

“There’s a lot in it that will appeal to people like me,” the woman replied.

She was incapable — or unwilling — to deliver a personal response. Okay, that’s not exactly what the NYTimes piece was pointing to, but the effect is the same. We all feel — I certainly do — that the meta-analysis of something is equal in value to an actual, genuine, answer.  

In a lot of ways, this is what so bedevils the Obama administration. (It’s also what gave it such a popular lift in its first few years….)

They’re always shifting the discussion to the meta-analysis. They’re always shifting talk about Obamacare or Benghazi or Iran or unemployment from the facts on the ground — worse than expected, meretricious incompetence, a public lie — to the meta side, to the “Fox News and our enemies” side, to “the Tea-Party hostage Republican party.”  

And they succeed, in part, because the NYTimes opinion piece is correct. People don’t read. They read about:

According to a recent survey by the American Press Institute, nearly six in 10 Americans acknowledge that they do nothing more than read news headlines — and I know this only because I skimmed a Washington Post headline about the survey. After we’ve skimmed, we share. Commenters frequently start their posts with TL;DR — short for Too Long; Didn’t Read — and then proceed to offer an opinion on the subject at hand anyway. As Tony Haile, the chief executive of the web traffic analytics company Chartbeat, recently put it, “We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.” (He tweeted that.)

Makes sense.  Especially for a Hashtag Presidency.

There are 30 comments.

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  1. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    I read this whole thing just in case I missed something Rob might have humorously inserted into the middle of the post that people who skimmed it might have missed.

    Similar to this: 

    • #1
  2. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    The huge irony, of course, is that the New York Times is almost entirely unreadable because there is VERY little information conveyed over the course of the average article.  It is incredible how many times the same information can be slightly massaged and retold again and again and again in that paper.

    • #2
  3. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    Albert Arthur: I read this whole thing just in case I missed something Rob might have humorously inserted into the middle of the post that people who skimmed it might have missed.

     NPR did a similar one for their April Fool’s Day joke.

    http://uproxx.com/uncategorized/2014/04/npr-april-fools-day-prank-facebook/

    • #3
  4. user_6236 Member
    user_6236
    @JimChase

    Deep thinking and analysis is hard in the too-much-information age.  We have experts for that sort of thing.

    • #4
  5. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    When did we all become experts in the media? When did Entertainment Tonight debut?

    Rob, I don’t know about the people that you work with, but there’s a lot of my co-workers who know how to technically get things on the air but are still woefully ignorant about the business side. I had a young associate producer give me the Nipper the Dog look at the mere mention of Roone Arledge. 

    “Who?”

    “Only the man who frickin’ invented your job, son.”

    As for being more concerned with the impression than the facts – modern media has nothing to do with it. That’s as old as politics. And only the hyperpolitical on both sides care. The vast ignorant mass in the middle doesn’t seem to care that they’ve been played.

    • #5
  6. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    Mortimer Adler – How To Read A Book. Revised edition. Pick one up today.

    • #6
  7. Big John Member
    Big John
    @AllanRutter

    I’ve polished my skimming vice through racing through my mystery fiction, mainly reading dialogue.  I force myself to work through non-fiction just to remember how to read more of what the writer has produced. 

    Modern media offers more quantity of skimmable bits of information, but usually not in enough detail or clarity to be actually capable of being absorbed and learned.  On the positive side, I have more access to more interesting, high-quality long-form articles from lots of authors I might not have found before.

    • #7
  8. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Wait… so you’re telling me that writing 1500 word essays for ricochet is not a winning strategy in this day and age?  Perhaps we should start writing about writing for ricochet.

    Of course, on the actual level you intended, I think you’re totally correct, and that is partially what separates the right from the left.  I’ve had so many arguments with liberals where I found myself saying something along the lines of:  “you know, this is actually a very complex issue that cannot be so quickly summarized,” or “people could spend their whole lives studying (or writing about) [xyz] and never scratch the surface.”  Seems there are a million ways for me to say “I don’t think we should be nearly so confident in our solutions – or even in our ability to diagnose (or to identify the need for a diagnosis),” and never get through to anyone.

    • #8
  9. lesserson Member
    lesserson
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    Ryan M:

     I’ve had so many arguments with liberals where I found myself saying something along the lines of: “you know, this is actually a very complex issue that cannot be so quickly summarized,”

    icantwinarguments_lightbox

    • #9
  10. user_128948 Member
    user_128948
    @JohnLawton

    I found the extraneous semicolon in TLDR too distracting, so I stopped there!

    • #10
  11. Kim K. Inactive
    Kim K.
    @KimK

    It occurred at the same time as the elevation of they as all purpose experts. As is, they are making a drug now that can….., and they were saying that the reason for the killing was…

    When pressed no one seems to know the actual identities of the anonymous theys.

    • #11
  12. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Allow me to defend skimming as a sort of self-defense tool.  So very much of what is written is not worth the time it takes to read it.

    • #12
  13. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Quickly scanned this thread.  Agree with Rob that Americans should do more skimping, or something to that effect.  Gotta go–just got a text.

    • #13
  14. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    tabula rasa:

    Quickly scanned this thread. Agree with Rob that Americans should do more skimping, or something to that effect. Gotta go–just got a text.

     So that’s how you read all those books!

    • #14
  15. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Casey:

    tabula rasa:

    Quickly scanned this thread. Agree with Rob that Americans should do more skimping, or something to that effect. Gotta go–just got a text.

    So that’s how you read all those books!

     Yup.  War and Peace in 30 minutes.  It’s about a big war, somewhere.

    • #15
  16. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Reminds me of my favorite criticism about polls: if you want to know what the ordinary guy on the street imagines what an educated person is supposed to say, take a poll; but if you want to know what an ordinary guy on the street thinks in his heart of hearts, go to a bar. 

    Capitalism’s chief asset is that it’s an information system … it tells you where (and in what proportion) to devote your resources because that’s where the demand is. But that whole system depends on consumers honestly reporting what they actually want. If they tell a pollster that they want X but they secretly demand Z, the market will keep flowing resources to the wrong places. 

    Which means, if you want capitalism to work properly, don’t try to dictate where the demand should come from — stand back, shut up, and listen. When the consumer speaks, listen.

    • #16
  17. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KC Mulville: Reminds me of my favorite criticism about polls: if you want to know what the ordinary guy on the street imagines what an educated person is supposed to say, take a poll; but if you want to know what an ordinary guy on the street thinks in his heart of hearts, go to a bar.

    Amen to that.

    • #17
  18. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    John Lawton:

    I found the extraneous semicolon in TLDR too distracting, so I stopped there!

    I’m so glad that you and Tabula Rasa took care of the necessaries on the thread, so I don’t have to pick up the slack from all these overly serious posters.

    • #18
  19. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Arahant:

    John Lawton:

    I found the extraneous semicolon in TLDR too distracting, so I stopped there!

    I’m so glad that you and Tabula Rasa took care of the necessaries on the thread, so I don’t have to pick up the slack from all these overly serious posters.

     I have dedicated my life to thoughtless frivolity. 

    • #19
  20. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    tabula rasa: I have dedicated my life to thoughtless frivolity.

    If only leftist politicians would do so, we would be safe.

    • #20
  21. user_199279 Coolidge
    user_199279
    @ChrisCampion

    The sad truth is that it’s easy to skim, to sample something, and feel like you’ve got a taste of it.  Real work is involved in reading a book of any kind, especially something dense that might run counter to the way you’ve always thought (I’d throw my Hayek “The Road to Serfdom” at a liberal if I thought any one of them would bother to read it, and try to absorb it, even if they didn’t agree with the conclusions).  

    Depending on what you’re skimming through, you’re looking for confirmation, not news or information.  Or you’re looking for topical stuff so you can respond when someone asks you if you’re heard the latest news on something.  

    It’s easy to tweet, to skim, to glance.  To put in 2 hours a night reading a book?  That might be asking a lot of a generation or two that’s only done that when they had to, for homework.

    • #21
  22. Eeyore Member
    Eeyore
    @Eeyore

    I considered reading your whole post, Rob, but I don’t have Spritz.

    • #22
  23. flownover Inactive
    flownover
    @flownover

    All hail Lucianne.com ! A couple words better than a headline and a link to go see if titillated. Haven’t we mostly become the “master’s voice” dogs of the 24 hour news cycle ?
    Drudge takes it to another level ( not saying whether it’s up or down) as his links leave the news bit behind and go straight to the titillation . His numbers speak for his popularity. Test yourself by looking at Drudge and seeing how many one-liners give you the information you think you understand without going to the link.  Try applying the TMZ/ET rule and see how many turn you off and help you avoid going to the link. And finally, how often have you already read the news and see that Drudge is late to the game ? 

    • #23
  24. flownover Inactive
    flownover
    @flownover

    Eeyore:

    I considered reading your whole post, Rob, but I don’t have Spritz.

     Spritz looks fantastic, do you think it is functional for us john q publix ?

    • #24
  25. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    This was predicted in 1909 by E.M. Forster in the short story, The Machine Stops.

    • #25
  26. Frozen Chosen Inactive
    Frozen Chosen
    @FrozenChosen

    The LIVs live!  So if people only read headlines, why are conservatives constantly telling themselves that they only need to better explain their position to win elections?  You can explain until you’re blue in the face but people aren’t listening – or reading for that matter.

    The MSM dominates because most people are too shallow to objectively evaluate the information they receive – they would rather just read the headline and vote accordingly.  That is why the Left is so successful at misinformation – it’s much easier to demagogue an issue than to explain its complexities and nuances.

    • #26
  27. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    After talking about politics on the internet for 12 years now.  I am wore out.  Really there is nothing interesting left.  Meta-analysis is the only thing left to talk about.

    • #27
  28. user_105642 Member
    user_105642
    @DavidFoster

    Rob, re the woman in the focus group…is it possible that the reason she talked about what her Demographic would think of the show instead of what *she* thought of it…was that she really didn’t like it but didn’t want to say so?  (Rather than the more philosophically-interesting possibility that you raise)

    Unlikely, I admit, but I raise the possibility for completeness.

    Jefferson Davis, when asked by a hostess whether he liked a certain dish, responded that “I’m sure it’s wonderful for people who enjoy that sort of thing.”

    • #28
  29. FightinInPhilly Coolidge
    FightinInPhilly
    @FightinInPhilly

    Arahant:

    KC Mulville: Reminds me of my favorite criticism about polls: if you want to know what the ordinary guy on the street imagines what an educated person is supposed to say, take a poll; but if you want to know what an ordinary guy on the street thinks in his heart of hearts, go to a bar.

    Amen to that.

     To really find out what KC thinks – join us at Tir Na Nog on July 11th for the Philly MeetUp! 

    • #29
  30. hcat Member
    hcat
    @hcat

    I plead guilty. Especially as I am deluged with daily updates from New Geography, The Urbanophile, The Federalist, First Things, The Imaginative Conservative, and, not least of all, Ricochet!

    • #30

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