The Instapaper Effect-Or, The Dilemma of Long-Form Writing on the Web

goat-choker (n.) An article of inordinate and suffocating length, produced to gratify the vanity of the author and the aspirations of the publication. (John McIntyre)

I regularly write articles that, by Web standards, are obscenely long. My November article on ShopWell was 6,500 words long, and my series last week on Google’s mobile ambitions ran to almost 7,000 words. Granted, it was broken up into three parts, but the longest section was still 2,600 words, or five Xconomy pages. Which is about five times the length of your average piece in TechCrunch, Mashable, VentureBeat, and the other popular tech blogs.

I wrote 7,000 words about Google because that’s how much space the material demanded. But sometimes I feel like a hypocrite, because the truth is that I don’t like to read long posts on the Web. If I come across an important article that’s more than two pages long (about 1,000 words), I click my browser’s Read Later button. That sends the piece off to Instapaper, a free Web service that reformats text for easy reading on an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, or Kindle e-reader.

For me, Instapaper is a real lifesaver. I love curling up with my iPad or Kindle and reading for hours. An article might look like a goat-choker on a Web page—but when it’s shorn of all the distractions of the desktop and the Web and presented on one of Instapaper’s nice, white, folio-style pages, it becomes easily digestible.

But that begs the question: why am I still writing long pieces for the Web? I don’t have the excuse that I used to have, when I worked for magazines like Science and Technology Review—i.e., that my pieces were just the digital reflections of works originally prepared for print.

I guess I’m going on faith. The faith that at least a few readers will be interested enough to click “next page” all the way to the end of a five-page article. Our data shows that there are such people, though not as many as I’d really like. The glass-half-full view is that at least some of my readers are fanatically loyal, sticking with me all the way to the end. The Google article is pretty heavy going, and it seems ungrateful to wish that more people were this attentive.

Then there’s the glass-half-empty view—the one that says it’s futile to make such high demands on readers when there’s such a big supply of short, snackable content just a click or two away. A print magazine on a newsstand might be competing with a few hundred other magazines, at worst, for the prospective buyer’s attention. Blogs must contend with the entire Web, where there are well over a trillion unique URLs, and where short-form content rules. (There’s a reason the average YouTube video is under three minutes long.) On top of all that, I can verify from my own experience that—as The New York Review of Books put it in a 2009 essay—“readers themselves seem allergic to reading extended pieces on computer screens.”

So we have a huge point of friction: The Web is the most flexible, immediate, and pervasive medium ever invented for spreading the written word. By extension, it ought to be a great medium for long-form writing. Yet it’s often a headache, literally, to consume those words on the screen of a personal computer. So people don’t.

Maybe what’s needed to reduce the friction and rejuvenate long-form journalism online is a more flexible way to send written information across the last one or two feet—or, as Web geeks might put it, a way to decouple the network layer from the presentation layer. I’m encouraged here by news that Dave Winer, the RSS and podcasting pioneer, is working on a new “minimal blogging tool” intended to separate the information in a blog post from any particular blog publishing system or media property. Tentatively called My.ReallySimple, Winer’s prototype system is a database that stores the body of a post and an optional title and link, and can then export that post to any other platform via RSS, a format readable these days by almost any browser or device. That’s all it does—it’s like a staging area for thoughts that might eventually make their way to Facebook or Twitter or your personal blog. The way I understand it, it’s supposed to maximize the portability of information by minimizing the fencing around it.

Winer comes at this meta-blogging project with a specific ideology about information ownership. He decries “corporate blogging silos” (referring, presumably, to hosted blogging, microblogging, and social bookmarking platforms, from Blogger to Twitter to Delicious) and writes that “The important thing [about My.ReallySimple] is that you and your ideas live outside the silo and are ported into it at your pleasure.” That’s fine, but what interests me is the potential of a system like My.ReallySimple to become a way station between commercial publications like Xconomy and all of the new devices, like the Kindle and the iPad, that are making long-form reading easier.

Winer thinks people will want to use My.ReallySimple to store Web clips that they might want to share in multiple places later. But what if publishers could use it too? If the reference version of every newspaper, magazine, and blog article lived inside some kind of platform-agnostic database like Winer’s, it could still be ported from there to a publication’s content management system for viewing on the desktop Web, but it could just as easily be sent to a news reader, a cell phone, a Kindle, an iPad, a text-to-speech program, or whatever reading contraption is popular a few years from now. In this world, readers wouldn’t have to seek out an external tool like Instapaper every time they wanted to bridge the gap between the Web and their handheld readers—they could just subscribe to a publication’s feed and have all of that publication’s content delivered to their platform of choice.

Maybe it’s silly to rest my hopes in a yet another technological solution. And obviously, whenever you separate content from its traditional containers, it raises big revenue and business-model questions—which is fodder for another discussion. But I’m encouraged by word from New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzoretti that tens of thousands of people, sometimes hundreds of thousands, read the magazine’s cover stories online, despite their great length (8,000 to 15,000 words, occasionally more). “The conventional wisdom that the Internet was not friendly to any piece of prose longer than a few hundred words has not been borne out at the Times Magazine site,” Marzoretti said in a 2009 address. “Our most popular pieces are the longest.” Someday, I hope to be able to say that too.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • I always see it as the same commitment issue that exists across the web – if there are options to read snippets of the content to see if we want to keep reading, we will. Unfortunately some people are so stigmatized by long-form that they don’t realize you often can learn more spending 10 minutes with an article than 1 minute skimming a story.

  • Most of my articles are lengthy because complex subjects can’t be explained in a paragraph or two. I find the emails I get from readers who read the lengthy articles are in serious research/problem solving mode, and are highly motivated to understand the subject matter. Here is a good example of how I write about how consumers search for products and services in the Self Publishing industry:

    In this article the insight is very valuable for publishers if they take the time to read, digest and think about the data.

    Insight comes from research, anything worth saying usually takes time to write, and will require time to read.

    Lengthy articles have a role, and are favored by people who must become a subject matter expert in a short period of time.

    My guess is that it actually takes less time to read a single comprehensive article than to search for, and read a series of short articles.

  • Jeremy

    I have a different take: It takes a couple seconds for a complete web page to load. Most of that time isn’t spent on your article’s content, it’s on the headers, menus, ads, and all the other nonsense. That’s a pretty huge barrier to moving on to the second page of content; people still complain about the Kindle’s taking a fraction of a second to turn pages.

    So I can wait 10-15 seconds total to read all “five Xconomy pages” — or Xconomy could throw out the stupid page model (you’re not a book! you’re on the web!) and put the whole article out on the first click. 2400 baud modems are long gone — push the whole article in one go!

  • Dan Sheeran

    Given the subject of this post, please tell me that placement of the NEXT PAGE link was intentionally ironic…”I’m encouraged here by news that Dave Winer, the RSS and podcasting pioneer, is working on …NEXT PAGE » “

  • @Dan: Intentional — definitely. Ironic — not really. We always try to break up our pages at the most suspenseful moment possible.

    @Jeremy: We’ve had that debate here, believe me. I’m doing my best to move on. Some people say they find a long scrolling column of text overwhelming & that they’d rather click through a series of shorter pages. I have to take that at face value.

    @Mark, @Matt: You both hit on the same point, and I agree. If you’re concentrating, it doesn’t take as long as you might think to plow through 3,000 words or more.

  • Jeremy

    @Wade: I disagree that you have to take stated reader preference at face value — unlike a paper magazine, Xconomy has the ability, as a website, to monitor, record, dice, and slice all kinds of metrics related to actual reader behaviors. E.g. you could do A-B testing with multi-page vs. single-page versions and see how far readers got in the same articles in each format.