Tl;dr: Teaching, learning, attention, and the need to be interesting

Barry Schwartz via

Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, the author of two best-selling books, by all accounts a terrific teacher and mentor, and in my personal experience, a mensch. He has a provocative piece on Slate this week that deserves attention. It is about paying attention.

See, in the age of information overload, no one has time, so everything has to be short. Tl;dr is an abbreviation used often online, in forums like Reddit, as a way of commenting on and dismissing someone else’s rant, diatribe, or impassioned outpouring. It stands for “too long; didn’t read.”

Articles are shortened to lists. Blogs are shortened to Tweets. And, Schwartz notes, with MOOCs the 45-minute college lecture–his own cherished medium–is being shortened to a series of five to eight- minute long video chunks interspersed with comprehension questions. This, he argues, is a sign of dumbing things down too far.

By catering to diminished attention, we are making a colossal and unconscionable mistake. The world is a complex and subtle place, and efforts to understand it and improve it must match its complexity and subtlety. We are treating as unalterable a characteristic that can be changed. Yes, there is no point in publishing a long article if no one will read it to the end. The question is, what does it take to get people to read things to the end?

Schwartz’s lament about the Information Age is, typically, couched as an injunction to educators. Teachers need to “make” students pay attention, instead of bowing to reduced attention spans with shorter, more attention-grabbing lessons.

Schwartz’s article, ironically, is fairly punchy and terse, but he still leaves room for nuance. One of his sharpest points is that he, himself, has become part of the problem.

Schwartz has delivered several popular TED talks which have been viewed online collectively millions of times. TED talks feature some of the world’s great minds taking on outrageously complex subjects, from quantum computing to molecular gastronomy, and they do so, famously, in just 18 entertaining, well-produced minutes. On the one hand, Schwartz says, this phenomenon is great, because it introduces so many people to great ideas (Ideas Worth Spreading is the slogan of TED). On the other hand, it’s terrible, because all the nuance is edited out.

I am all for nuance. Here’s a nuance I think is missing from his argument. The pithy, attention-grabbing intellectual style could actually be seen as a form of courtesy, a note to the idea that many people have something to say. There’s a power dynamic entirely different from that of the traditional classroom, where traditional professors, by virtue of their traditional power, claim the droit du seigneur to bore the bejeezus out of everyone by droning on with no editing whatsoever.

The Internet is a huge, buzzing conversation, not a lecture hall. No one is forced to listen to anyone else. Individual posts might be shorter, but rallies are long: You might write a thousand-word article, or post a ten-minute video, and it generates tens of thousands of words’ worth of comments and Tweets. That’s where the complexities truly emerge, in the back and forth. Overall, I don’t believe that our attention has diminished; it’s just that there’s so much more to pay attention to, and to contribute to as well. And isn’t this a better pedagogical model for encouraging people to grapple with complexity?

A few years ago, I interviewed Schwartz about his TED talks for an article and he had these (previously unpublished) comments about the experience. The first talk he gave was all pretty informal and off-the-cuff. The second time, he said, it was a much bigger deal.

“Having this incredible time constraint, I couldn’t count on myself to extemporize, because I didn’t have the time. I wanted to make sure that everything fit in. My shoot-from-the-hip-style was suppressed by the time limit. I took the preparation extremely seriously the second time…The truth is, it was worth it. It was incredibly well-received because I put so much effort into distilling a complicated set of ideas.”

This is the intellectual virtue and courtesy of the Internet age: recognizing that attention is scarce and exhaustible, you take just as much as you need.

In fact, you can see this in the evolution of the usage of tl;dr itself. These days, I often see it used not as a way to bite your thumb at others’ comments, but as a way to sum up your own–as a handy guide for the reader who may have other things to do.  Cf:

tl;dr Brevity; soul of wit.