About a couple of weeks ago, Matt Lee Anderson posted a 5,000 word piece over on Mere Orthodoxy, ‘The Distortions of Progressive Christians: How Religious Liberty is in Danger’. It was a characteristically thoughtful post: Matt carefully and methodically constructed a case that progressive Christians, while rightly challenging a narrative of ‘persecution’, have consistently failed to register and address the threat to Christian ‘dissidents’ within contemporary American society. Rather predictably, the piece was greeted by a number of complaints about its length.
I responded to these complaints by tweeting: ‘When people complain about the length of a ~5,000 word content-rich post online, it raises questions for me about their capacity as readers. 5,000 words is a relatively short book chapter. It is also the sort of length required for many detailed and sustained arguments.’ These remarks proved polarizing: many were vocal in their agreement, while several others very sharply differed, some being annoyed at what they perceived to be my superior and exclusionary attitude. A series of long discussions ensued on Twitter, after which Mike Roca responded to my position in a blog post. Within this post I will engage with this discussion, making the case that there are larger issues at stake than might appear at first glance.
I highly doubt that any of my readers will be surprised to discover that I frequently receive remarks upon the length of my own posts! These remarks are typically friendly digs at a perceived flaw in my style; occasionally they are far more accusatory and critical. A lengthy blog post, I have discovered, is, to many minds, significant basis for a diagnosis of poor writing. A well-written blog post should not trespass far beyond the 2,000 word mark and should place as few demands upon its readership as possible. Blog posts above this mark are inconsiderate to readers, self-indulgent, and indicative of the author’s inflated sense of the importance of their own words. Writing at such length will alienate rather than engage people.
It may surprise people to discover that, in my own experience, as in Matt’s, this couldn’t be further from the truth. After the complaints, Matt pointed out that a 10,000 word behemoth of a post was about to become his most visited piece and remarked: ‘There’s almost been an inverse correlation to what people expect: long essays, posted infrequently, have been more popular for me.’ My experience tallies with what Matt observes: my most read posts on my blog, each of which has hits in the tens of thousands are 5,436, 3,426, 1,447, 3,961, 10,921, and 12,078 words in length respectively—an average of about 6,200 words! My posts are occasionally longer, but these posts are particularly long (the last two are my longest ever posts). My shorter posts trail these considerably in hits, typically by an order of magnitude. Also, in contrast to my more typical posts, the three longest of these posts continue to receive very steady hits, years after they were first published (frequently receiving more hits in a given day than posts from earlier in the same week). It would seem, quite counter-intuitively, that readers often prefer longer posts. It might be worthwhile to consider what underlies this phenomenon, especially as other writers have confirmed that they share this experience.
The Challenge of Reading Online
Reading a long post isn’t easy to do and I admire and appreciate every one of my readers who do this. The Internet is a great enemy of sustained and undivided attention. Online, the mind easily flits like a butterfly from one thing to another, seeking diversion. The moment one thing ceases to absorb our interest, there are always a dozen more things clamouring for it. Whenever we experience a lull in our focus upon the activity we are currently engaged in, we can feel the temptation to check our e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter. The Internet frees us from the unpleasantness of boredom, it constantly stimulates us while sparing us the effort of deep engagement. The Internet is a realm of immediate accessibility, where patience and hard work are seldom required to get what we want. This can encourage a state of distractedness in us as users. While channel-surfing is typically something that people do only in order to find a show to watch for a half hour or so, ‘surfing’ the Internet—rapidly hopping from one thing to another—is more integral to our online experience and we don’t have to break from such a habit for long before we start to feel fidgety. Reading a long article online requires not only the devotion of time and energy, but, perhaps more significantly, a radical break of state.
Our natural state of mind on the Internet is impatient, hurried, distracted, lazy, reactive, and restive. In this state of mind we ‘browse’ and ‘skim’ for the things that we are looking for—the emotional kick, the objectionable statement, or the retweetable line—rather than reading and closely attending to things that may surprise us. Casual, rapid, unfocused, inattentive, fickle, and impatient engagement becomes the norm. We look at things for just long enough to get an ‘impression’ from which we can derive a snap judgment (‘like!’). In such a state of mind we are seeking for momentary diversion, emotional stimulation, and immediate usefulness. Our minds drift like flotsam and jetsam on the Internet’s waves. It should not require much reflection to recognize that this state of mind is utterly inappropriate for deep learning. Unfortunately, this is increasingly a state of mind that is haemorrhaging into our offline mindsets too. As soon as things become dull or we sense the slightest whisper of boredom’s approach we instinctively reach for our mobiles.
Before leaving this point, it should be noted that the Internet, while facilitating distracted modes of engagement, has also given us a lot of control over our modes of engagement as readers. Whereas in the age of print writers and publishers overwhelmingly determined the manner in which readers encountered their material, the modern reader has much more freedom in this respect. The contemporary reader, should they so choose, is free to eschew the brightness of the screen’s artificial light, printing out an online article and reading it away from their computer. They could read on an RSS feed aggregator, directly on the site, or from Facebook. They could read on a pad or e-reader. They could disconnect from the Internet, copy and paste the text into a document and read it there. With this power comes the responsibility to be mindful readers, alert to the ways in which our chosen forms of reading empower or undermine our understanding. For many of us, for instance, I suspect that our online reading could be improved were we to ration it, constantly seeking to remove the noise that encourages our habits of rapid skimming and browsing and tuning in more fully to the signal for which it is worthwhile to slow down. Reading much less quantity but much more quality would encourage better habits of reading and a higher degree of comprehension.
States of Mind for Learning
The state of mind required for most genuine and deep learning is attentive, patient, focused, undistracted, reflective, diligent, non-reactive, and prepared to face down boredom. Genuine learning typically requires sustained and focused effort and attention. This isn’t just because the subject matter is difficult, but also because effort generally enhances learning. Making things harder to learn—even through something as apparently cosmetic as switching to a less easily legible font—can, carefully applied, deepen the level of learning. A focus upon rapid rise in performance can neglect the fact that such change is no guarantee of long-term learning, and that such learning may often involve little or no rapid or immediate improvement in performance at all. Whether we primarily identify learning with rapid rise in performance or with sustained improvement will affect our teaching styles. Rapid rise in performance can be achieved by forms of teaching that are more entertaining and engaging, and which lower the level of friction the learner experiences. However, sustained improvement is often best achieved by making things harder than they need to be, pressing the learner to enter a state of mind and action that is more conducive for deep learning.
Such learning is also frequently encouraged by pressing the learner to be more active in the process of learning, generating knowledge, rather than just absorbing it. I recently heard of a person who developed the eccentric reading style of only reading every second page of a book: this forced him to be much more closely attentive to the flow of the argument, so that he could mentally fill in the unread page. His is probably not an example to follow, but arguments that require the reader to do a lot of work to keep up with them can be helpful here. In my own experience, I have found that writing about things that I have been reading is one of the best ways to ensure that I remember them in the long term.
Online, people often expect that the things that they read should be ‘engaging’ and that being ‘engaging’ is necessary for good writing. Yet many of the most worthwhile pieces aren’t very ‘engaging’ at all. Rather, they require exertion and effort, a constant battle with tedium and an onerous commitment to a high degree of attention. Few people pick up Hegel for diverting evening reading, yet the disciplined reader will be immensely rewarded for the effort that they devote to reading such a thinker. The same applies to many long reads online—which are a breeze to read compared to Hegel. I must read at least a dozen brief ‘hot takes’ every morning, but while such pieces often make an immediate impression, the effort—and, unlike the hot takes, reading here does require the discomfort of effort—that I devote to reading ‘long-reads’ is considerably more rewarding in the long term. Looking back over the last decade, it turns out that the vast majority of the plethora of hot takes and brief ‘engaging’ reads were soon forgotten, while many online long-reads remain with me even after a decade has passed. Many people appreciate that a long-read, although it may demand much more from the reader, can be far more rewarding over time—in no small measure on account of the demands that it makes.
Exclusionary and Elitist Standards?
Mike expressed one of the concerns about my remarks about longer posts, observing:
Nevertheless, one of several sticking points for me during our brief exchange was the notion that only “informed” participants (i. e. Highly intelligent, well read, time rich) had any “right” to interact with online public conversations, such as those conducted between bloggers like Alastair and Matt.
This is an understandable concern, especially for people who got the impression that my comment was designed to shame and exclude those without the privilege of theological education, extensive background reading, and the luxury of reading time. It wasn’t.
The key detail of my tweet concerned what people were complaining about. One can complain that one doesn’t have the reading time that one would like to have—who among us does? One can recognize the fact that certain conversations are above one’s ability level and that one should either absent oneself from them or just spectate—we all find ourselves in this position from time to time too. However, complaining about the length of a 5,000 word post, blaming the writer for not making it short, suggesting that anything that cannot easily be read by a distracted person with a limited and unfocused attention span is bad writing for the public realm, and that every piece of public writing must be ‘engaging’ is a different thing entirely and it is this attitude that I am challenging. This attitude is one of entitlement, of demanding that the level of the conversation should be diluted to the weakness of people’s attention. In other words, the bad reader is characterized less by a lack of ability than by an attitude, an attitude that refuses to accept the work that true reading requires of us.
At this point, it is probably worth reminding ourselves that we are talking about occasional 5,000 word posts here. Such posts are seldom exceedingly dense or difficult. Reading such a post takes 15-20 minutes at the average reading speed. Despite the busyness of people’s weeks, for anyone who is serious about being part of a conversation to which such a post is relevant this is not that onerous an expectation. There is no expectation that everyone should read such posts. Some people won’t have time and that is OK. It may be above the ability level of others. That isn’t a problem either. The people who are at issue here are those who feel entitled to a place in the conversation that such a post is sustaining merely by virtue of their existence, and feel that every writer has the responsibility to accommodate their attitude and the state of mind that naturally prevails online.
To my knowledge, most of my regular readers do not have specialist theological training and are non-experts in the field, even though most of them will have some sort of academic background. One of the reasons why many of us blog is to extend the conversation to such persons, recognizing how they can both benefit from and enrich the conversation. The requirements for participation are different depending on the sort of conversation that we are having. I do not expect my readers to know Greek or Hebrew, to have read much of the Church Dogmatics, to be conversant with the Patristics, to know the literature surrounding the subject of Pauline Christology, or to be thoughtful critics of Kantian ethics. I am not expecting them to spend the many hours of study, reflection, debate, and writing that it takes to produce a 5,000 word post (for every minute a reader spends reading such a post, most writers will have devoted at least an hour of work). However, if they want to be part of specific conversations, the commitment to the effort of reading is an essential part of the process. [If you are reading this, it is highly unlikely you are the target of this post’s critique. I have been blessed with hundreds of committed readers, who have consistently shown themselves to be a careful, charitable, and thoughtful group of people. My concerns relate to the complaints of certain people who will probably never read this, because it is almost 5,500 words long.]
It is possible to write much shorter posts and, much of the time, this is precisely what we do. Many subjects only require short posts. However, for any deeper treatment of a subject, the reader must change their state in order to read carefully. They must slow down and pay close attention. The writer will often be faced with a choice of writing a long piece, or writing a very dense piece. The first relies upon the length of people’s attention span; the second relies upon the closeness of people’s attention. The first makes higher demands of the reader’s intelligence than the second, while making the demands upon the reader’s persistence less immediately apparent. Reading a writer like Oliver O’Donovan online (e.g.)—a writer who tends to follow the second approach—is a taxing struggle, albeit a profoundly rewarding one. I suspect that a number of readers of such pieces fall into their reading habits of skimming and browsing and think that they have read the piece when they haven’t. One of the benefits of writing at greater length is that such readers will tend to give up before they finish and that the reading, while taxing, won’t be quite as taxing as shorter and denser pieces. For many of us as writers, density is also much more costly in time. If we were being remunerated for our efforts, could be assured of a close and careful reading by unusually alert and intelligent readers, or were writing for a medium that imposed word limitations, it might perhaps be the right option to take.
Writing for the Public?
Mike continues in his criticisms:
If I don’t like it, I don’t have to put it out for public consumption. Simple. Such is the digital age we currently inhabit. As much as I hate to be the one to shatter our collective delusions of grandeur, I thus contend that blogs are no different to garage band demos, or well written and refined albums, at least not in the eyes or ears of the wider public. Telling them that they are stupid and need to try harder to appreciate the content we present to them is, quite frankly, asking for trouble and/or a waste of time. It is almost guaranteed to change absolutely nothing and alienate any potential audience immediately. I would strongly advise against such a strategy. If we want to raise the level of public discourse, we who provide content to the public must raise our game and learn to understand our audience. We must develop content that, on its own merits, both captures and retains the attention of the wider public. They owe us precisely nothing.
Here we reach the crux of our differences.
The words ‘public’ and ‘consumption’ are key here. I don’t produce my work for wider ‘public consumption’. Rather, I produce it to be accessible within the wider public, which is a very different thing. The random member of the public is not my audience: my audience is much more specific than that, even though I may go out into the virtual highways and byways to find them.
The Internet is where we are having many of our conversations now. The character of the Internet as a medium changes the process of the dissemination of material. Prior to the advent of the Internet, books and other forms of print media were not generally released to entirely undifferentiated audiences. Many books, journals, and other printed media were incredibly difficult to find, only being available in specialist stores and contexts, where they would be accessible to their intended audience but much less so to a wider audience. One often had to go far out of one’s way to locate particularly hard to obtain titles.
Furthermore, reading typically required a prior exertion of effort to purchase or gain access to one’s desired reading material. The Internet, by contrast, brings material to us in a much more passive and effortless fashion. Articles that would previously only have been accessible to a fairly exclusive and paying audience now pop up in our Facebook feeds and Twitter streams, requiring no more effort from us to access than a light click on a mouse. They come to us, rather than demanding the same knowledge, effort, money, and access to specific contexts of us to obtain them.
Without the natural barriers or costs to access, it is easy to develop a different mental posture in relation to the material that we read. We have not had to earn access to the material through effort and knowledge. As we normalize immediate and effort-free accessibility we can come to resent any demands such material makes upon us. Like programmes on the channels on our televisions, we resist their presuming any more than the minimum prerequisite knowledge of us. Rather than our earning access to material, we can come to think that it is our reading material that must earn access to our attention by being entertaining or engaging. As we expect material to come to us, we normalize both the more ‘passive’ modes of reading and the frothy and insubstantial yet emotionally engaging modes of writing that prevail online. The fact that Joyce’s Ulysses is easily available on the shelves of the ‘public’ library doesn’t mean that it is for everyone. We don’t judge Joyce for presuming such a daunting level of familiarity with the English literary canon and language of the average user of the public library because the manner in which the physical copy of Ulysses is materially accessible to readers is much less likely to produce confused notions about the degree to which it ought to be otherwise accessible to them. It is, I suspect, the fact that people are accustomed to reading material coming to them online that encourages a different attitude, one more similar to that which we bring to our TVs. Indiscriminate and frictionless accessibility of material encourages the notion that reading material online should be palatable to and make few demands of the reader. The reader envisioned by the writer should always be the generic online reader, as being more discriminating about one’s designed readership contravenes the natural modes of the Internet’s dissemination of material.
Technology is not deterministic, even though it does shape the way we think, act, and interact and can encourage certain ways of thinking, acting, and interacting over others. We can use our technologies in ways that resist some of their potential dangers. Mike argues for a supposed ‘realism’ in our attitude: we are writing in public, must expect to be judged by the public, and must therefore communicate in a manner accessible to the public. Yet here it appears to me that Mike is presuming that our discourse must capitulate to certain tendencies and potentials of our new communications technologies. Just because our writing is, on account of the Internet, potentially materially accessible to a degree that was unimaginable thirty years ago doesn’t mean that it should be equally accessible in other respects. I believe there are great benefits to maintaining certain restrictions of access that force readers to earn access through effort, a prior level of understanding, and commitment to a time- and attention-costly process of reflection. Even though our media do not determine our discourses, an attitude that treats the potentials and tendencies of our technology as imperatives to be realized can produce its own form of technological determinism, as all other aspects of our discourse succumb to a false technological imperative. The Internet affords immense potential for increasing the speed, the sociality, the accessibility, the immediacy, etc. of our discourses and often our duty is to use the Internet in ways that actively resist these frequently discourse-stifling potentials. We don’t have to walk through every door that the Internet opens for us and often we must go to the effort of purposefully closing them. Sometimes we need to introduce a little friction to this frictionless world.
Retaining high standards for readers is also a way in which we deny people the illusion of effortless engagement and provide an accurate and salutary witness to the taxing vocation of thoughtful reading in media that often do not lend themselves to it. As these media are so integral to our lives and so central to our reading nowadays, this witness is a significant one: it provides unsettling testimony to the limitations of media upon which we have come to rely. In so doing they may call us back from over-dependence upon such media to return to media that are more conducive to highly attentive and reflective forms of thought.
The ease with which our discourse can be rendered materially accessible within the Internet Age is a wonderful boon to those of us who wish to encourage a wider conversation and to include more people within it. However, the material accessibility of our discourse arises in large measure from the removal of obstacles that formerly limited the access of those ill-suited to understanding and appropriately engaging with it (while also limiting the access of many who would have benefited much from it and engaged with it very appropriately). The material inaccessibility of discourses often permitted them to be inaccessible in other respects: a discourse that is only easily accessible to a specialized context or requires the reader to go out of her way to obtain particular books will naturally be free to presume a lot more of those engaging in it. The increased material accessibility of a discourse is not a sufficient reason for it to abandon or radically lower its standards of access in other respects, though.
There is a further and related danger of confusing the fact there is nothing that can stop people from holding an opinion with their entitlement to do so or with the idea that opinions, no matter how they are formed, are to be treated as ‘valid’. We must usually earn the right to judgment through submitting to the process of thoughtful engagement. The fact that we can’t stop the public from holding ill-informed opinions about our writing doesn’t mean that we have a duty to accord such opinions the least quantum of respect or regard, let alone that we should accommodate our discourse to them. Of course, there may be occasions and ways in which we must prudentially forearm ourselves against persons who could damage us through the propagation of ill-informed opinions about our viewpoints, but this is a rather different matter. We want to put a much wider group of people in the position to form opinions about our viewpoints, but their opinions must first be formed if they are to be worthy of acknowledgment.
The Reader as Consumer?
Within Mike’s objection to my position, I believe that the word ‘consumption’ plays an illuminating role. The analogy he draws is between a medium chiefly—if perhaps mistakenly—devoted to the entertainment of largely passive consumers and a medium chiefly calling for active interpretative and conversational engagement. He speaks of blogging as if our audience were lazing on the virtual sofa with their fingers on the change channel button and we have the duty to be diverting enough to prevent them from pressing it. Of course, quite likely a lot of them are. But such persons do not belong in the conversation and I see no reason why we should make apologies for alienating them. Indeed, part of the reason why I blog at length is because I want to remove people who are too passive and lazy to exert their close and sustained attention to following an argument through to its conclusions. As Jesus appreciated, there are great benefits to thinning the ranks of one’s followers and sending the less committed and non-serious people away.
Readers, if they want to be part of the conversation, owe writers a lot and we should not hesitate to make demands of them. Readers owe writers a careful reading and interpretation. They are not just passive consumers towards whom we have a duty of sensitivity to ensure my words make a positive ‘impression’. Such a strong reliance upon impressions is for the lazy and the passive, who cannot cope with the effort and responsibility demanded by the act of interpretation. The reader is not king. However, when we start treating him as one, our discourse will easily decay into emotionally-baiting pablum directed at readers who merely focus upon how the words felt to them or what particular subjective impressions they were left with and constant quibbles about whatever objectionable ‘tone’ was occultly detected in the voice of the author.
All of this might, quite understandably, sound very ‘entitled’ and ‘elitist’ on the part of the writer—or, more particularly, this writer—and Mike raises this very objection. Closer examination of my position should reveal that its aim is not exclusionary, however. We are not seeking to keep people out, but seeking to ensure that people gain increasing levels of access in the proper manner, through careful reading, interpretation, and engagement (it should also not be forgotten that almost every writer spends most of his or her time as a reader, not a writer). We write online because we want to extend the possibility of such access, but as our writing becomes more materially accessible, we must wrestle with increasing numbers of persons who feel entitled to responsibility-free access. I engage in theology blogging in large measure because I wish to widen the theological conversation and to bring non-experts and include persons without specialist training in the area.
There are convictions at play in my position that are radically anti-populist and, indeed, elitist. Theological discourse has always been a fairly elite activity, typically requiring considerable philosophical acumen, textual familiarity, historical knowledge, linguistic training, and mental formation. Very few people in the pews are well equipped to understand many of the debates surrounding Trinitarian theology, for instance. While it is highly desirable that the scope of theological discourse is extended as wide as possible, on account of the virtues of—or the requirements internal to—the practice of good theological discourse, it will never be an egalitarian sort of activity. While people may accept such a statement when speaking about knowledge in medicine, for instance, it can face surprising resistance in the area of theology.
While the reader may not be king, the writer isn’t either. The writer bears responsibilities to the reader who is prepared for them, to guide the reader’s understanding through their subject matter. Contrary to many people’s expectations, however, this doesn’t mean the writer must make this process easy for the reader. The writer’s priority is the effectiveness of the learning process for their intended readers, not its ease. In resisting the false ease that readers supposedly demand of us as online writers we will be better equipped to act as their servants. In resisting any sense of entitlement and making appropriately high demands of them, we will strengthen their capacities of reason and interpretation. Together we can work towards forms of discourse online where no one is merely excluded, yet all are, in ways appropriate to their capacity, furnished with the challenging path through which they can access true knowledge and participate fully in discourses to the degree their commitment and preparation suits them and their desire leads them.
No doubt a few readers of this post regard it as an indulgent self-exculpatory rant, unworthy of the time I apparently expect of my readers. I suspect most such readers abandoned the post long before arriving at this point. If you have arrived at this point, however, I hope that it is clear that this post, while occasioned by complaints about the sorts of long blog posts that Matt and I write, is about something much more significant. It is about re-evaluating the habits of reading, writing, and thinking that the Internet encourages in us and rethinking our level of reliance upon online media.
It is also about recognizing the dangerous ideas that the potential of our media and technologies can fool us into. The popular access that our media facilitate can encourage the mistaken populism of believing that everyone’s opinion is valid and should be treated as such, that everyone is entitled to participation in every context, that no taxing demands should be made of people, or obstacles presented to their access. The frictionless immediacy of access the Internet makes possible makes us vulnerable to thinking of reading in terms of the passivity of reactive and impressionable consumption, rather than in terms of the activities of acquisition, formation, interpretation, response, and engagement.
The development of healthy modes of writing, reading, engagement, and discourse online will require of us a much more intentional posture towards the employment and shaping of our media. Rather than taking the potential of our media and the habitual modes of engagement they encourage as our starting point, we must begin with the demands of the discourse itself and tailor our media around this. This will often involve resistance to the potential of our media, not just acceptance and exploitation of it. As we proceed in such a mindful manner, however, our media can truly become the means of enriching our discourse, rather than jeopardizing it through our obedience to their false imperatives.
As media users we may also begin to acquaint ourselves with the limits of particular media, becoming persons who are alert to our habitual modes of reading and engagement within different media, and who adjust our habits so as better to be served by our respective media’s potential. I believe that such mindful practice will draw many of us back into more traditional forms of media usage, reintroducing various forms of friction, solitude, silence, and slowness into our reading and writing, swimming against the flow of much of our online engagement. Perhaps what we need are ways to arrest the perpetuating cycle of rapid, cursory, and distracted reading and the insubstantiality of a myriad forgettable emotion-baiting pieces that answer to it. Perhaps long-reads can serve as mental speed bumps, arresting the erratic course of the careening online consciousness, enabling us to regain control.