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.
Thanks, Alastair, for a thought-provoking piece once again. I found your observations on how our reading habits are affected and endangered by the medium of the internet salutary and perceptive and worthy of placing as an appendix to Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”.
“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.”
I do not think anyone could ever accuse you of making the ‘process easy for the reader’. However, as a long time reader of this blog (going back maybe 9 years) I notice that the comments section increasingly tends towards agreement or requests for clarifications, rather than any kind of intelligent critique or pushback. I suspect that kind of echo chamber is rather unhealthy in the longer term, and perhaps a reflection on whether it is down to interlocutory style is in order.
Thanks for the comment, Chris.
Yes, it is worth reflecting on what is going on there. Here are a few thoughts:
1. I’ve always blogged at some length, which suggests to me that changes in the nature of engagement in comments, whatever they might have to do with the length of my posts, probably is principally due to other factors.
2. Long posts such as the ones I have linked above all received pushback and engagement, as have many others like them.
3. My posting is much less regular here and most of my posts are links to podcasts or to things that I have written elsewhere, so the number of people who regularly visit this blog is reduced and tends to be composed primarily of the most highly committed followers or subscribers who are disproportionately in general agreement with me.
4. Certain topics tend to provoke much more pushback than others. If I were to blog on the subject of gender today, I could almost guarantee criticism and pushback in the comments.
5. I’ve purposefully engaged less in the comments and geared my blogging less to comments over the last year. The open-ended demands of spending hours responding to pushback in comments is something I generally can’t afford at the moment.
6. Engagement has always waxed and waned and shifted in character, depending upon many factors, perhaps most significantly the degree to which my blog is active.
7. Much of the pushback I receive tends to occur in other contexts nowadays, on Twitter, in email, in private forums, etc. Also, people are much more likely to talk about my posts with others on Facebook or Twitter, for instance, than they are to engage in comments directly.
8. Whereas critics would previously have registered their opposition in the comments or on their own blogs, nowadays there are many other way in which people can express their difference without engaging.
9. The blogosphere used to be a far tighter knit conversation of invested participants. Most of the people that I used to be in consistent dialogue with have now moved on. I either interact with them more privately, or they are hardly active online at all. Quality pushback has become much harder to find in public online spaces. The openness of the conversations tends to lead many to have their primary interactions in more obscure contexts. That is certainly the case for me.
10. A disproportionate amount of the ‘pushback’ that I have received on many posts hasn’t been serious engagement at all, but just wilful antagonism. I’ve not risen to such people’s bait and have often made them look ignorant and rude, so that may be a reason why certain individuals seldom engage with me nowadays.
11. Comments in general have a very bad reputation online nowadays and often attract the worst. They are also fairly obscure contexts for engagement than Facebook discussions or the like.
Absolutely – there could be all sorts of reasons for why this is the case, and that the blogosphere has changed is something well worth bearing in mind. Just a couple of points though:
I personally find your older writing less circumlocutory than your more recent writing (I presume that as you were in academia at the time, a fair amount of your other writing was judged according to style as well as content by your own assessors). I say this as someone who spends a fair amount of time reading long form essays – not all of which are contemporary.
Secondly, if a large amount of the critical engagement with your ideas occurs in other venues (as it surely does), then I do think that part of your responsibility as a writer consists of drawing your readers attention to those critiques
As a fair amount of my previous blogging consisted of off-cuts of things written for a more academic context, that may be part of the reason. However, there are other factors. One of the principal factors is that, as the original, less public and more communal context of the blogosphere as a conversation between people with extensive common background knowledge and understanding has gone, I have needed to write for a different sort of audience, one which requires me to be a lot more guarded in the way that I make my points (and which means that academic off-cuts will intentionally get rewritten to take a longer form). In the past, I could assume that most of one’s readers where already generally up to speed with a wider conversation—about the New Perspective on Paul, the Federal Vision, etc.—because one generally came to know blogs through being part of the conversation and knowing key voices within it. Nowadays, most of my traffic comes from links on Twitter, Facebook, and sites that aren’t any part of an existing conversation. I can no longer make assumptions about my audience and each post needs to be more of a stand-alone statement of my position, suited for the reader with no background in the conversation and for whom any ambiguity is not readily going to be filled in from their familiarity with my wider corpus. When one’s words are routinely read in a hostile manner—or by people with limited background understanding—every ambiguity could be snatched upon and lead to many wasted hours of heated and polarizing argument on Twitter or somewhere else, it makes a great deal of sense to fill in much more of your case and to say the same thing in a couple of different ways (I also link to myself a lot more nowadays and do rather less linking to academic books to which the lay person might not have immediate access). Writing in such a manner provides one with plenty of evidence against uncharitable readers who will pin meanings upon your words that don’t belong. It also becomes a more frustrating reading experience for careless and hostile readers, as it is far harder to characterize someone who writes in such a manner according to lazy and negative stereotypes. I appreciate this may be a less pleasant reading experience for people who generally pick up my meaning the first time and are familiar enough with my positions from long term following that rehearsals of basic positions become a little tiresome. Unfortunately, it is fairly necessary, both as a defensive tactic, and as a means of accommodating those who lack all context for my position. The nature of the conversation now makes it increasingly necessary to have stand-alone posts. Even when I write series of posts, some posts within that series can have several times more hits than others.
Also, as I argued in the post, as a blogger one must often make a choice between taxing the closeness of one’s readers’ attention, or taxing the length of their attention span. It is a judgment call, but I have, through experience, find it better to go with the latter. It is quite possible to write a very dense post that says everything I want to in half the space, but, from experience, I know that people are more likely to miss entire points from such a post on account of their skimming. I also know that such posts will generally followed by a need for elucidation and elaboration that merely require me to unpack the density of the post in the comments. Read my typical post and then read the typical posts on other blogs and I think you’ll see that, in any given amount of words, even writing in a more circumlocutory style, I place greater demands upon the comprehension of my readers than most other bloggers do.
I already do this and I’m surprised that you don’t seem to notice it. Read the first four paragraphs of this post, for instance. That said, most of the engagement I receive occurs in more obscure or private contexts (Facebook and Twitter discussions, private forums and e-mail discussion lists, personal correspondence, etc.) and really does not belong in a public context. Part of the point of having such engagement in less public contexts is to retrieve some degree of the common background knowledge that could formerly be assumed of participants in the conversation. If people don’t already know where many of these conversations are taking place, then they probably don’t belong in them.
Sure, but from general observation when you mention critiques they are often in fairly abstract terms – the ones you actually link to are in the minority.
The problem with those offline communities, is that they tend to be rather more constrained in terms of the types of views that exist within them, this in itself makes opposing views easier to caricature unintentionally.
What is the alternative, though? If you follow the links in the top paragraphs, you will see plenty of critical interaction. There were also several people on Twitter who subtweeted the discussion. I would prefer not to link subtweets—part of their point is to engage without engaging. Other critical Twitter interactions tend to be disputing odd points, rather than being larger considered responses. There are also a number of such responses and voices are less distinct. Unfortunately, many people tend to prefer to provide their criticisms on Twitter and Facebook than in comments. Most of the people voicing these criticisms have not given extensive thought to their position and wouldn’t sustain close examination. It hardly seems fair to subject 140 character tweets reactively fired off in a minute to the sort of scrutiny that I would subject a larger argument to (there are also some people that I know better than to argue with, as they react badly). Hence, I chose to engage with Mike’s post and broadly to characterize other criticisms. If you really want to, you can look at the tweets I linked and see some of the discussion that followed them on Twitter. If people prefer to air their criticisms on Twitter or other contexts where they are surrounded by like-minded people, rather than venturing to my comments, where my position is the more popular one, I can’t exactly stop them.
What offline communities? The other contexts I mentioned were more private or obscure, not offline.
I would like to second the comment made by hbcstoke, including the reference to Neil Postman!
Whilst I like reading discursive writing, I realise that my own writing styles are more descriptive. narrative and explanatory …and not discursive… and this has led me to think more about writing styles and the preferred writing styles of different readers. When you made your comment ‘…it raises questions for me about their capacity as readers…’ I got the impression that you were referring specifically to their capacity as readers of discursive writing and not to their general capacities as readers. I also got the impression from the comments made by some people in response to your comment that they thought that you were questioning their general capacities as readers, and that they were offended by what they thought you meant.
When the topic of a piece of discursive writing is very ‘close to home’, such as gender (as you mentioned above), I can see that some people respond to it in descriptive, narrative and explanatory writing styles and that there is, therefore, a mismatch of styles in any engagements on that topic.
On a personal note, I did ask myself about my own capacity as a reader and whether or not I am a lazy reader. My memories of reading, for instance, ‘Beowulf’, Chaucer and the ‘Parzival’ in the original texts (and scripts!) reminded me that I am actually quite good at hard labour when it comes to reading…but I am not good at responding in kind to discursive writing.
I wish I could respond in kind to discursive writing, but the fact that I can’t detracts in no way from the fact that I appreciate reading it – so thank you, again.
P.S. I timed myself when I read your post – it took me 40 minutes 🙂
Interesting! I’ll have to ask others to do the same and see the results. 🙂
🙂 I will be interested in what others have to say. I’d better add that it may have taken me longer that it might have taken others to read it, because I read it aloud. (I was alone at the time, so there was no captive audience!). This is a habit I got into when reading texts in foreign languages because I found that by reading, speaking and listening (to my own voice, of course, but never mind)) I was better able to get my head round it.
Thanks! In relation to your remarks, my points about ‘attitude’ are fairly important and will hopefully address some of people’s concerns that you mention. Like you, I find that my capacity to participate can vary considerably between discourses. The transferable skills of reading are often principally those of attitude, of recognizing and submitting to the demands that reading well makes of us and acting accordingly. There are many occasions when these skills of reading will hold us back from participation, as they make us more aware of our limitations. However, with time, they enable us to rise to better forms of engagement.
Thank you – maybe there’s hope for me with discursive writing! I do take your point about ‘attitude’ to reading – I also think that pre-existing attitudes to controversial subjects such as abortion, gender and so on can be a stumbling-block and may explain a resistance to reading discursive posts which present different viewpoints.
Thanks for the good word. One of my constant laments is that my institution is moving toward reliance on OER (Open Education Resources) as a replacement for books. What that means for classes, is that we have students read items that are available for free online. I’ve been online for almost 30 years. I love the free availability of resources – even GOOD resources – online. But as you note, the modality of the online reading mitigates against reading well. I know that not only because of studies I’ve seen but by my own experience. So by insisting on online resources only, we not only give our students a poor reading environment, but we also isolate them from opportunities to read offline.
I was discussing the tendency of educational institutions to treat the extensive use of and dependence upon online media as an unexamined technological imperative with someone just a few days ago. It really is a problem. I would imagine that it is particularly a problem for persons whose habits of reading were not developed prior to the Internet Age.
We’re an open access institution. Many of our students come into our college as functional non-readers. The two arguments initially given for shifting to OER were (1) Textbooks are too expensive for our clientele; and (2) They don’t read them anyway. We cheat our students by making non-reading degrees possible.
Your account really seems to be one of many straws in the wind. We are undergoing some extensive changes in our reading habits as a culture and it is very disturbing that they are not receiving closer attention.
Pingback: On Long Posts | Mere Orthodoxy
Pingback: Pride and Prejudice and Thought in Our Hyper-Connected Communities | Alastair's Adversaria
Dear Alastair, I have to say your sumptuous posts give me hope for my articles that often go over (a mere) 1000 words. I am aware this makes it harder for moderns who want “the point” along with pictures, but I decry this age of the “seven second sound bite.” I speak to this issue a bit in: https://moreenigma.wordpress.com//?s=soundbite&search=Go. Like you, I wonder if readers “get to the end” of articles, or if they’ve bailed off long ago. In the mean time you’ve given me more vocabulary to use:
“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.”
Not that you need me to agree with you, but I could not agree more.
I don’t generally have any objection to the length of your posts. The length seems to be proportional to the content. By contrast, I’ve generally found Anderson’s writing (and speaking) to be a bit wordy and rambling. I feel like I have to wait too long for him to get around to making his point. Length isn’t the issue for me; it’s whether the argument is tightly constructed and cogently argued.
Pingback: Time and Timelessness: The Shallows | More Enigma Than Dogma
Pingback: Retrospective on 2015 | Alastair's Adversaria
Pingback: The Deformation of Online Media and Our Current Social and Political Crises (A Retrospective) | Alastair's Adversaria