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February 7, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

If We're Lucky, You'll Get Through This Sentence

News organizations don't think you have any attention span at all.

Allow me to disclaim: I'm not griping about my job. CQ's been very good about letting me edit things the way I think they should go, and offering great feedback on them.

But the conventional wisdom from most of the old-media types that I talk to or read says that any kind of video or animation or audio placed online should be less than three minutes long. Anything longer, apparently, and the potential audience for your video/animation/audio/cool new thing will all go off and watch Youtube clips of exploding hamsters instead.

This is simply wrong. But people stick to it, for two reasons. Faulty Reason Number One is the impression that visitors are probably browsing your site at work, and so they don't want to watch (to guess a number) six minutes of video for fear of the manager catching them.

It's easy to fall for this, because hey: people probably are browsing at work. Anyone who's got access to an hourly traffic report can tell you that. But the false dichotomy is to tie viewership at work to running time. I suspect that the real binary is far simpler: either you're comfortable spending a short break goofing off, or you're not. In the former case, in my experience, no-one looks at the time remaining before they start watching something. In the latter, they're not going to play with your multimedia no matter how short it is, so why base editorial decisions on them?

Besides: doesn't that player have a pause button? Has no-one ever hidden one window behind another one before? Unlike broadcast, Internet media is interactive and time-shifted: nothing says you've got to watch it all in one sitting.

Faulty Reason Number Two is that the Internet is somehow intrinsically only good for short bursts of reading/watching/interactivity. When you actually think about this, it doesn't make any sense. While web video may offer a lot of opportunities (such as social networking) that traditional video doesn't have, I don't particularly see how watching something passively on a computer screen is really any different from watching it passively between commercial breaks. Likewise, while the stereotype of bloggers is that they all write Instapundit-like haikus, there are plenty of successful writers online making long and thoughtful posts on a variety of subjects.

And people will watch or read or interact with long-running web media. Look at the Story of Stuff, everyone's favorite 20-minute long example. Why do people watch it? Because it's good. Because it doesn't feel like twenty long minutes of environmental hectoring. The deciding factor is, as it has always been, the quality of the material. The same goes, for example, for the TED lectures online. Sure they're long, but they're also really interesting talks from smart people. So who cares?

The myth of the ADD Internet has taken hold for a couple of reasons, but I think the primary one is that print and old media producers have traditionally looked down on the Internet. They see online media--blogs, podcasts, the whole lot--as a place where the uncultured masses seethe in an unruly mob, creating clumsy outbursts instead of leaving that to accredited cultural elites. And there's a lot of bitterness towards the Internet, not just because it puts all speakers on a near-equal footing, but also because it's destroyed the old sources of revenue. Classified ad space, to trot out another well-worn example, is hard to sell when Craigslist is free. And classified ads used to be a major revenue source for papers.

Simply put: that's not a problem with Craigslist. It's a problem with a business model that relied on classifieds to keep newspapers afloat. Bemoaning Craig Newmark's dirty hippie ways doesn't change the fact that publishers put too many eggs in that basket, and now they're paying for it.

Anyway, as I said, the deciding factor is still the quality of the material. The Internet just makes it easier to change the channel if you don't like what you're seeing. The shock to a lot of op-ed writers was that when confronted by a world-wide web filled with competing would-be columnists was that their material didn't measure up. The rejection got filtered through the perception of the Internet as a collection of miniature vulgarities, and so it was translated into the idea that "our carefully written opinions were simply too sophisticated for a 'web audience.'" Hence, everything on the Internet must be shorter and fluffier.

I've been lucky in that CQ has accomodated slightly longer running times on the work I've done so far, as long as I can demonstrate that the quality is there (which, editorially, is how it should be). I'm hoping to show that you can put something out there longer than seven paragraphs or three minutes, and it will still find an audience. Might even find a great audience of thoughtful people. You get the viewers you deserve on the Internet, I think. Underestimate your audience, and maybe it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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