September 24, 2013

Two Paragraphs, a Link, and a Cloud of Dust

Our platforms, and their limitations, are changing the way we communicate. Rather than accommodating the many ways we as humans like to share and engage with others, most of the online services we use have limits in how much we can share, how items can be staged, and how easily others can discover or respond.

While Twitter's 140 character platform is only the most well-known of these hard limits, there is an easily observable trend away from long-form content, analysis and conversation, and more toward a brief moment with an ephemeral interaction. Blogs are one of the last outlets we have where the container, like liquid, expands to contain all into it which is poured, while most other outlets are often trying to make us something we're not - be it photographers, clever headline writers or meme artists.

We've moved away from thousand-plus word screeds and dozens of debatable comments over a single item, with a permalink discoverable through search, instead to a moment in a stream that is significantly less relevant tomorrow or next week than it is today. We're valuing our content not in real activity, but in microactivities - be it +1s, Likes, Retweets or Favorites. We're trading points and counterpoints for vague notions of follower counts and popularity.

While it can be a challenge to regularly upkeep an outlet like a blog or a news magazine, consider the permanence and discoverability of this content. One can, with a little effort, read an author's life as it changes, by poring through the archives. Authors can link to previous points and positions to make a deeper case for an idea, and show consistency or evolution of thought. And permalinks can serve as the point of engagement for us to talk something into the ground, or its natural conclusion - whatever comes first.

Consider, if you would, the last really important Tweet or Facebook post or LinkedIn update that you either made or saw. Where would that Tweet stand in the halls of history? While real-time is an amazing tool for the right now, it's not usually a great tool for the later or forever. There's no other solution out there for diving into the world's collective thoughts around television, sports and shared experiences, but it lacks for completeness.

Yet that's where practically all our effort is going.

The most visible entrants and quickly adopted mediums in the social sphere over the last few years are not centered around long-form content. Instagram, for the most part, is a photo sharing site with social interaction. Tumblr, despite the option for longer-form content, is usually a collection of photos or short excerpts -- links to links with the content on the other side. WhatsApp and Snapchat are different beasts altogether, focused on the right now, with the content never intended to have any true longevity.

So our thoughts and our communications are being forced into these neatly approved buckets, wrapping around the presentation of the medium. If you know your network looks best with a headline, a few hashtags, and a sentence, that's all you'll do. If you know it's a beautiful photo with three words at the top, that's what you'll do. Maybe you can make an infographic or a meme out of it and be the most shared image of the moment, only to fade into oblivion the next day.

That's why I'm optimistic about the plans for Ev Williams' work on Medium, as outlined in a dedicated piece for TechCrunch two weeks ago. We've also seen interesting attempts from Dustin Curtis' Svbtle network - a very well designed platform with hand-selected authors. I don't yet have accounts with either, as I'm quite loyal to my +Blogger platform and integrated Google+ comments, but both services seem to be fighting against the stream, so to speak, helping people with longer thoughts share in a better looking way.

I believe as social participants, we can and should do better than a picture with a few words, a tweet that summarizes a link, or a post with a headline and a paragraph. It may satisfy the right now, short attention span theater, but if that's all we have, then what do we tell history that we've done? Do we suggest that those in the future looking back on this age download our archived social stream to best understand who we were? Should they grok our automatically filtered photos and understand our taste for art, or see how many likes a post got to determine its impact?

I would hope we're not letting the containers impact our ability to share the entirety of the message. That's why even while I've got plenty of other work to do, the blog continues to be my foundation in a world of streams, which I first wrote more than four years ago and stand by. So if your favorite social outlet starts to reduce the number of ways you can express yourself, take it somewhere else. Don't cut yourself short, and become dust in the wind.

Usual boring disclosures: I work at Google on Developer Relations. Most of my work is on YouTube videos, short and long. This blog runs on Blogger and integrates Google+ comments. The post is not intended as a post in favor of or against our products or competitors' products. I also like writing long disclosures.

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