I’m currently reading an excellent book about the financial crisis called After the Music Stopped by Princeton economist Alan Blinder. I’m about 3/4 done, and I’ve already recommended it to many people. The problem is that it’s 443 pages; I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to devote that much time to a comprehensive account of the financial crisis. On the other hand, I’ve wished at times it was longer. I would love to read Blinder’s take on the rift within macroeconomics during his discussion of stimulus, or on the ways that fiscal and monetary policy interact. I would probably have read the book at 600 pages; nerdier readers than me might have digested 1000.
Why don’t we, as readers, get to pick how long our content is?
If I want to read a 20 page summary of the financial crisis, why can’t After the Music Stopped be compressed to that length? And then if I find a part that fascinates me, why can’t I opt to go deeper, reading an additional 20 pages just on one particular subject?
This idea is in no way original. We already do it informally: when books get published, authors often promote them with a shorter article in a magazine (a great way to digest authors whose books, realistically, you’ll never find time to read). And many books, articles, and blog posts come with summaries.
But it’s time for content tools that do this automatically.
When you go to a lengthy article online, you should be able to select different versions of different lengths, and then (provided you didn’t select the full one) dig deeper as you choose at points throughout. Yes, this wouldn’t work for everything. It is a better fit for explainer-style writing than narrative. But for lots and lots of content online, it makes sense.
Blogging pioneer Dave Winer has understood this for some time, and has built tools to accomplish it. (See how you can expand and shrink items as you go in this post.) My hope is that others will build on this approach.
Building content around what amounts to an outline will be a challenge for some writers, but ultimately it is an opportunity. Lots of publications that produce long form content are having readers stolen away by aggregators who provide a reasonable service to readers by condensing the most interesting bits from the article and publishing them in a 500 word blog post. The strategy described above would let publications optimize for readers at varying levels of interest and busyness without writing multiple pieces of content.
In some cases, providing more depth won’t be about writing more, but about linking better. Offering the option to “expand” on a topic could mean quoting (reasonably) from another source, or perhaps pulling in relevant content from publicly licensed sources like Wikipedia.
If readers want to go deeper, the content should let them. And if they are short for time and only want the basics, it should let them get that, too.