The Essay and the Internet

by Orit Gat

It’s amazing how quickly things become dated online. At the early stages of my research for this paper, I looked at a post dated 28 July, 2011, from The Atlantic’s tech editor Alexis Madrigal announcing that the magazine’s site has now created a category for longreads:

If you're a loyal follower of our work here, you know that every so often—probably once or twice a week—we put out something that goes beyond reporting and analysis of the day's news. We pride ourselves on these feature stories, many of which fall into the new Internet category of "Longreads ," and think that we produce some of the best long-form technology narratives on the Web.

The word ‘longreads’ links to an article in the New York Times, published just six months earlier, entitled ‘Longreads: A Digital Renaissance for the Long-form?’

2011? People have been using the words ‘longform’ and ‘longread’ before. The two popular read-it-later apps Instapaper and Pocket (that allow you to save articles from your browser into an offline-enabled app) were started in 2008 and 2007 respectively and the @longreads Twitter account and hashtag were started in 2009. But that trend reached a level of maturity in the discussions around it in 2011. Which seems pretty much contemporaneous to a comparable interest in the essay: the past few years have seen a steep increase in publication of essays (especially in the form of book-length collection of essays), a newfound trendiness in non-fiction (the recurring example is that Lena Dunham’s character in Girls is not writing a novel, but a collection of personal essays), as well as a critical response to this fashion, debating what has been dubbed the rise of the essay.

Do longread and longform — those two words that developed from a hash tag — equal essay? In a way, the definition of the essay has expanded to include the abovementioned form— t he non-fiction/personal essay in the tradition of Montagne (‘some traits of my character and of my humors’) as well as the long-form article, in that oh-so-American magazine style of the New Yorker or The Atlantic. And instinctively, many of the conversations about the current rise of the essay a lot of us tie this supposed revival of essayism to online publishing.

Was the new essay born online? It seems like a simple equation: with no need to regard length as a function of paper stock, the internet becomes a sphere of infinite possibility for writing. Thus far, however, the internet has disappointed us in the kind of writing it promotes, especially because not a lot of it was born online. Looking at the way content is organised online, it’s clear to see that many of the pieces distributed by services like the @longreads Twitter feed originate in offline publications. Why is print still traditionally more committed to long-form writing? And is it related to the way we perceive of economies of attention online?

The numbers are grim. Alexa — the Amazon-owned service that publicly estimates website metrics — gives the average daily time on as three minutes and twenty-nine seconds. It’s 2:42 for the New Yorker’s site. 3:52 for Huffington Post and 6:16 on For a sense of scale, Google tops the list: an average user spends 19:19 on it a day. We spend half an hour a day on Facebook and five minutes and twenty-two seconds on (the first news/content site on Alexa’s top 500 list, ranked #57, way after all social networks and a number of local Google pages, including Google Russia and Google Spain). So why is so much content offered, when our reading habits seem so far from necessitating it?

A huge part of it is wanting to be at the forefront of changing habits. And they are, indeed, changing. Technology like tablets, read-it-later apps, and content organising apps like Flipboard have altered the way we read. The founder of Pocket described it as ‘essentially the article’s second chance,’ improving the likelihood that it will be read — rather than just seen. Instapaper’s sample article when you go to download it at the app store used to be Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Modern Essay.’ I point that out not only because of its fitting nature to this subject, but also because it is telling of the ambition of the developers: to promote the reading of serious content — Woolf! — on mobile devices, online or offline.

But while technology has made this enormous leap, content dragged its feet. The New York Times, for example, created this famous article, ‘Snow Fall,’ which uses digital to its full potential — and won a Pulitzer Prize for it — but it was also hand-coded and took months to create. ‘It’s become a symbol of the potential of journalism, but also the barrier to how something like that could be made,’ one developer told Tech Crunch. I’m not here to discuss journalism. I’m using this example for two reasons: one, because it is a great illustration of some possibilities of online publishing, and two, that it also shows little understanding of what we need to do with online publishing: not just create content, but to build platforms.

The fact that Snow Fall has this incredibly rich digital design is secondary to the key fact that here was the New York Times creating content that was conceived for the web. True, many magazines have very active websites, but ‘active’ mainly means slideshows, blog posts, reblogs, updates, and so on. Few create longform content that is meant for the internet. What do I mean by ‘meant for the internet’? Not necessarily rich in features like video and gifs, but mainly essays that correspond to their surrounding — hyperlinking, bringing up conversations that happen elsewhere on the internet, but also taking online writing seriously, by paying for it, editing it, and proofreading it as rigorously as said they would in print.

While there are countless online publications, few of them are really dedicated to doing what I describe above. Journalism has been making this shift over the last few years and there has been a pretty serious influx of online-based, star-studded journalism startups like at Vox Media and FiveThirtyEight. On the non-fiction side, fewer projects have received a similar amount of attention. One that definitely has is Medium. Medium, in case you haven’t noticed it because you’ve definitely already read pieces on it (on its ‘about’ page: ‘Through a combination of algorithmic and editorial curation, posts on Medium get spread around based on interest and engagement’), is a pretty mysterious enterprise (as in, it has a brand, but no one really knows what its mission is) that basically offers a system to publish longform writing. It was started by the people who made Blogger (now Google’s blogging platform) but it circulates in very different ways: they have editors who promote worthy content; they invite — and pay — famous writers to contribute; and they arrange things by ‘collections,’ so that you can follow a topic, subject, or idea. Has it been successful? Eh. Just an example — in trending articles under the collection ‘contemporary art critic’ are pieces like ‘Banksy and the Architect: Street art is an expression of self, and so is its canvas.’ And ‘Want To Be an Artist? Lose Your Mind: Why insanity is the new secret to artistic success’ (complete with an image of Marina Abramovic in The Artist is Present). Articles from Medium do circulate very well, but at the end of the day, the site is less of a collection of writing the way it is presented, and more an experiment in pushing certain content via online distribution channels, more like Vox Media and Upworthy than The Awl. They’re trying to get out of that niche and explore other profit-oriented content: by buying Matter (a site that invests in long, considered analysis and stories about science) and Epic — which was stared by the journalist who wrote an article for Wired that became the movie Argo, and supports longform journalism online, the business plan being to sell the movie rights for those articles.

Medium is a really extreme example of the proximity of startup culture and longform writing on the internet. It’s the result of the idea that on the internet, ‘content’ is king. One example of the corporate style of Medium is its classification system of tagging articles by length, informing readers upfront with the time it will take them to read any given piece on the site. The time factor — considering that the average American spends 20% of his time online (which is about 30 hours a week, or 20% of the week) reading — points to an anxiety about having too much to read online and not enough time to read it all.

We consume so much information online these days that it seems almost a little crazy of me to call for more platforms to generate more text on the internet. Do we need more online content or more recommendations and ways to organise our online reading lists? I would argue that what we need is a shift in attitude toward reading online. Look at the language we use: the verbs we associate with reading online, like ‘bookmark’ and ‘scroll’, come from the physical word of books. ‘Longform’ and ‘longread’ are actually some of the first web-specific terms associated with reading that we have come up with. And with that comes the interesting assumption that rigor is built into length.

That connection is the result of the gruellingly slow shift toward digital publishing and the presumptions (not to say prejudices) concerning the quality of what is published online. The interest in long-form writing — which is considered more ‘accomplished,’ or ‘serious,’ but also takes advantage of the fact that on the internet you can publish much longer pieces without needing to pay for the paper — is one answer to that. But it also sparked the #tl;dr (‘too long; didn’t read’) hashtag. #tl;dr is mockery (too long = boring), but it’s also an excuse: it’s used by people who share long articles on social media based on their title, subject, tags, and so forth, who profess to not having read the piece they are circulating (this seems to happen a lot on Reddit, too, where TLDR is also the name of a popular daily round-up of notable thread). Tl;dr may seem to stand for the idea that we publish more and read less today. In actuality, we read more today than ever in the past, especially due to amount of information we consume online. So what can we do with the internet?

A lot of people tie the rise of new essayists to the internet, but most of the conversations about the essay have revolved around books, especially collections of non-fiction by single author. But what website has distinguished itself as a home for considered long-form essays? You'd think the essay would be comfortable online, but in fact, it battles with the infinite-seeming possibilities in length, context, and linking on the internet, rather than use them to the fullest. I think this is a result of the anxiety over the online essay going unread. You can tell how many people buy a book, but not what they do with it: if they read it, how long it took them to read, and whether or not they lent it to friends. Online, quantifiable data is readily available: how many people viewed a piece of writing, how much time they spent with it, how many times they then link back to it. Which of us hasn’t published a piece and then tracked how it was doing on Twitter?

There are many online environments in which the essay could thrive. The print-to-screen relationship is very different, for example, on a browser with many open tabs than on an app. Apps have reshuffled attention: since you can’t really run two concurrently, reading an article on a magazine’s app or on Instapaper is a totally engrossing, isolated experience that is closer to reading in print than reading on a browser. That said, there are also countless advantages to reading on a browser: an online essay could include hyperlinks (designated with target=”_blank” tags to open in a new tab) to so many things that it mentions, analyses, or cites. That way, reading online on a browser becomes an expansive experience, which leaves the reader with a wide network of references rather than isolates him or her as they read. There’s also a growing interests nowadays in digital magazines creating personalised annotation and collection tools built into their site and/or app, which will bring online reading yet another step closer to those printed PDFs we all know and love. This will also probably be the future of a slightly stagnating magazine-app industry.

As our relationship with the internet and the enormous amounts of information we read on it changes, so do our publishing strategies. The new essay could be published on the internet, but should it? There is a lot at stake in conversations about economies of attention online. A lot of people are willing to pay for the site that would crack the code on how to get attention to content — and with it, advertising, influence, numbers — on the internet. But these hierarchies, those who are willing to pay, are exactly what publishing on the internet could reshuffle. The future of the online essay — maybe the future of the essay — depends on the publishing platforms we come up with. It would be too easy, too optimistic, too complacent to say that the internet liberates us from the mundane considerations of print, especially when thinking about the increasingly corporate structure of the web. That said, online, non-fiction can thrive: it is searchable; accessible to an audience beyond its ‘natural’ readership, whatever that may mean; open for debate and constant consideration. I asked earlier what we can do with the internet — here’s my answer: create our own context for the writing that we do. On the internet, we’re constantly building it.