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Short and shallow reading on the Internet? Not so fast

January 12, 2016 at 6:15 PM EST
We hear a lot about how the Internet, social media and our addiction to handheld devices have reduced our attention spans. Nicholas Thompson of The New Yorker asks you to look more closely at the long, in-depth stories being shared online every day.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, another installment in our series of NewsHour essays, a long tradition of the NewsHour that we have resurrected recently.

Tonight, we hear from Nicholas Thompson, the editor of The New Yorker magazine’s website, NewYorker.com.

We hear a lot these days about how the Internet, social media, and our addictive use of our handheld devices are reducing our attention spans.

But, in tonight’s essay, Thompson takes a distinctly different point of view.

NICHOLAS THOMPSON, The New Yorker: The word ‘story’ is a shortening of the word history and derives from the work of Herodotus 2,500 years ago.

He wanted people to understand the collision between the Greek and Persian worlds, and he wanted us to enjoy reading what he wrote. The opening of first book describes money, sex, violence, and kidnapping.

For most of human history, storytelling helped humans survive. The societies that first learned to write kept better records, planned their expeditions more carefully, and described the faraway lands they would soon plunder.

Meanwhile, technology enabled storytelling. Sharing stories is easier when you can write them down or when you can print and bind them. Now, however, as you may have heard, storytelling is under threat. The Internet is shortening our attention spans, distracting us, quite possibly muddling the structures of our brains.

I started writing long magazine stories about 15 years ago, right about when one of the main publishers of long magazine stories, Rolling Stone, declared it was abandoning them. “I don’t think people have time to sit down and read,” the editor declared. And that was before Twitter.

In 2008, Nicholas Carr published his seminal essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” People, he argued, have lost the ability to read deeply. We can only skim, bouncing between hyperlinks, distracted by beliefs.

He bemoaned the fact that The New York Times had started to publish more and more news summaries. Carr later expanded his article into a book, making the same argument, but more intensely. He called it “The Shallows.”

Since then, you might think, the argument has been vindicated. Look at the Internet. It’s plagued by short, shallow rewrites of gibberish. We buy books, but we don’t read them. Five years from now, something will have been invented that makes tweets seem long and ponderous.

But, actually, look more closely. The New York Times did start publishing additional news summaries back then, but, ever since, it has shifted huge amounts of energy to long-form journalism. Even the criminals in this tale, The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, have started doing their own long form work.

Rolling Stone is back in it, for better or worse. The New Yorker continues to run long stories every week. Likely the best-read piece in the history of the magazine’s Web site is a 24,000-word piece on Scientology.

The editors of longform.org get classic referrals from the dating site OkCupid, meaning that people are listing their love of the site on their profiles.

Meanwhile, television has evolved toward almost endless and overwhelming complexity. The shows that define the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, “Cheers,” “The Simpsons” or “Seinfeld,” are cream cheese bagels compared to the full meals offered by “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” or “Games of Thrones.” And I should add that the latter show is, of course, based upon a series of books written by George R.R. Martin that cumulatively run about 5,000 pages.

So what’s happening? Technology takes our time away, but it also gives it back. Our smartphones, our computers, our connection speeds make it possible to process and absorb ever more information. We have near infinite memories. It’s become easier to write, and it’s become easier to read.

There’s something deeply human about storytelling. It’s part of how we learn language as babies, and it’s part of how we come to understand our world as adults. The intelligence of humans is best thought of as a combination of ourselves and our machines.

And looked at this way, you realize we’re becoming smarter and smarter every day. We don’t have as much free time as we used to, and the Internet has created all kinds of terrible habits. Just try to avoid checking your email when this ends.

But complexity surrounds us and beckons us. It’s hard not to think that Herodotus would be proud.

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