By Mike Exon
Last night’s Longform Online event for Internet Europe Week, pulled in some enquiring minds devoted to genre busting prose with a lot to say.
Longform is the new form; which is kind of strange, since the longer article has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. Strange but no surprise.
In a web world constructed largely from the orthodoxy of ‘short, scannable prose,’ ‘snackable content’, and ‘bite-sized chunks’, it was refreshing to hear from three practitioners who are making up their own rules because they’re hungry for something else.
And it’s working. People not only want it, they crave it. Cash-strapped newspapers and magazines are reducing word counts in print as well as online, so who can afford to pay by the word, when the writing demands 5000 words?
“Kindle Singles ask for at least 5,000 words so that is our baseline word count,’ says Matter co-founder Bobbie Johnson.
He and Jim Giles founded the longform writing platform Matter after $50,000 worth of crowdfunding through Kickstarter. The project attracted 2,566 backers and raised $140,201, which Johnson puts down to the appetite for well-wrought, inquisitive journalism.
The thinking that’s driving these content experiments is ‘effort in equates to greater attention span’. It’s a reversal of the current accepted wisdom: short reader attention spans don’t require big effort and quality.
This content effort quotient is something the Matter guys are taking as far as they can:
“For the first article we sent our writer off to the States and the Middle East to research the piece in depth,” says Johnson. “It was a four month job, and without it we wouldn’t have ”.
The longform movement’s been a long time coming home to digital, which is perhaps apt. But increasingly sites like Longreads (73,000 Twiiter followers) and The Atavist (6, 300 followers) are building on a long tradition of in-depth and at length articles which trace their lineage to Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the Big Reads of American culture.
Most important, for us here and now, is the fact that a readership exists for longform. It’s been helped in recent years, for sure, by the quality of e-readers, tablets and mobile devices you can enjoy sitting down on the sofa. Digital reading – the experience itself – reverts back to how it was before desktop computers.
Emerging ‘titles’ like Aeon Magazine and BBC Future are building platforms around networked communities, and offering interactions around the content (like events, and conversations with readers through user comments).
And because they are content led, the magazines’ readerships have taken root naturally without PPC, promos or keyword optimisation. Aeon editor Brigid Hains never writes headlines for SEO.
Big content is not right for everyone all the time, but if a rebalancing is not happening right now, it’s surely well overdue.
Longform Online: Rewriting the Rules event, was hosted by TCO London as part of Internet Europe Week on November 13, 2012. The first issue of Matter launched today.
For the Twitter thread from the event, see #longform71a
Image courtesy of University of Kentucky College of Arts & Sciences