When 15 seconds is too long; welcome to the 'TL;DR' world

That's "too long; didn't read." Are we reacting to information overload by embracing tools and services that limit how long we'll allow things to occupy our attention?

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan is a journalist who has covered the search and internet marketing space for over 15 years. He's founding editor of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, and writes a personal blog called Daggle (and maintains his disclosures page there).
Danny Sullivan
3 min read
Breaking: Instagram gets video, TL;DR to follow. Photobucket user Dixon Cannon and CNET

Instagram has video now, a whole 15 seconds that can be recorded. That's just over twice as long as Vine's 6 seconds. "Too long?" some wonder. Maybe the bigger question is, how have we ended up in a place where there can even be a debate over whether a few seconds is too long?

TL;DR: "Too long; didn't read"
Yes, the TL;DR world continues to grow. "TL;DR"? Too long; didn't read. I didn't even know the acronym until about a year ago, when I began seeing it more and more. The writer part of me, the curmudgeon part of me, wants to say RTDT, "read the damn thing," to anyone who has a TL;DR type of attitude.

The realistic part of me knows the genie's not going back into the bottle. Twitter has taught us a valuable lesson. In a time when everyone seems so busy, is so hit with information overload, you can say a lot in 140 characters.

Vine's 6 seconds have done a similar thing for video. Six seconds can help you focus on essentials. Sure, Instagram's 15 seconds is longer. But it's still in keeping with the TL;DR movement, where less is more.

Serving the TL;DR generation with brevity
If less isn't more, at least these services make you feel you're not wasting as much time as in the past. Whether it's 6 seconds or 15, either can feel like an eternity if you're watching something uninteresting. With Vine and Instagram, there's no more watching a 3 minute video for a 15 second punch line. Here's the punch line.

As we hear of kids moving to Instagram from Facebook, perhaps that's even more of the TL;DR evolution. Creating a post involves typing words. With Instagram, here's my picture -- 1,000 words all at once. No need to comment with your feedback. Just tap to give me a like.

Snapchat's popularity is similar. What you get on Snapchat won't just be short. It'll literally disappear soon after you've seen it.

Imagine all the people who feel overwhelmed by "read it later" lists who might benefit from a Snapchat-like service, where all the stuff they didn't read just disappears over time. Inbox Zero for everyone could even become a reality: if you haven't read that e-mail, it just auto-archives. Perhaps Netflix might look at the stuff in our Instant Queue that never gets watched and automatically create TL;DR shorts for us.

Long-form and TL;DR co-existing?
Again, there's that part of me that loves a good read. That part that recognizes that I want to read the damn thing, no matter how long it is, and I think others should do so, as well. TL;DR is, of course, in no way the same as the deep read, the long-form presentation. But TL;DR is here, will likely continue to grow, and isn't even really new, if you think about it. It's just being reborn in our social-media age.

Newspaper headlines have long been TL;DR. That's the entire point of them, why they evolved to help capture the reader's interest immediately. Acronyms and shortcuts that evolved out of "dumb" phones where SMSing was done using a numeric keypad are also part of the abbreviated world.

Then there's the telegraph, where when you were paying for every word, which was sent through limited bandwidth, you tended to be precise. When Oscar Wilde wanted to know how his new book was doing, he famously telegraphed a single character, "?" -- and got back "!" from his publisher.

Perhaps you don't get much more TL;DR than single-character communication. Heck, in our TL;DR world, maybe that's even an app I should create. I'd call it "!" where communication could be done only through a single character. And it would sell for $1 billion.

In seriousness, my real hope is that as the TL;DR world evolves, it evolves so that publishers or any other people are smarter about making use of brevity to communicate things better than ever -- and that publishers also help inspire more consumption of the VL;WR variety: very long; worth reading.