Against the summarized Web

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Moby Dick, condensed for the Web
  • chispita_666
  • Moby Dick, condensed for the Web
The "wave of the future" on the Internet likely will include lots of helpful story summaries, one of our Web gurus, Asher Klein, predicted here Friday. Klein usually knows what he's talking about, unfortunately.

He was writing specifically about TL;DR, a Web expression for "Too long; didn't read." "You see it mainly in forums, where a writer will summarize what she says in a long post so new readers don't need to spend too long to see what they're saying," Klein wrote. "It's a courtesy that acknowledges that a lot of people don't have time to make it through every little story when there's so much ground to cover on the Internet." Or every not-so-little story.

There are a growing number of aggregators capsulizing stories to help us cover all that Internet turf, Klein said. He highlighted one such aggregator, which happens to call itself TL;DR. On its website, TL;DR diagnoses the condition, and offers the treatment:

You're on your morning commute . . . Your stop is approaching fast, yet you want to read the news for today. You launch a couple of the famous news websites on separate tabs, say, on your iPad or iPhone. You see an overload of information. You click a news item. It’s hard to understand the main point. Before you even reach the next news item, you've arrived. It’s too late. The news articles are too lengthy. Too Long; and therefore, you didn't read.

We're here to fix that.

We're TL;DR — we give you the summary, the synopsis, the main contention and the entire idea into one simple paragraph . . . So you don't have to say, "Too Long; Didn't Read".

It's not every day you find a website named for what it wants to save you from.

More important, a flabby, ungrammatical mission statement doesn't inspire confidence in a website's condensing skills, or its ability to recognize good work. The summary and synopsis and main contention into [sic] one simple paragraph? You get the burger, the hamburger, and the beefburger in one simple bun. Or into one.

Years ago, I took a writing class at Northwestern taught by the author Joseph Epstein. I remember his disdain for speed-reading courses. Why would anyone want to rush through reading? he wondered. What's next, he asked—a speed-lovemaking course?

This was back when "lovemaking" was the common term. Today, perhaps we need a TMF;FA website, aggregating solutions for the notorious Too Much Foreplay; Fell Asleep problem.

Maybe one reason digital news sites are suffering, Klein observed, is that "there's no great place for eye-catching summaries." TL;DR and other such websites "could mine the best content from around the world . . . projecting glosses in front of a huge potential audience."

Writing, however, isn't just about what's said, but how it's said (as TL;DR unintentionally illustrates). And style is much harder to summarize than substance. John McPhee wrote an entire book about oranges. The gloss isn't what makes you want to read McPhee. Reading McPhee is what makes you want to read McPhee.

I've recently begun Infinite Jest. Summarize that.

Granted, news stories are usually easier to summarize than books or feature articles. Even in news stories, however, the writing itself is important—something often overlooked by aggregators, who care much more about topic. The best stories also tend to be complex: the bottom line about good writing is that it's about more than the bottom line. But I expect the summary executioners working for outfits like TL;DR to favor stories that are simple to simplify.

Klein's right that many readers are stressed out about all that ground to be covered on the Internet. Even before the Web, there was too much to read and too little time to read it. But the in-your-face infinity of the Net is exhausting. A scan of Facebook leads you to a compelling story on a site you never would have visited; a link in that story leads you to another compelling piece; and pretty soon it's an hour past bedtime. Then you make the mistake of checking your Twitter feed.

The temptation—one we're all succumbing to far too often, and one which sites such as TL;DR encourage—is to scan instead of read. That's the road to superficiality—to being a mile wide and an inch deep. Instead of scanning summaries, we should be finding something well-written, diving in, and sticking with it, even if it's sometimes "hard to understand the main point."

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