Twitter vs. Deep reading?

Clive Thompson wrote in Wired about how he thinks twitter fuels in-depth analysis. I have doubts about his argument, but perhaps agree with his main point. Here’s an excerpt:

I think something much more complex and interesting is happening: The torrent of short-form thinking is actually a catalyst for more long-form meditation…

When something newsworthy happens today—Brett Favre losing to the Jets, news of a new iPhone, a Brazilian election runoff—you get a sudden blizzard of status updates. These are just short takes, and they’re often half-baked or gossipy and may not even be entirely true. But that’s OK; they’re not intended to be carefully constructed…

…It used to be that only traditional media, like magazines or documentaries or books, delivered the long take. But now, some of the most in-depth stuff I read comes from academics or businesspeople penning big blog essays…

Here’s my opinion:

  • Most people are still not on twitter, so twitter has had no effect on their reading behavior.
  • Facebook might be a better place to study, as status updates are the mainstream (can we call Facebook mainstream yet?) equivalent of tweets.
  • There will always be a wide variety of different writing forms and lengths that succeed simultaneously.
  • Media trends are not universal. For some people twitter has crushed interest in long form, but in others it’s helped them find long things to read. The broad stroke is too abstract to have a meaningful argument about.
  • Twitter has replaced newsreaders for many early-adopters (most people on earth don’t use newsreaders either) and it serves the same purpose. It’s how they find longer things to read.
  • Twitter doesn’t persist well. It’s very hard to link to a twitter conversation and have it be readable.
  • Email is still a huge source of reading material discovery and consumption, but is consistently glossed over, despite it being nearly 30 years old.

I agree with Thompson’s last point. The Kindle and iPad have improved long form reading, in our attention deficit culture. It’s a dedicated, read-only designed experience.  I now read longer articles found online via Kindle, and find I’m reading more of them, but often days or weeks after they were published (Instapaper is the magic bridge, compiling and emailing articles I mark to my kindle).

If you use twitter, has twitter changed your reading habits? And if you don’t use twitter, has it’s existence changed how the people you read do their writing?

19 Responses to “Twitter vs. Deep reading?”

  1. Mark Dykeman

    I don’t have a reader like the Kindle or something similar, so I can’t really comment on its impact on reading. But I do have some ideas about the short take vs. the long take and the impact of Twitter.

    First of all, I think Thompson is suggesting a causal link between the rise of Twitter and what he sees as an increase in more in-depth analysis and deeper, longer reading that might not actually exist. Like you, Scott, I see that people are using Tweeted links in the way other people use RSS readers to find stuff to read. But are they really reading more or less, shorter or longer? And what about the people who use neither Twitter or RSS readers?

    Thompson also fails to provide a lot of evidence to suggest that people are consuming long form content in droves, especially on the Web. He cites one study, but doesn’t link to it, so it’s hard to challenge it or agree with it.

    Yes, I do find interesting things to read via Twitter, but it’s like finding the needle in the haystack. Unless I do a much more thorough job of filtering my Twitter streams, it’ll be pure luck if I find something meaty and worthwhile to read. Let me rephrase that: I usually find something, but the odds of my finding any one particular article or post via Twitter are slim.

    In and of itself, though, Twitter doesn’t make me more interested in longer form writing: I was already interested in reading that stuff.

  2. Scott Berkun

    Mark: thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    The more I think about this, the more it seems hard to measure.

    I want to say *it seems* people read less, and gravitate towards shorter things, but that’s based on what? Some vague notion I have about how much the people around me read? Very sketchy data indeed.

    Even growing up in my house 30 years ago people in my house didn’t read much.

    And I guess that’s my attempt at a point. There is so much variance across people in their reading habits that general trends don’t signify as much as they seem on the surface.

  3. Jen

    Twitter has changed my reading habits in that it continuously reveals new things for me to read (mainly non-fiction). As a result, my interests grow and deepen in certain areas, and I’m more likely to read more including offline content, especially from writers and sources I’ve come to admire and trust. Of course, my iPad plays a major part in this.

    1. Scott Berkun


      Interesting point about how non-fiction dominant twitter is. I’m sure there are plenty of short story writers online, but I can’t recall ever having even seen a tweet saying “great short story here – must read”.

  4. lazyjson

    Personally,I’m addicted to Google Reader.I’ve moved back and forth between a desktop client,feeddemon,and Google Reader.I’m the kind of news junky that wants a constant flow of info,yet organized into groups,i.e. Tech News,World News,Local News,etc.I wish twitter would embed everything locally,like the failed service ‘Pownce’ used to do.They wouldn’t have to block any services like twitpic,twitvid,etc. but they could do it better than most of these services…just thinking out loud and on the fly.I’m hoping twitter changes their interface again this year,too much wasted real estate with that navbar at top and too much squandered on the sidebar.I think I went off topic.Oh yeah,I’m old fashion,RSS feeds drives this user to deeper reading.

  5. Stewart

    I am reading this article on my iPad as a result of a tweet linking to it showing up in my flipboard page. I believe this sort of experience is the future of media discovery and consumption.

  6. Scott Berkun

    lazyjson: I do wonder how much of twitter/fb/etc. behavior is dominated by power users like you.

    Anyone know of good data for how many web pages (or their newsreader equivalent) people visit a day? broken down by demographic?

  7. Pete

    It’s changed how I consume and link to information. Twitters connection to a persons monologue is probably the most significant change; I would never read a personal blog on a daily basis but will gladly follow a twitter stream.

    I still read read books and go direct to sites. Twitter the only aggregator that feels comfortable. I’ve tried Flipboard. Pulse etc but these get a bi-weekly use at best.

    Twitter has allowed me to create a custom and unique network of people that provides a unique reading experience. It led me to e-reading on iphone and ipad and is the reason I’m aware of your good self.

  8. kirkistan

    I’m on Twitter but I rarely read it. It’s just too distracting for a typical day of focused work. But I do wonder about long form reading. My blog posts tend to be longer (300-400 words) and while I’m work to simplify and improve the posts, I still wonder if people see a block of copy and simply move on–most of the time. We’re in an age where committing to read several hundred words is too big a commitment (even accounting for the variability of the writing.

  9. James Martin

    I enjoyed your post. I use Google Reader, Twitter, and FB. They each serve different functions for me. FB keeps me in touch with friends, past and present (kid pix, etc.). Twitter keeps me in touch with colleagues in my profession, for which the lists feature is key. I can hit a list and be up-to-speed on new things very quickly. Google Reader, for me, is for longer things when I have time for them–things that interest me but that I don’t have to or don’t care to be up on at any given moment.

    What has really helped me read more long-form books of late is the Kindle App for iPhone (and Mac OS X, and Windows). It just makes reading possible in the nooks and crannies of the day, when the opportunity presents itself. I read so much via the Kindle app these days that I find reading hard-copy books a bit annoying. With a hard copy, I can’t just touch a word to look it up, or touch a passage to highlight it. And, as I’m always in the middle of five or six books, I can always read the book I want to read, rather than the one I happen to have with me (if I’m lucky enough not to have forgotten to bring one).

    I’m reading, and enjoying, your book on public speaking right now via Safari Books Online, which, for anyone with IT interests, is an amazing resource.

  10. Gary Myers

    I use twitter because I am interested in how knowledge is mobilized using social media. Among the data noise and information that can be found in social media, twitter provides a very quick at-a-glance read of topics of interest for further investigation. I also use Instapaper to follow up. The problem is always making time to follow up and do more in-depth reading for longer articles of interest. Like anything in life…it’s about choosing to take the time or not.

  11. Sean Crawford

    It’s been noted here that people don’t comment on fiction. I suspect that if tweets and the rest of the electro-computer domain have a nonfiction view of the world it is not because computer nerds are left brain – I like my Buffy and my anime – but because people who are rushing (what they call “surfing”) are forcing themselves to be left brained. Ironically, a real surfer out on the pacific rollers has to use both sides of the brain, has to “be here now.”

    If I find myself rushing, skimming and scanning, or even TV channel surfing, then I STOP, get centred, and ask, “What’s my problem?”

  12. Eric Nehrlich

    My Twitter usage actually drove me back to RSS. I realized that the tweets I was looking for were those of my favorite bloggers (Berkun, Rands, Mark Suster) linking to their newest articles. So I excavated my Google Reader account and slashed out the deadweight feeds I’d added to it that had made it too difficult to keep up. Now I have a few posts each morning that I actually find interesting to read, rather than being overwhelmed by a firehose of updates. And then did the same for Twitter by creating a couple lists of people I want to check in on daily vs. the larger set of people I follow.

    I find it hard to avoid the trap of adding just one more feed (something I’ve written about at but if I actually curate what I follow carefully, RSS and Twitter are really great tools for checking in.

  13. Whoisbid

    Twitter is a great conduit for selling goods and services. Well, many are hoping it will become just that! I don’t think Tabloids are designed for deep reading and my guess is that Tabloids are more popular than proper newspapers.

  14. hey

    What is it about reading long text such as short stories or novels that makes it different from readinh tweets and facebook status post?



  1. […] Fascinado por estos intríngulis, confundido acerca de si la expresión corta favorece o debilita el razonamiento como dice Clive Thompson en How Tweets and Texts Nurture In-Depth Analysis y convencidisimo de que una feliz combinación de soportes dinámicos y capacidad expresiva puede salvar a la lectura y llevarla a otras dimensiones -como sugiere Scott Berkun en Twitter vs. Deep reading?. […]

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