TL;DR – advice to ignore, but implications to heed

by Shari Graydon

Hanging out with teenagers can be an enlightening experience.

Last week, I participated in a panel discussion convened by MediaSmarts, “Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy” and a repository of fabulous resources for teachers, parents and kids. The teenagers present from across Canada asked really smart questions, many of which betrayed both deep scepticism of marketers and consumption-driven culture, and highly-developed social consciousness.

In exhorting them to pursue these passions, one of my panelist colleagues, Susan Krashinsky, the media reporter for the Globe and Mail, recommended that they sometimes ignore the “TL;DR” instructions that accompany social media posts referring to in-depth features or reports.

Although I’ve been on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for a couple of years, I apparently follow the wrong people, because until Susan mentioned it, I’d never come across the abbreviation, which is essentially a warning to the short-of-time (or intellectually lazy). It signifies “too long; don’t read.”

(Luckily for Dickens, Tolstoy and Proust, this now frequently-dispensed advice is a recent phenomenon.)

Susan’s point about the need to invest time and attention in informing oneself (beyond what’s available on Twitter posts and entertainment sites) is an important one.

But the attitude — and information overload reality behind it — that’s expressed in the “too long; don’t read” acronym is also important for anyone seeking to raise the profile of critical issues to consider. Many people no longer have the time or patience to wade through long-winded or densely-written material in search of the gems that might eventually, with effort, be on offer. If we want to influence people with our crafted arguments, it helps to be able to get to the point quickly, and deliver a clear thesis, compelling support, effective counter statement and convincing conclusion as concisely as possible.

Newspaper op ed pages and online blogs give you a platform to persuade, but they don’t guarantee that readers will stick with you just because what you’re writing about is important.

This is a lesson that both scholars and social justice advocates need to learn.

A few days before the panel discussion, I had the opportunity to support members of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) in exploring how they can make better use of social media platforms to share their great work.

For almost four decades, CRIAW has been publishing rigorous research on critically important issues. I so appreciate their indispensable work, and have cited their studies and relied on their resources many, many times.  Given the complexity of the topics they’re exploring, and the in-depth nature of their analyses, it’s not surprising that many of the documents they produce are lengthy. But in today’s communications environment, I worry that when even the “short version” of a “fact sheet” on violence against women is 14 pages long, it’s more likely to fall into the “TL;DR” abyss.

In addition to encouraging teenagers to ignore the “too long; don’t read” advice, those of use producing knowledge and disseminating resources can help bridge the gap by making an effort to write a bit shorter.