Over the past year a peculiar trend piece seems to keep popping up. It's never exactly the same but it often takes the form of a personal essay and it's almost always a mix of intelligent observation with a healthy dash of melancholy. It's a nostalgic look at the good old days (it's usually about three years ago) and a reluctant admission that the neighborhood is changing. Often times it's about Twitter, but the truth seems to touch on something bigger: the short-burst internet is exhausting us, grinding us down. Most importantly, it's making us unhappy. And, more and more, it seems we're looking for refuge.
There's The Atlantic's "Eulogy for Twitter" from last April, which wasn't rooted in data but rather an ominous feeling that the "audience-obsessed, curious, newsy" Twitter crew (read journalists and pundits) had grown tired and quiet. "Twitter feels closed off, choked, in a way that makes us want to explore somewhere else for a while," the post's authors wrote. That's just the most notable example; there are plenty more, from journalists and celebrities alike.
Internet fatigue is nothing new (do a quick search and you'll see articles about overdosing on the 'net's myriad offerings from before you could buy an iPhone) but what's changed, it seems, is that many of the web's loudest (and often most interesting) voices are getting hoarse, with many opting for either a break or a new, more tenable strategy of conversation.
It's into this climate that the proprietors of longform.org, a site with a mission to curate, highlight, and celebrate traditional, longer magazine-style journalism (what they call "articles") are set to launch their new iOS 8 app. On the surface, the Longform app isn't much more than a sleek combination of a read-it-later queue, recommendation engine, and a rudimentary byline-subscription social network for quality, generally longer articles. But to hear its creators describe the app, which has been in development for over a year, it's clear that the new mobile product isn't just a play for your pocket, but a direct response to this particular brand of internet fatigue. It's an attempt to create a respite from the barrage of the short internet — an attempt at building a niche slow internet.
"I think there's been some kind of backlash against the fetishization of long articles, which is probably justified but it hasn't changed my belief that the internet above 2,000 words is a lot smarter and better for you than the internet below 2,000 words," Aaron Lammer, one of Longform's co-founders told BuzzFeed News. "You just don't have a lot of people who are like, 'Man, I just feel terrible at the end of the day. I'm just reading article after article.' I'm not saying that everything that's long is brilliant — there's lots of crap that's long too, but a diet of articles I bet makes you feel better than diet of tweets and listicles and commentary. It's just less dangerous to your psyche."
That may sound a bit self-serving, but Max Linsky, another of the site's co-founders, argues that app is designed not just to highlight great writing and writers, but to try and inspire a new kind of browsing behavior and, at the very least, offer up an online opportunity where regular people can feel good about pawing at their phones.
"We wanted to build something where you didn't have to do a lot of work to make it great and something where you never have the opportunity to feel like you're doing a bad job with it," Linsky said. "I am very acutely sensitive to the giant unread queue ... things will be there on the app and then they'll be gone and you won't have to feel bad about them if you didn't read them all the way. We wanted to make that process easier and more natural and also remove any element of guilt or work to it."
But the prospect of bringing the "long" internet to casual readers is somewhat daunting. Attention spans aside, outside of a few coastal hubs, casual readers don't care much about bylines or the literary journalism scene. But Linsky, Lammer, and company believe that by providing a sanctuary from the deluge of content, they can lure normal readers and quash the anxiety that exists in the content cascade, at least for 20 minutes a day.
"One of the things we talked a lot about with casual readers is the importance of having some kind of edge in the app and not just an endless stream of stuff you will get lost in," the app's product lead Ben Jackson said. "It's like, here's 10 things. That's it. Check back later. There'll be other things. For the causal reader that's a lot less intimidating than these open-ended apps that throw you out to sea with no paddle and say, 'Go find some content!'"
To its credit, the app is simple. Users can follow their favorite writers and publications (more than 1,000 at launch), check out their recommendations, and stay alerted to newly published pieces, but that's largely a power-user feature. For most, the bread and butter is sure to be the curated top 10 "Popular" tab, as well as a "Staff Picks" section, which caters to the crowd that's just looking for something worthwhile to read.
And for all their talk about instilling new reading habits (they're especially excited to court young college readers), the Longform team doesn't seem to be advocating for a disconnect from the short internet. The hope, it seems, is to create an environment on one's phone conducive to a 20-minute respite; a way to continue to live, as Emma Healey wrote in a recent Hairpin essay, "both on and in spite of the internet."
While the Longform crew is ambitious (in an hour interview, there were multiple tongue-in-cheek asides about the app's soon-to-be millions of users) and incredibly bullish on the prospects of the long internet, they insist their goal is simple.
"Best-case scenario is that you find an article you're excited to read and read it to the end and that reading experience will be totally different than anything else you probably read that day," Linsky said. "There's not a lot of people who want to read more than one of these articles per day. If we can deliver one great thing like that a day or week, then that's pretty great."