I reposted an old essay to reddit the other day to curb the disappointment of my play not going ultra-mega-pandemic-government-shutdown-call-Bauer viral, being performed by David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch in the YouTube sensation of the decade, and rocketing me to a life of TV interviews and free money. Turns out the audience for parodies of modern angst framed around pop sci-fi and existential theatre is on the slim side. Who knew?
Anyway, in my first attempt to use reddit to make myself famous, I posted a lengthy ramble about online dating to the reddit site as a whole, instead of to the OkCupid subreddit, which was my intent.
“Ah! Well that totally makes it acceptable to cannibalize old work and selflessly deliver it to a waiting audience. Really, it’s a service. I’d be remiss not to.” So I posted it and neurotically refreshed the page until it hit eighty up-votes, which was just enough to quell my narcissistic self-hatred for the evening. Just before I retired to the bar, this comment caught my eye: “can i have tl;dr? or is there no big truth which it all boils down to?”
In this particular essay, there kind of was.1 But the comment made me look at “tl;dr” in a new way.2 In its purest form, it’s the uniquely useless variety of comment telling an uncaring audience “I did not read this,” but it morphed into the request “summarize this for me so I can decide whether I care enough to read the rest.” I didn’t think of it as “give me the point so I can go do something else,” and I definitely didn’t think of it as “give me the punchline of a laboriously supported and explored argument so I can agree or disagree without reading it.”3 In other words, give me The Big Truth, ideally outlined in a topic sentence and reiterated in a slightly longer concluding sentence.
I tend to write long things in a world of shrinking attention spans, and I do it because I’m stubborn and refuse to adapt. I didn’t have a non-school-ordained email address until I was twenty, I didn’t know what CTRL-C did until I was twenty-three, and I learned how to use Twitter last month. That’s not exaggeration: before Twitter decided to love me for a day, I looked at it as a whole lot of frightening noise. Every time I accidentally went to a Twitter feed, I closed the browser tab with same urgency I display in throwing books at unexpected spiders. I’m being dragged kicking, screaming, punching, stabbing, begging, crying, and clawing at the floor into the modern world, but I accept that I’m not great at keeping things short, and because of that, a lot of people won’t read my work. I don’t fault anybody for it; everybody’s busy and if I can’t keep their attention, that’s on me.
But skimming for the The Big Truth is a different monster. It’s not just looking for the conclusion: it’s thinking it really is important to grasp the point of an article, but not wanting to do the heavy lifting of reading comprehension. I’ve always assumed that if there is a Big Truth hiding in an article out there, I’ll have to read carefully.4 We all want an easy answer, and those of us without a god are left with an extremely confusing universe that doesn’t pussyfoot around letting us know it wants us dead. Everybody’s looking for The Big Truth about anything: as a teenager I read What’s Happening to My Body? for boys AND girls hoping one of them would teach me the secret of flirting. Desperate desires like this fund an entire industry that hinges on the nonsensical notion that attraction is a simple enough system to have a cheat code. These industries and those like them continue to promise that the Big Truths are out there, tricking people into thinking there is a book or article or video or single piece of information that will let them sprint the last mile of enlightenment.
Even as we mock the business model, the spiraling cycle of false promise and hope deepens by the hour. When I was designing ads for OkCupid, my project partner walked over to see my latest skin tease jpeg and said, “It’s amazing. I know when I see Hot Sexy Singles Stripping in Your Home, it’s a lie, but I click on it anyway.” Most of us are guilty of the same lapse of reason, because the chance of seeing a tiny bit more flesh for next to no effort bypasses our brain’s game theory. Virtually all popular media has begun following this advertising principle of promising the big one; clicking on One Simple Trick is no different from clicking on Number of Adverbly Adjective Things Will Verb Your Organ! This Number Will Force a Particular Emotion. We know it’s bullshit. We know we’ll get to the end with an “awe” or a “wtf” or an erection and be thirty seconds older, but we click anyway, because though most advertised shortcuts are lies, there is a shortcut to advertising: promise a Big Truth. Promise a simple, digestible nugget of trivia will be our Rosetta Stone for life, and make the fear go away.
The inevitably disappointing demonstrations of The Truth flare and fade. What resonates is detail. The books that forgo easy answers, in favor of trying to put readers in an unfamiliar world, tend to be the books that show up on college curriculums once the authors die. I’ve spent a lot of my life writing about the minutiae of it: little, endless mazes that I have to navigate just to get to the next one. Understanding life is about understanding this pattern, not getting to the end of a particular maze. So The Big Truth of this particular essay is there isn’t one: there is only a series of temporary answers.5 Our brains gave us an infinitely complex world of subtle interactions, and we turned those brains to science to make everything even more incomprehensible. No single discipline will unlock The Truth, though it may provide a framework on which to hang a steady comfort.
The desire and demand for summarized truth has been a part of the human condition since we learned how to put words together. It has become noticeably worse in reaction to the volume of accessible information going from “whatever you can find at the library” to “multimedia firehose pointed at your face.” This ever needier desire is what let NPR troll ten thousand people with a truthy-sounding headline for an article with no content, and therein lies the problem: the demand for Big Truth is antithetical to the communication of real information.
The simplest honest article will leave ten people with ten different impressions, no matter how polemically one-sided the article was supposed to be. You have to draw your own conclusions from what’s in front of you; if you find yourself asking for a tl;dr halfway through an article, just stop reading and look for something more stimulating. You cannot gain insight into complicated subjects from the nutshells, anymore than you can enjoy a novel by reading the table of contents. If you care enough about the topic to want to join the conversation, read the subject matter. An opinion based on a summary is an echo.
Tl;dr: the information you might care about will never be in the summary, and if you just want the summary, you don’t care about the information.
1 Online dating is like every other online tool: it increases efficiency.
2 For the uninitiated, if there are any left: “tl;dr” stands for “too long; didn’t read.”
3 This may be unfair to the commenter, but that’s what it sounded like to me.
4 Spoiler: no such article is associated with this website.
5 If you’re cracking open your email to write me a message to the tune of “Aren’t you a hypocrite if you say The Big Truth is there is no Big Truth?” please finish your bachelor’s degree first.