A 5-Minute Read About The X-Minute Read and Longform Writing

Read times for articles are becoming more common. What do read times tell us about our attention spans and what does it mean for longform writing?

(Image via: Marco Verch)

When I first started writing on Medium, back in Summer 2016, I remembered one of the things about Medium as a platform that fascinated me was the Read Time feature. Along with the headline, by-line, and publishing date for each article was a little note indicating how long it would take to read a given article. This was a number that, according to Medium, was based on the “average reading speed of an adult (roughly 265 WPM) […] with an adjustment made for images”, and back then, there appeared to be somewhat of an agreement among the community of Medium writers that the magic number for writers was 3-minutes.

That seemed to align with the “technology is killing our attention spans” sentiment, as well as the evidence on Medium, where posts that were doing well all seemed to be 3 or 4, occasionally 5, minute reads. Fast-forward to present day, and over half of the articles featured on Medium’s homepage and the “Popular on Medium” list regularly have read times of 5 or more minutes. My own experience from the creator side of the equation also reflects this. Even as little as a year ago, the 3-minute or 4-minute reads that I wrote generally did much better than the occasional 5-minute or 7-minute piece, whereas my posts now are all 5-minute reads or longer, my most successful piece is a 14-minute read, and engagement is better across the board.

There appears to be some kind of change occurring, and I think I know why.

It’s 2018, and if you’ve ever made something that you wanted people on the internet to see, you’ve probably realized that getting your work out there is not particularly difficult, whether your thing is non-fiction essay writing, DIY tutorial-making, or IRL live-streaming. No, the problem of the day for content creators is separating your work from the millions of other people also trying to get to where you want to get to by doing the same thing you’re doing.

As a reader or viewer, then, that means there are more voices vying for your attention than ever, and with so many things to occupy our time with, we want to know what we’re getting into and how much time it will take, because more time here means less time somewhere else. This is why any listicle with tips on how to succeed as a digital writer will preach the importance of headline-writing, and this is why read time — and any of other kind of meta-data that helps us better parse content — is increasingly valuable.

The read time feature was a rarity two years ago. It still has not become pervasive, but it is gaining popularity with platforms that serve as content hubs or gateways, and, most importantly, with the biggest content gateway of them all: Facebook, who has now started to provide read times for certain articles from certain publications, on their mobile app. This is a big indicator that read times are going to become commonplace, sooner rather than later.

There’s also another interesting trend to note, and it has to do with the aforementioned observation that Medium has shifted towards encouraging longform writing just as much, if not more, than the usual 3-minute reads that are pervasive on the internet. Medium is not the only one. Name a prominent publication and it more than likely will regularly have longform articles. Many, such as The Verge, ESPN, or The Guardian, even have a dedicated tab for longform articles.

Of course, this is not a recent invention. The Feature Article has been around for as long as magazines have — entire issues of magazines are built around a handful of features — but what’s interesting is that in an era where attention spans are shrinking, longform writing has not died. One of the subplots of the rise of Donald Trump is that he’s been an absolute boon for journalism. That, along with the #MeToo reckoning which so heavily relied on longform exposés and investigative pieces, has re-instilled the value of the longform.

In an interview with Fast Company (a publication that has a read time feature, coincidentally), Tim Urban, writer and co-founder of Wait But Why, a publication that specializes in longform writing that feature stick-people images, said:

“In 2013, when we were discussing this new project, we noticed that it seemed like the most popular writing these days was stock photos and lists that were really crappy and short–-and sometimes really clever and great–-but really short. It was like the Internet had given up on people having attention spans.”

I usually lean towards pessimism and cynicism when it comes to issues involving society and technology, but I will go as far as to say that this recent “rebirth” of longform writing restores a (small) bit of my faith in humanity, not only because it will result in more longform writing, often also the most impactful, but also just because it’s comforting to know that despite the many aspects of everyday life that technology is actively changing, “quality over quantity” still holds true.

I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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