All Hail the Great tl;dr

The acronym “tl;dr” stands for “too long; didn’t read.” Originally used by online readers who found a piece of online writing too long to read all the way through, it has been adopted by online writers to indicate that what follows is a summary giving either the gist of what the previous, longer text says or an emphasis of some important point they want the reader to take away from having read it. I write concluding tl;dr paragraphs often, even when emailing to someone who has said they aren’t necessary. Many other online writers as verbose as me also use them.

But isn’t there an existing English phrase for tl;dr, “To make a long story short?” What’s wrong with just saying that instead of using an acronym that looks like leetspeak and not everyone understands? Simple. For online purposes, “To make a long story short” is itself too long.

I haven’t read any scientific research on the comparative reactions of print and online readers to long documents, but more than a decade of anecdotal experience, not only mine but many other people’s, suggests that what is considered a perfectly acceptable length for a print document is too long for an online one. The most common explanation is that readers find long online documents tedious. This is not altogether a mystery if you look into the history of television. Yes, television.

When the first television sets were being designed way back at the start of the twentieth century, the designers had to determine how often the image on the screen should be repainted by the electron guns in the cathode ray tube behind the display screen. This is something called “the refresh rate.” Very quickly a refresh rate of 60 Hertz was standardized. There were two reasons for this decision. First, that refresh rate is most comfortable for human eyes to view. Second, that refresh rate induces a mild trance in the viewer, in a way analogous to how rapid flickering can trigger an epileptic seizure. This trance was considered desirable for marketing purposes, as a viewer in a mild trance would watch longer and be more likely to believe the truth of what he saw on the screen, as well as be more open to subtexts and subliminal messages. Such has always been the ethics-free world of marketing and sales.

Today’s computer displays are far different from the TV sets of yore, but they still have a refresh rate, and, in most cases, the refresh rate is still 60 Hertz. This has an unexpected effect on people who read text online. While a print book, magazine or newspaper doesn’t refresh, and therefore can be read indefinitely, an online document does refresh, and the refreshing at 60 Hertz impairs the reader’s concentration and makes reading more difficult. Reading is far different from watching images. Reading requires us to use parts of our brains that are actively hindered by a computer display refreshing at the rate it does.

Most people believe miniaturization of devices, such as the emergence of seven-inch tablet computers and smartphones, is what has led to the increasing brevity of text and ever-higher reliance on images. There is no doubt that non-oral communication is shifting steadily in the direction of pictures rather than written words. Yet the real reason behind this might be that the very nature of computer and phone displays militates against reading long documents. Perhaps the tablet would never have been invented if people found it comfortable to read long texts online.

Which brings me to the point of this already-too-long diary-blog entry. tl;dr is now essential for anyone who intends to be verbose. After the fifth medium-sized paragraph of text, most online readers find themselves experiencing tedium and wanting to scroll down to the end just to see how long the rest of the document is. If there is a tl;dr at the end, then it should catch their eye, and enable the writer to get the gist of her point across in a few words for those who aren’t riveted by the full text simply because their display’s refresh rate unrivets them.

tl;dr if you’re going to write long online documents, always use a tl;dr–and if you read online, make a practice of looking for the tl;dr at the end.

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