The TL;DR Issue
Permalink | View Comments (17) | Post Comment | | Posted by Reason

We live in the age of "too long; didn't read," tl;dr for short. Attention is limited in scope, but demands for attention increase year after year. The flow of information of potential interest to any one individual has grown to a torrent, a flood, and continues to multiply. Many people respond to this by rejecting all but summaries. No summary? Then begone! Time is too short! I have a thousand more emails, posts, and articles to skim this week! This is a choice of course. One could go the other way and avoid the flow entirely, choosing only to search out dense blocks of information at leisure, accepting the fact that we can never know everything.

I have in the past discussed simplifying Fight Aging! as a part of attempting to broaden the audience, reach more people who might become supporters of longevity-enhancing scientific research. Fight Aging! has always been a wall of text, though I'm sure those of you who have been around for a while recall that it used to be less accessible than it is at present. The layout is an improvement these days, and I try to make more of an effort to provide context to scientific papers that I find interesting. Nonetheless, the topic is science and science is information-dense. You can lead in with bullet-points but trying to summarize study results in a few lines is very likely to miss most of the interesting points for those who are following a particular line of research. All of this is one of the many reasons why science sites tend to have smaller audiences than, say, sports sites.

The following email turned up in my in-box recently, I'm guessing from someone for whom English is a second language:

Your website is an excellent source for reverse-aging news, but it is kinda wordy. When I read your website, I feel that I was reading some very lengthy and boring research papers with a lot of technical terms that I don't understand. I am not sure how many people is like me, but I find it easier to read from online newspapers than from your website, so I usually only google those news and read.

If you can summarize your articles into short sentences and highlight significant breakthrough and if possible add some images too, then it will be a lot better, at least for people like me.

If you are keeping up with the attention stream in a language other than your own, the demands only become greater - which is not even to consider that science is involved, which is a language all to itself, making everything harder to translate.

So I put this out there again for the purposes of discussion: how much value is there is adding a layer of bullet-point tl;dr summarization to this wall of text on science? On the one hand it seems to me that the tl;dr-ing of everything, everywhere is already happening without the need for much intervention on the part of content creators, and I'm old enough to feel less than enthusiastic about this unfolding digestion of nuanced long-form to skimmed short-form. On the other hand, I'm already pretty far down that road if you stop to look back at the pace and prose of yesteryear. Fight Aging! is very deliberately a stream, a continuous signal of some sort to indicate that things are going on and human rejuvenation is a topic open to participation. Posts occasionally have summaries and sometimes even conclusions. Where does it all end?

People without the necessary time to understand and follow longevity science nonetheless want to be able to understand and follow longevity science. Is it possible to provide a useful summary in the sort of 15-second attention chunks desired, or can you only provide the illusion of a useful summary? There is so much misrepresentation taking place in the industries associated with aging that I think one has to be wary of contributing more of the same, even with the best of intentions. We might have to accept that some things cannot or should not be digested to two lines of text if you are doing something more than just counting page views and cents from advertisers.

I would of course be interested to see someone take the Creative Commons licensed content here and try their own tl;dr experiment, see how it goes. The same goes for translations. The more people out there experimenting with delivery and messaging, the more likely it is that new people find the longevity science community. Lack of attention at first doesn't necessarily mean lack of attention forever.

Comments

Walls of text, unless the text is in story form ("How I stopped eating food" an excellent pseudo scientific example), has never been an effective way to convey scientific information.

Examine.com faced a similar design challenge, and they ended up with an evidence table which works pretty well.

My suggestion would be to do a "Editor's summary" on top where you present the quantified take homes if any (e.g. - drug x prolonged maximum lifespan in wt mice 10% dosed at xmg/kg) and tell us why you're excited by this finding. Ten present relevant data/excerpts below, great if you can add data in visual form if available too.

This way it's easy to decide whether to keep reading if relevant to you, or to skip it. The tl;dr issue goes both ways: more effort writing for effective information consumption leads to higher willingness to read (if relevant).

Posted by: Johan Aardal at March 3, 2014 6:41 PM

I do think that it would be useful. If your information is easily summarized and can be cross posted across the web, it is more likely to show up in social media of all sorts. For better or worse, that is an increasingly important channel for people to get their information. Sounds bites and tl'dr summaries are simply a fact in today's media landscape, so if you want your media to be accessible to others, it needs to be formatted appropriately. Unfortunately, stone tablets, books, and even thoughtful magazine articles don't work so well these days :).

Posted by: David at March 3, 2014 6:43 PM

I think a wall of text is accessible enough to the kind of person that will read this site. I don't think changing the format, putting summaries in, or using more pictures will expand the audience much for this kind of subject.

The real answer on how to get more people interested in SENS and rejuvenation bio-science is proof of concept studies in mice or some other living animal. Of course you need more than a basic amount of money to get there, so it is a catch 22.

Anti-aging research isn't the only area of science and engineering to be stuck in the 'potentially good idea but too expensive to prototype' phase. Take a look at molten salt nuclear reactors, buoyancy adjustable airships etc.

Still if the SRF can get lucky and hit a few massive home runs on the research they are currently doing things could pick up.

Posted by: Jim at March 3, 2014 8:09 PM

This is silly. Your posts are almost all quite short and clear, and you always block off material from external sites that you're curating. If you go over the equivalent of 1.5 single-spaced 8.5 x 11" pages, a summary might be useful; otherwise, a headline is already given, and no further summary required.

Posted by: Michael at March 3, 2014 9:43 PM

I think your current layout lends itself to skim-reading as needed, and I personally like to see a bit of meat and scientific detail supporting the findings. That being said it is harder to fight the TL;DR phenomenon with every passing year, and so some condensed form of summary might be useful.

You could try testing it: for a week or two have every article or articles on a particular topic formatted in this way. Evaluate, review the data, and then decide on whether to keep the new format or abandon it.

Posted by: Mark Bruce at March 3, 2014 10:34 PM

The brain is better able to assimilate long texts if they include geographical data. This is why it's easier to remember printed books than e-books. Likewise, printed newspapers have more reference markers than online ones. Consider how much more of an impact a good magazine article makes than an online long form piece.

So, try including more photos. Mix up the format a bit. Aside from that, there's no need to reduce the level of verbiage.

Posted by: Therapsid at March 3, 2014 10:53 PM

In case no one ever bothers to give much postive feedback, I'd like to say that this site is absolutely outstanding.

As a layperson reading about anti-aging research regular website articles on advances and studies often leave me with several unanswered questions about the implications of the results. The articles on here always manage to answer those concisely and clearly.

Posted by: Jim at March 4, 2014 2:36 AM

Would a "Related Articles" feature help? Something to turn these articles, which I would wager are "features" (most of them) each in their own right, into flows, or at least potential flows.

Such a feature might promote surfing as browsing or exploration, establishing creative opposition and spontaneous grouping of the rich content you provide here — a "creative encounter" or "creative opposition" algorithm may be essential to expose the microcosmic Web that you have built here.

A "recommended reading" (per posting) that might counterpoise the more daunting "required reading" sidebar but still gives the reader a sense of following the carrot that landed them here.

Posted by: nerdfiles at March 4, 2014 2:37 AM

I follow a few blogs that purport to following scientific evidence for their beliefs surrounding their diet and exercise habits - Bayesian Bodybuilding and Mark's Daily Apple (my flame shield is ready), to name two examples - and find that their format of inserting tone and throwing around analogies, bullets, summaries, and flashy or informative graphics keeps my attention while also encouraging me to consult the literature myself to verify what they've written before letting them influence my decisions.

Your mileage may vary by adapting such an approach. On the one hand, it's great to see condensed analyses that I can use on the fly and analyze more deeply when I have the time, but it also opens you up to straw man attacks by people who don't like your ultimate "goal" and unwittingly creates zealots both for and against with only a cursory understanding of the subject matter.

Perhaps the use of a sister blog that delivers very easy-to-digest views on the general state of the science (think Discovery Channel documentaries), tied to in-depth analyses and the associated studies here, might be helpful. A prominent and hefty disclaimer somewhere on the blog concerning how much the reader could be missing if they don't read deeper would likely be in order.

Posted by: Seth at March 4, 2014 11:04 AM

i think the current format is fine

Posted by: johnd at March 4, 2014 5:49 PM

I love your website the way it is.

Posted by: Arthur at March 8, 2014 4:13 AM

Firstly, I do like your website. I scan the bolded titles, and dive-down after that. But, I'm a software professional, not a biologist. I continue to confront myself, over and over, with terminology that is foreign to me. So, in that regard, your level of detail helps. But, it's daunting and it takes quite a bit of effort to get through articles b/c of this. That's the perspective of 1 layman.

So, your preferred, intended audience is who? I see @Michael [Rae, presumably] is comfortable with the content...of course! :) He can write circles around most people, presumably (I've read Ending Aging a few times, and have seen some SENS blogs, and they are deep...to me).

I prefer graphics, honestly, to tell the story. I say if you cannot communicate at that level, then the thinking is garbled. There needs to be multiple levels. Satisfy the expert, but get the layman intrigued. Side note: I found out about Aubrey and SENS through a debate I was watching with Sam Harris, actually. Charts, graphs, a pic is worth a thousand words, at least sometimes.

For example, what if SENS published a "Percent Complete" chart of the 7 Deadlies? I can't tell you how much I longed for the simple grid that Aubrey has shown in only some of his presentations...matching up the Sin with the Salvation (yeah, that's original I believe! :) i.e. even Figures 1, 6, and 7 in the *apparently* landmark "Hallmarks of Aging" in Cell are very useful)

If you, or SENS, wants to encourage investment, then those investment dollars will likely come from those who are not biologists. However, you'll need to convince at multiple levels...plus, making sometimes simple statements can be provocative enough to encourage more attention.

FWIW!
Keep on truckin'!

Eugene

Posted by: Eugene at March 8, 2014 8:41 AM

I would like to read all your posts in full but find I only do so with the 2 or 3 a week given time constraints. I therefore agree with the suggestion to summarize in bullets all the posts, this would give your readers the optionality of consuming more information while still allowing them to do a deep dive on content of high relevance to the user.

Posted by: Benjamin at March 9, 2014 8:51 AM

I do like the long scientific detailed versions of your articles! Yes, I am a layman but the scientific jargon gives me more information to Google. I am learning more and more each day! I think that a small brief summary can often be misunderstood and thus having the article be discounted by the reader. If you do go with summarize in bullets, please use your summary words carefully and don't fall into the "make it sound each time like an exciting breakthrough" that can lessen your creditablity and also cause readers to go elsewhere. Keep up the good work! And in the words of Mr. Spock, "Live long and prosper".

Posted by: David Johnson at March 9, 2014 1:49 PM

I truly like your current format and your writing style. IMHO, people truly interested in longevity science would actually avoid summaries and go for detailed articles. FYI, I am not a scientist, just a regular guy with the desire to live a longer, healthier life.

Posted by: Mike at March 9, 2014 10:11 PM

Personally, I'm happy with the level of detail as it is.

I don't know whether you'd see any merit in including textual tags at the top though? At least then those without the time or inclination to read everything might make better decisions about what to spend more time looking at.

Posted by: Rick Smith at March 10, 2014 8:00 AM

Summing up what I am about to tell:

Please improve email by adding summary to reach wide.

Now for the details:

Immediately on landing here from your email, I glanced through the comments. I found many persons interested in TL;DR and adding their comments.

It is clear that your email layout is generally satisfactory to all which includes me. But, people need summaries apart from index of contents or title. I reckon that many times I just read the headlines and skip to the next topic due to various reasons.

The spirit of your emails do clearly indicate that you are bent on giving information. You create material easy to assimilate. We also need the information to reach very wide, don't we? Why not improve the emails by adding summaries somewhere?

If acceptable, If it is given on the first para itself as I have done, it could let the reader get comfortable either to continue or to skip to the next topic. Here, the catch is get the reader comfortable. It translates to further recommendations through him/her as it is easier to QUOTE SUMMARIES. This point itself would gather more head counts for the cause.

Of course, summarising requires quite a bit of time, energy and deep consideration of things.

I believe that there is always room for improvement.

Posted by: k S Balaji at March 10, 2014 8:20 AM
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