The “TL;DR” has served its purpose, and it needs to die

Online forums have recently been suffering from an epidemic of chronic longposting. I’m not talking about informative longposts full of content and rich insight. No, I’m discussing something far more horrible, the enormous, unreadable posts that dominate all of mainstream “intellectual” comment threads, typically on Reddit and, to a lesser extent, 4chan and its sisters. These posts are ugly gray skyscrapers built all-too-quickly and lacking the structural integrity and architectural finesse that makes buildings worth having at all. They are disgusting and bloated tumors that smother and swallow up all that is good, pushing and shoving with their awkward enormousness.

You might have forgotten that “TL;DR” (pronounced tee-ell-dee-arr or teal-dear) originally used to stand for “too long; didn’t read,” and its expanded form hints at its original purpose. “TL;DR” was invented to encourage the reading of lengthy posts by providing summaries of the juiciest moments at the end. It created an incentive for internet users with rapidly dwindling attention spans to actually focus on a continuous narrative for an extended period of time. But it is, by all means, a crutch, a far-from-ideal compromise that spoils some of the satisfaction of reading a rich post by giving it away in advance. It was necessary in a world where no one could bother to read a damn thing, but our world has since changed.

If you were to go on Reddit nowadays, you would never have guessed that the TL;DR, by its very nature and original purpose, was a bad thing. Instead, you see Reddit commentors typing out long, rambling walls of text with the TL;DR pasted proudly at the beginning of the comment! Sometimes you can even see TL;DRs quite a few sentences in length! Indeed, Reddit is experiencing a disease that is entirely separate from what the TL;DR was meant to cure:

Chronic longposting — the tendency for online commentors to vomit all of their unorganized thoughts directly onto the keyboard, with little regard for coherence, structure, and thesis, but still being thoughtful enough to attach a useless TL;DR at the very end. Whereas the TL;DR was a creation made by good writers in order to deal with the problem of bad readers, Reddit is now experiencing a flood of bad writers who are only being encouraged by a population of overeager readers, i.e., users with extended attention-spans who are willing to devote a large amount of time and energy faithfully and tirelessly reading longposts, regardless of their potential quality.

Unbelievable, isn’t it? We’ve collectively reached the point in the internet where users will actually read everything in front of them. For all the criticisms I throw at Redditors, this is perhaps one good thing. But the disease of chronic longposting is wrong because it encourages two completely unfavorable behaviors. I’ll start with the obvious one:

Chronic longposting rewards bad writers and punishes the good. The idea that “brevity is the soul of wit” seems to have been completely forgotten on modern-day Reddit. Concepts and arguments that could easily be articulated pretty well in a short amount of sentences become artificially bloated and overcomplicated, often riddled with completely unnecessary analogies. A famous Reddit post that comes to mind is that god-awful longpost where some inarticulate rambling idiot uses hypothetical bartenders to explain why Google Plus was unsuccessful.

I think it is pretty obvious that we should not reward people who are incapable of structuring and framing their ideas concisely. But most online comment systems do precisely that! Any user who casually scrolls through a comment thread will generally pay more attention to longer posts, since they take up so much more visible area than shorter posts. As a result, the Hemmingways of the internet are being drowned out by a sea of inarticulate non-writers. The easiest solution to this problem is simply to force a hard limit on visual post size, truncating all longposts with ellipses (“…”) that can be expanded by the user if he or she is interested. Now, let’s move onto the second deadly sin that longposting directly encourages:

The culture of longposting incentivizes over-reading, but over-reading is not an inherently good thing. An educated reader should be able to exercise discretion in his or her consumption of literature. If a random commentor on Reddit hasn’t established why his or her post is interesting at all, or even worse, if the post starts reeking of the trash-like scent of shitposting, it is well within a reader’s rights to just stop reading. The idea that a reader is somehow obligated to read longposts is puzzling and outright stupid. Why should any decent human being be forced to pollute his or her mind with the naive, rambling, and oftentimes incoherent longposts of random Reddit users?

I would gladly eat a chicken salad sandwich if someone offered it me to free, because such a meal would be fairly healthy and tasty. I would even eat a juicy hamburger if someone offered it to me for free, because it would be delicious despite its fattiness. But I would never eat a pile of stinking, rotting garbage even if someone paid me to do so, because garbage tastes terrible and is extremely unhealthy. Online longposts are exactly the same: there is absolutely no reason for you to ingest somebody’s trash-vomit assortment of thoughts even if they set it up for you on a on a silver platter.

TL;DR: Chronic longposting disgusts me, and it should disgust you too. The “TL;DR” has long ago exhausted its purpose and deserves to die once and for all. Let us be rid of this awful crutch, that we can finally give the concise and witty writings of the internet the attention that they rightfully deserve. Or at the very least, we can start having posts that are exactly as long as they need to be.

 

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