Lately, we like reading long things that are not books. A lot, it seems. There are apps for reading them: Instapaper, Read It Later, Readability. Platforms for publishing them: Kindle Singles, The Atavist. And sites dedicated entirely to discovering and sharing these two or three or ten thousand word screeds: namely, Longreads and Longform.
It’s fairly obvious why these things exist now. We’re awash in 140-character snippets and reblogs of reblogs of reblogs; publishers of deep, original content are increasingly squeezed by the economics of publishing in the shadowy, smiling face of the internet; and tons of people suddenly have these perfect little ereaders with them at nearly all times to fill in the gaps. We yearn for this kind of increasingly rarified writing, maybe a little more than before, because we have a convenient new medium for consuming it, and we’re at least a little afraid that it’s going to disappear. A need, a space, a fear.
But how did the casual language of “a long[space]read” or a “long[hyphen]form” essay transmogrify into longreads and longform as discrete things — “Hey man, did you peep that longread about how Brooklyn got its groove back??” The #longreads hashtag was created in 2009, and Longform.org was created in 2010. Longread doesn’t show up in the New York Times until 2010 — and is only used in reference to the service — and longform as a single word has actually never been used by the paper, at least according to its search engine. Both words make appearances before 2009 in books, though only longform is really used in the same kind of way, to talk about “longform programming” or “longform music videos.”
They were effectively invented, or at least reinvented, by their creators. And the subway.
Mark Armstrong, once upon a time the director of content at Bundle, created the longreads hashtag and Twitter account “way back in 2009,” or more precisely, on April 17, 2009 (though he had purchased the Longreads.com domain back in 2008). He says he created it because he “had recently purchased an iPhone and I was craving more in-depth reading [using ReadItLater] for my morning subway commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I was also looking for a way to experiment with crowdsourcing on Twitter, and as far as I know, nobody had ever tried to organize stories by length or word count.”
In another life, Aaron Lammer was a ghostwriter before starting Longform with journalist and editor Max Linksy. Their story runs strikingly in parallel with Armstrong’s. Using iPhones and Instapaper on the subway, “we found ourselves with empty queues during subway commutes and started passing stuff around with a small circle of friends to Read Later. At that time Longreads existed, but only as a Twitter feed. We decided that as long as we were passing the links around it was worth building a site so that everyone could take advantage of them.”
Even the creation of Instapaper itself was driven in part by the subway and its total isolation from a cell signal: Marco Arment just wanted to save web pages he’d found during the day to read during his long, internet-less commute home.
So Longform.org was launched by Lammer and Max Linksy in April 2010, followed by Longreads.com later the same year as a full-fledged site, something more than a hashtag and loose community after a couple of years of building relationships with publishers like The Atlantic.
“As for the origin of the word,” Longreads’ Armstrong told me, “I just used to see people use it as an offhand remark, or even a warning: ‘Prepare yourself: it’s a long read.’ I thought it could be turned instead into a badge of honor, rather than something to be shunned. I made it one word for hashtagging simplicity (#longreads) and gave it an exact definition — non-fiction or fiction over 1,500 words.”
Lammer’s origin for “longform” is less exacting — “There is no great story as to why we’re longform.org rather than long-form.org or long_form.org, other than dashes and underscores in URLs suck” — and maybe more interestingly, so is his definition — “Knowing what to call these kinds of pieces is tricky, but whether they’re called them ‘New-Yorker-kinda-stuff,’ ‘features,’ ‘2000 words +.’ or ‘#longreads,’ — you know it when you see it.”
As to the question of whether is there a weird media bubble fetish around the concept of #longreads and their magical power to save journalism right now? Maybe. A little bit. Or least an overemphasis on the issue of whether a piece of writing is long versus good, which even Lammer admits is “partially a quirk of unfortunate naming.” And maybe a little bit a function of #longreads being a “badge of honor,” as Armstrong calls it.
Armstrong seems to believe there is some fundamental an issue of categorization of different kinds of texts, jiving with his more precise definition of a longread: “For many years on the web, if you went to a site, you’d see tabs for “video” and “photos,” but text articles were treated the same way, whether it was a 300-word blog post or a 10,000-word epic. They’re very different.”
It almost seems silly now to think that longer, deeper pieces of writing, which have been here forever will suddenly vanish, even if we stop talking about longreads and longform as discrete things. As Lammer puts it, “This kind of writing has existed for over a century, and I don’t think that the format has changed much (we get equal outbound linking numbers for a story from 1869 and a brand new cover story).” But that was exactly the possibility on media people’s brains not so long ago, particularly during the recession —or even just Google “iPad save journalism” — and with the rise of sites and services like Patch and Demand Media.
Even if this thing, talking about longreads and longform, is just some kind of lexical and conceptual bubble, I know personally it’s going to last a while: I’ve got like 300 longreads left to tear through in my queue. But that’s another issue entirely.