TL;DR: Drifting and Distracted Online


Too long; didn’t read. TL; DR. I am fascinated by the abbreviation. On first thought it seems altogether reasonable: sometimes people ramble incoherently, go on for too long. You start reading an article and, at some point, deem it a waste of your precious time. But here’s the interesting part: with the TL; DR, you state the fact that it was a waste of your precious time. As Charlie Brooker put it in a column for The Guardian, “You’re a human being with free will who can stop reading any time. Here, have a full stop. And another. And another. There are exits all over this building.”

Not being too versed in Internet lingo, I decided to do some research on the abbreviation. I immediately thought to check with Urban Dictionary and was happy to see my implicit connection confirmed, the first Google result for TL;DR. The first definition I find is the following:

 Said whenever a nerd makes a post that is too long to bother reading.

The point is, basically, someone is taking a subject (say, in a discussion forum) too seriously, writes out a full argument, and is called a ‘nerd’ in response. This someone has obviously misunderstood the tone of the forum, or even the Internet at large. He took it seriously, missing the memo pointing out we all have a certain distance on the Internet to any subject.

Urban Dictionary itself is a great example. The whole website is one big joke, pretending to be serious, while never being so. It is no more than a rat race of people trying to outsmart each other. They are looking for the best one-liner, full of implicit jadedness and disinterest, yet seemingly thought up off-the-cuff, an offhand remark spurred when one is caught off-guard. Here’s a good example of forced cleverness:

 The other definitions of tl;dr made me want to say tl;dr

I’m not saying it’s not funny. The problem is that there are seven billion people on the planet, more than ever before, and a few billion on the Internet, all sharing the same public sphere. There is too much of everything. We are oversaturated with words and images. We might have read a long article about a certain serious subject before. Why should we have to do it again? “Whatever.”

Thomas de Zengotita, in Mediated, finds our modern saturnalia summarized in this interjection: whatever.

And that’s why, like so many expressions of mediation, the “whatever” gesture is a dialectic. As reality and representation fuse into a field of options, opposing tendencies rise like shadows. Haunting the moment of “I can experience whatever I want” is the moment of “What difference does it make,” because this moment, the moment of the shrug, is essential to our mobility among the options.

We need mobility among the options because they are only representations.

And that means they are no more than they appear to be.

And so they are never enough.

And that’s why more is on the way. Always. That’s why trailers are better than movies. That’s why you are always already ready for the next show, even before this one is over. That’s why, in the midst of a fabulous array of historically unprecedented and utterly mind-boggling stimuli – whatever.

That’s why trailers are better than movies. Trailers are the unintentional TL;DRs of cinema. Just like reviews and summaries. In Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, the unbearably pretentious protagonist, after criticizing Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, notes, without a whiff of irony, which Austen novels he had read: “None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.” It is too earnest a comment, perhaps, but insert a good quip and it’s a quote fit for the modern, cynical Internet. Which is probably why nobody was really surprised when Pierre Bayard published a serious book titled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, a survival guide of sorts for the 21st century.

New York Times writer Jenna Wortham recently pointed out that Twitter, over time, became “less about drifting down the stream, absorbing what you can while you float, and more about trying to make the flashiest raft to float on, gathering fans and accolades as you go.” Her analysis similarly highlights the search for the perfect aphorism:

 It feels as if we’re all trying to be a cheeky guest on a late-night show, a reality show contestant or a toddler with a tiara on Twitter — delivering the performance of a lifetime, via a hot, rapid-fire string of commentary, GIFs or responses that help us stand out from the crowd.

It’s gotten to the point where we are all writing ad copy, the advertisement’s original subject matter thinly veiling the actual product we are selling: ourselves. Subjects have become interchangeable, as De Zengotita noted above, because there are so many of them that none stand out. All of them have been exhausted. As Susan Sontag notes in On Photography:

 One full-page ad shows a small group of people standing pressed together, peering out of the photograph, all but one looking stunned, excited, upset. The one who wears a different expression holds a camera to his eye; he seems self-possessed, is almost smiling. While the others are passive, clearly alarmed spectators, having a camera has transformed one person into something active, a voyeur: only he has mastered the situation. What do these people see? We don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. It is an Event: something worth seeing – and therefore worth photographing. The ad copy, white letters across the dark lower third of the photograph like news coming over a teletype machine, consists of just six words: “…Prague… Woodstock… Vietnam… Sapporo… Londonderry… LEICA.” Crushed hopes, youth antics, colonial wars, and winter sports are alike – are equalized by the camera. Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.

It is easy to make the jump from Sontag’s active photographer to today’s active and empowered Internet users. Both photography and the Internet have been touted as democratizing media: they have expanded the means of expression of the people. But as a side effect, they have also helped to numb us into indifference. “An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been if one had never seen the photographs,” writes Sontag, then adding, “but after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real.” It becomes merely a photograph. It becomes art, abstract and aesthetic as opposed to concrete and ethical.

This is why it doesn’t matter what the topic is: we can riff on Miley Cyrus’s latest antics just as easily as we tackle the subject of child soldiers in Uganda. While photographs, by saturation, are turned into art, the Internet can turn any subject into a meme. Meme: a word once coined by Richard Dawkins as the cultural variant of genes. If indeed memes are subject to a similar sort of natural selection, then social networks are a cruel battlefield where the majority does not stand a chance, where the majority perishes anonymously.

In this sense, the Internet really has become the democratic medium that many have touted it to be. It is the derivative of things – Baudrillard would speak of their simulacra – that decides their faith online. If you presume everything can be turned into a good one-liner – that everything can be marketed – then, finally, all is equal.

Jeroen van Honk is a writer living in Leiden, Netherlands. He has published stories in the Quotable, Sassafrass Magazine and Paper Tape Magazine. Links to his published works can be found at

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