TL;DR Culture

This blog post began two weeks ago, as I took a break from my Rhetorical Tradition by–as Andy might say–going down that hyperlink rabbit hole. I found myself perusing a particularly vapid “gossip”-type blog (which will remain nameless, frankly, to protect my own dignity) when I stumbled upon the following image, the impetus for this arguably fatuous post:

At this point, I’m sure a few questions have come to mind: why am I relating this seemingly pointless story about my own embarrassing online exploits? why would anyone photoshop an innocent Dr. Seuss book? and what in the name of Aristotle is “TL;DR”?

Well, as the particularly blunt image in the right corner may hint, “TL;DR” means “too long; didn’t read.” It’s an appropriate response to longer posts on this aforementioned blog, as well as on other sites of internet postings (blogs, forums, what-have-you) whenever, as Urban Dictionary so eloquently points out, “a nerd makes a post that is too long to bother reading.” It’s a way for the audience, in a sense, to take control of what’s appropriate in a way perhaps more tangible than ever before.

In reference to the “TL;DR” commenting trend, the “The Faculty Lounge” had an interesting post by blogger Rob Heverly that I turned up as I was–what else?–Googling in preparation for my own blog post. In the post, titled “tl;dr and discourse,” he discusses how this type of response has become more and more popular, even going so far as to permeate much of the discourse surrounding the Health Care Bill and reform efforts (circa 2009–this is a dated entry). Though the acronym is itself not always used explicitly, he argues that the “TL;DR” mentality has infiltrated the ways in which people comment upon posts across the ‘net, beyond just frivolous blogs and the New York Times. That is, people are commenting in hordes upon blogs, articles, posts, etc., oftentimes without even reading the preceding text, let alone each others’ comments.

Okay, okay–so what does this have to do with rhetoric, or more generally, anything to do with our scholarly mission? Well, I want to push his observation and argument one step further, because, as Walter Ong says in “Writing Restructures Consciousness,”  “Technologies are… interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word” (82). That is, I don’t think that “TL;DR” is quarantined to Internet culture anymore–we’re entering a new phase in our literacy practices; we’re entering “TL;DR Culture.”

“TL;DR Culture” represents a shift in what an author must do to please his or her audience. It represents a move beyond an authors’ autonomy and places audience consideration front-and-center. It represents a literacy that favors brevity above all else.

“TL;DR” isn’t only for audience doing, however; it’s not only affected and limited what can be posted, but also in what ways authors will try–desperately–to gain and keep readership. Take the following example, which is copied here from a post on Reddit:

Hey /r/atheism, I hope this is the right place to ask. I was just elected president of this club a month ago. I just got an email asking for an interview for a local newspaper. The journalist who contacted me did not give any specific details in regards to subject matter, etc. Although I have been in the club for a year, and am usually well prepared to debate topics regarding science and philosophy, I fear that my skills in PR might not be the best. Does anyone have any suggestions for how to prepare? Have any of you been interviewed for a similar reason? I really don’t want to screw up my first opportunity to represent atheists.

tl;dr How do I prepare for an interview to represent atheists?

The author has here posted a question with which he wants help in under 125 words; if this isn’t short enough for the internet audience, he’s preemptively TL;DR’ed himself, providing a mere 10 word alternative. This is only one way in which internet writers are adapting themselves to “TL;DR Culture”–some other strategies I’ve seen include bolding/italicizing and parenthetically summarizing as a post goes on.

Audience awareness has always been a point of contention; the emergence of “TL;DR Culture” is simply taking the ancient argument into the digital realm. It seems, on some level, that modern writers/rhetors/bloggers/etc. are baring the brunt of the grief formally apportioned to the Sophists. That is, though Big Daddy A himself wrote chapters on recognizing and catering to different audiences–such as the young, old, or middle-aged man–and even wrote that “…it is not sufficient enough to know what one ought to say, but it is necessary also to know how one ought to say it,” he was still quick to libel the Sophists for stylizing and pandering to audience desires.

The Sophists clearly weren’t all bad, though, and I think the case can be made that we can learn from “TL;DR Culture” in a similar regard. As John Poulakos points out, “the Sophists gave impetus to the related concept [kairos] of to prepon (the appropriate) apparently prescribing that what is said must conform to both audience and occasion” (41) Can’t the same be said of “TL;DR Culture”? Isn’t it simply a reaction of the audience against certain “inappropriate” incarnations of text, and a swift incorporation of and adaptation to those views on the part of TL;DR-rhetors?

TL;DR: Aristotle: “…it is not sufficient enough to know what one ought to say, but it is necessary also to know how one ought to say it”–because if you don’t, no one will read what you say.

Works [Incorrectly] Cited:

Heverly, Rob. “tl;dr and discourse.” The Faculty Lounge. <>. 2009.

Ong, Walter. “Writing Restructures Consciousness.” Orality and Literacy.

Poulakos, John. “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric”. Philosophy and Rhetoric  16.1 (1983): 35-48. Web. 23 Sept. 2010.

Urban Dictionary. “tl;dr.” <>. (Note: I *do not* recommend visiting UD for any reason. Really.)

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2 Responses to TL;DR Culture

  1. Jim Porter says:

    Oh, I like TL;DR!

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