Thirty Seconds

3 min read

In my years working in and around education, I have heard a lot of arguments about how to "reach" teachers in order to provide them information. A lot of these arguments have the stench of SEO optimization, and quickly devolve into keyword placement, catchy titles, finding the right post length, using pictures, using video, and making sure to embed current jargon. At some point in this screed, the question of time gets raised. Teachers are busy, they will say. They need to make a decision in [X seconds] or [Y minutes]. Any longer than that and we've lost our chance.

And when I hear these arguments, I'm always at a loss on how to proceed. Teachers are busy, but teachers are also caring, informed professionals. Far too frequently, when I hear people talk about "reaching" people, or how to make pages "sticky," I hear the language of trickery. It's the language used when -- consciously or unconsciously -- people view attention as something to be gamed, not earned -- as something to be taken, not offered. It's the language of people who lack a thorough confidence in what they offer, and feel their first and best recourse is to resort to gimmickry to keep people engaged.

And when I ask questions about how they are working to improve their information, or talking with the people they want to reach, or make room to elevate voices within their readership, or what their unique perspective on a specific issue might be, it often feels like I'm addressing a native English speaker in Greek. When I suggest spending less time and money on the frills that adorn a piece and more time figuring out how a specific piece offers something new or unique, the conversations generally grind to a halt.

And that's too bad, because if you write well, and write with a purpose, and have an actual vision that makes sense, people will read. If you want to make sure that you have an edge in search, encrypt your site, and make sure it uses standards-compliant markup. But assuming that your best ideas need to be accessible in under [X seconds/Y minues] patronizes the people who might be have a deep interest in your posts. It also encourages unexamined oversimplifications, which leads to sloppy thought. There are some decisions that shouldn't be made in under 30 seconds, or under 2 minutes. And while there is a balance that needs to be struck between accessibility and depth, the content should drive where that line is drawn. I'd argue we create more useful information in educational content when we err on the side of an intelligent reader. 

Thinking is okay. Acknowledging that aspects of the world are complex, and don't fit into easily consumed chunks, is a part of how we "reach" people. We need to keep the simple things simple, and we need to explain the complex things well. Attempting to take shortcuts through intellectual complexity is another facet of technology as solutionism. The only people who win are the folks selling shortcuts -- and they have generally cashed their checks by the time the rest of us are cleaning up their messes.