An editorial in party-affiliated paper People’s Daily on Tuesday criticized the impatience and instant gratification that ostensibly characterizes reading in the digital age — but most netizens laughed off the criticism.
The commentary writer, Yang Hao, bemoaned that online comments will often deride an article for its length using the Chinese equivalent of “TL;DR” — “too long; didn’t read.”
The English version of the internet slang term “TL;DR” made its way into the Oxford Dictionaries Online in August 2013, with the usage note “used as a dismissive response to a lengthy online post, or to introduce a summary of a lengthy post.”
“Long texts aren’t necessarily nourishing and short texts may not lack depth, but a distaste for long texts perhaps reveals a restless attitude and unrefined reading skills,” Yang writes in the People’s Daily.
To Yang, the culture of “fast food reading” misses the point by rushing toward it: A direct conclusion isn’t persuasive on its own without the detailed reasoning to take you there.
The column continues: “Snappy snippets and gossip might help relieve stress in a fast-paced, hectic lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean that the long-form essay is washed up by the tides of time.” Yang urges that in any epoch, people still need time for serious, in-depth reading, quiet contemplation, and measured reflection.
Many readers responded to the polemic with ridicule. Though the column was only eight paragraphs long, the most upvoted comment on the People’s Daily account on microblogging platform Weibo said, “To be honest, I opened it and didn’t read it.”
Another said, “People’s Daily is just like my mom.”
The column isn’t the first to appear in the party-affiliated paper inciting a touch of moral panic about internet culture. Last month, a People’s Daily commentary called for regulation of stickers and emojis in chat apps, arguing that online slang used in stickers could mislead language learners.
But while a flood of articles around the world have lured in readers with clickbait headlines about how technology has reduced people’s ability to concentrate, others say the scaremongering is unjustified.
Virginia Heffernan, writing in the New York Times Magazine in 2010, questioned whether people even have distinct and measurable attention spans, calling them the “digital-age equivalent of souls.” She suggested that in past eras, distractibility was praised as a healthy sign of an exuberant, versatile, and independent mind — even something that could ward against passive obedience to tyranny.
Chinese readers, too, maintained that an appreciation for economical writing is by no means novel.
Commenting on a repost of the column in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, one user said, “A resolution could be to revert to classical Chinese: succinct, cuts the crap.”
(Header image: People read newspapers in Beijing, April 11, 2016. VCG)