Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Art of the Internet: The "Shorter" Post

Once in a while I'd like to write a post on literary or artistic forms that seem to be exclusive to the Internet -- that, in many cases, couldn't have existed anywhere else but the Internet. I'll start with one of the more intriguing net-exclusive literary forms: The "shorter" post, aka just the "shorter." This is a type of post that has become extremely popular with bloggers, especially snarky, satirical bloggers.

Gavin M. at Sadly, No! gives a brief rundown of the origin and style of the "shorter" post:

The 'shorter' concept was invented in early 2003 by Daniel Davies (now of Crooked Timber), as a way to make fun of long-winded right-blogger Stephen Den Beste. Today, the acknowledged master of the form is Elton Beard of Busy Busy Busy...

The object is to distill a twisty, mendacious... argument into a single brief passage that manages both to accurately portray the thoughts and sentiments of the victim, and to highlight the argument's absurdity.

The form of the "shorter" is simple and precise. It consists of:

a) A link to the essay or post that is being "shortered."
b) The subject heading or caption "Shorter [name of author]"
c) One sentence, as short as the blogger can make it, distilling the entire essay or post into one ridiculous or banal assertion.

The "shorter" derives in particular from many bloggers' contempt for pundits and editorialists, and reflects their desire to show that when you look closely at many long-winded, self-important pieces of punditry, you find that the writer is using up a lot of words to say something ridiculous or stupid.

Here's an example that Gavin M. cites as one of the best "shorters" of all time. Elton Beard of Busy Busy Busy links to a New York Times piece written by Kenneth Pollack, called "Five Ways to Win Back Iraq." The piece lays out five strategies which the author thinks the Bush administration should consider for turning Iraq around. Here's how Beard boils it down:

Shorter Kenneth M. Pollack:

Five Ways to Win Back Iraq

I have some more advice to give about Iraq.

That one line reduces the whole long-winded article to its essence, which is its utter pointlessness: here is another pundit who, having spent years giving advice which no one will ever listen to, proceeds to give more advice which no one will ever listen to. The problem here is not so much what the pundit is saying but the fact that he thinks anyone cares, and that's what Beard focuses on in this particular "shorter."

A more common form of shortering is to take a particularly mendacious or wrong-headed essay and show how mendacious and wrong-headed it is once you strip away all the qualifiers and big words. This works particularly well with Wall Street Journal op-eds, because all the writers for that page are expected to use big words and snobby rhetoric in the service of awful ideas. So bloggers have a fine old time with; here are some examples:

From Sadly, No!:

Shorter Wall Street Journal

A Tortured Debate

Torture's not all that bad when you just call it "aggressive interrogation" instead. See?

Or this particularly perfect one from Busy Busy Busy, pretty prescient when you consider it was posted almost three years ago:

Shorter Wall Street Journal Editorial:

Lack of Intelligence

The task of America's intelligence agencies is not to provide policy makers with reliable data but to fabricate evidence in support of administration policies which the public would reject if it knew the truth.

Or one more, from Roy Edroso's Alicublog, finding an especially vile WSJ editorialist asserting that African-Americans need to stop "cultivating grievances":

SHORTER JAMES TARANTO: Black people had better stop trying to make us feel guilty or we shan't have anything to do with them.

And so on.

Now, satirically boiling down a long-winded argument to its banal essence is not unique to the web. What gives the "shorter" its unique effect is that the web allows the satirist to link directly to the piece he or she is satirizing. This obviates the need for the writer to explain what the original piece is about, or quote from it in order to make fun of it; if you're writing a piece like this for a newspaper or magazine or book, you have to quote from the original or else no one will know what you're talking about. On the net, the satirist just has to send the reader to the original piece, which frees up space to take down the author's argument while wasting very few words on it, as if it's not even worth the blogger's time to write more about it. The hyperlink, something unique to the web, informs and style and effect of the "shorter," making it a peculiarly web-based form.

Update: Paul Denton does a "shorter" on my post above:

Shorter "The Art of the Internet: The 'Shorter' Post":
The 'shorter' concept is very, very clever, and I applaud its use to smugly mock those stupid and irredeemably wicked people with whom I have philosophical differences.

That's about right. The great thing about the "shorter" is that it allows you to reduce any long-winded pontification to its banal essence -- mine included.

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