In Review31, ‘The Essay and the Internet’ by Orit Gat.
Do longread and longform — those two words that developed from a hash tag — equal essay? In a way, the definition of the essay has expanded to include the abovementioned form— the non-fiction/personal essay in the tradition of Montagne (‘some traits of my character and of my humors’) as well as the long-form article, in that oh-so-American magazine style of the New Yorker or The Atlantic. And instinctively, many of the conversations about the current rise of the essay a lot of us tie this supposed revival of essayism to online publishing.
Was the new essay born online? It seems like a simple equation: with no need to regard length as a function of paper stock, the internet becomes a sphere of infinite possibility for writing. Thus far, however, the internet has disappointed us in the kind of writing it promotes, especially because not a lot of it was born online. Looking at the way content is organised online, it’s clear to see that many of the pieces distributed by services like the @longreads Twitter feed originate in offline publications. Why is print still traditionally more committed to long-form writing? And is it related to the way we perceive of economies of attention online?
A lot of people tie the rise of new essayists to the internet, but most of the conversations about the essay have revolved around books, especially collections of non-fiction by single author. But what website has distinguished itself as a home for considered long-form essays? You’d think the essay would be comfortable online, but in fact, it battles with the infinite-seeming possibilities in length, context, and linking on the internet, rather than use them to the fullest. I think this is a result of the anxiety over the online essay going unread. You can tell how many people buy a book, but not what they do with it: if they read it, how long it took them to read, and whether or not they lent it to friends. Online, quantifiable data is readily available: how many people viewed a piece of writing, how much time they spent with it, how many times they then link back to it. Which of us hasn’t published a piece and then tracked how it was doing on Twitter?