Monday, January 07, 2008

Blogging Theory 201: Size Does Matter

I'm always getting criticized for writing long blogs. "Way too verbose! Couldn't he have said all that in two paragraphs?" Not everyone feels that way, of course; lots of people tell me to keep doing what I'm doing. But the size critics are doggedly persistent. And I don't think it's just people who are slow readers. Even friends of mine will sometimes advise me to trim my entries down, which is a surprise, since I thought most of them would have picked up on the cause and effect relationship between blog length and popularity. Evidently not!

So, like, let's get this out in the open: I'm doing it on purpose. Yes, sure, I could do with an editor (the people kind), but only if said editor were on board with long blogs, because that's the kind I want to write.

In short, I think long blogs have better survival characteristics: greater reach and greater impact. And I've decided to celebrate the august occasion of the 1000th kneebiter publicly maligning my style by explaining why I do it. And yes, it'll be long. Set aside at least 20 minutes to read this thing. You've been warned!

The Expectations Problem

Let's start with the obvious. People expect blogs to be short – at least, shorter than mine. They expect that because it's pretty much how everyone does it. Short entries, and frequent. Here's my cat today. Doesn't he look sooo different from yesterday? No wonder so many people hate bloggers.

When I write my long blogs, I'm bucking established social convention, so it's natural that some people will whine that they're too long.

Well, how far off cultural expectations am I? Doing a quick print preview in my browser shows that my last entry, formatted at about 14 words per line (typical for a printed book) weighs in at about ten pages. So it's roughly essay-sized. I'm not talking about those toy five-paragraph essays they made you write in high school. I'm talking about real-life essays by real-life essayists. Real essays can range from three pages to 30 or more, but ten pages is not an unusual length.

If I were attempting to publish these entries as books, publishers would laugh at me. They're way too short to be books. Sure, I could bundle them, but that's beside the point. The fact is, two different real-world audiences have entirely incompatible views on what the proper length for my writing should be.

Trying for Essays

I like to shift between writing articles and essays. The two overlap to some extent, in that an "opinion article" can be essay-like. But an essay attempts to be richer and deeper than an article. Essays can take all sorts of forms – prose, poems, stage plays, screenplays, short stories, even songs. And yes, they can take the form of blog entries.

Essays have different goals: some introduce new ideas, some aim to change minds that have been made up, some try to rally people to a cause, some just poke fun. Regardless of the goal, I think what unites them as essays is that they strive to imprint the reader with an idea, some hopefully unforgettable perspective, even if the reader doesn't necessarily agree with it.

Essays might use humor to endear you, or satire to shock you, or storytelling to entertain and lull you, or logic to convince you, or rhetoric to persuade you, but in the end they're trying all trying to imprint you with a little piece of the essayist's personal perspective on life.

So we've established that my longer entries are for the most part essays in blog form, with nary a cat picture to be found. I think the appearance of my entries in feed-readers alongside cat pictures and other non-essays is a big contributor to why so many people feel they're too long. If I instead herded them off into a page titled "Essays", as essayist Paul Graham does, then my guests might arrive with more appropriate expectations.

But let's face it – that's more work. Blogs are the closest thing we've got today to a ready-made, turn-key, high-availability essay publishing system, one that permits comments, subscriptions, biographical links and the other trappings you'd expect. It's not ideal – I even talked about this in my first-ever Blogger entry, but none of the issues I raised then have been resolved, doubtless because most people don't write essays, so there isn't a pressing need.

Blogging's the best medium I've got today, so that's where I publish my essays.

Amusing true side-story: I met Paul Graham at Foo Camp last summer. After his crowd of admirers had dispersed on the first day (he's pretty famous), I came up and introduced myself. He was very nice and polite, and he was even kind enough to venture: "I've read some of your ...essays." He said the word essays with this funny pained look on his face, as if he'd just swallowed a gob of wasabi and was trying to play it off like nothing was wrong. I think he meant well, but that expression was just priceless.

I already knew my work wasn't for everyone. :)

Anyway, there's more to the long-blog problem than mere expectations. You can still make a valid argument that my entries are too long even for essays, or at any rate for the material I'm covering or the points I'm making. And I'll still disagree with you. Let's see why.

Blowing the Cache

So, I have this pet theory I'm going to foist on you. It's probably total hokum, and someday I may be proven as wrong as Lamarck, but for now it's a hypothesis that fits the data pretty well.

First, let me tell you what the pet theory is about. I talked about it a little in an essay I wrote in 2004, You Should Write Blogs. In the essay I outlined some unexpected behavior of an essay my friend had written and circulated at Amazon: nobody read the thing, but somehow a year later everyone knew about it, and its core message had been imprinted on everyone in the company, up to and including the executive staff.

In the intervening three years since I wrote that essay, my own blog has taken off to level that can only be described as absurd. I've been lampooned in web comics, discussed endlessly on Reddit, Slashdotted, invited to Foo Camp and various big conferences, approached about writing books, recruited constantly, and heckled mercilessly by my coworkers, all of whom are smarter than I am, both technically and also in the sense that they don't make public asses of themselves once a month.

It's undeniable that I'm doing something right, at least in terms of reach. My blogs may or may not be any good, but they're widely read. So are they really too long?

Well, people always tell me: "Steve, you'd be doing yourself – and us – a huge favor if you just made your entries shorter." So I try it now and again, and I've observed a correlation between blog size and splash size. It's as if you're all in a pond, and I'm throwing a rock into it. Bigger rock, bigger splash.

I think you can actually stretch that metaphor one more level. I think if I throw in a sufficiently large rock, it'll crush you, which for most of you is an undesirable outcome. The rock needs to be big enough to splash you and get you all wet, but it shouldn't kill you.

To translate that bizarre thought into non-metaphorical terms, a blog that's too big will cause "too many" readers to drop off, for some value of "too many". A longer entry means that fewer people will read it immediately, although I'd argue based on experience that longer entries that are worth reading will ultimately achieve a wider audience. It just takes longer for them to make the rounds - sometimes months or years. But there's a tradeoff there. It can be useful to make a big splash all at once, in the style of Gladwell's Tipping Point.

So we've got a tricky number to solve for. Very short entries get ignored; I've tried that. Longer entries can make a splash but may not have broad long-term staying power. Very long entries tire people out, so they can take years to make the rounds. What's the right length for making a big splash the day it's published?

That's where my pet theory comes in. Oh, you may laugh! Ha, ha, you might say! But I, who know absolutely nothing whatsoever about Cognitive Science, have a pop cog-sci theory about the right length for an essay.

The right length for an essay, I believe, is exactly "one sitting": no more, no less. You should be able to read and absorb it fully in one go, with no breaks. Moreover, after you finish, you should be at the point where you need to take a break. You should want to stand up, stretch your legs, grab a coffee, play some foosball, get your mind off everything for a while. If you don't need a break after the essay, then it wasn't long enough.

I suspect the maximum length for a "sitting" is 50 minutes, given various government studies I learned about while I was in Navy Nuclear Power School. They determined that people absorb information best (and concentrate best) in school in 50-minute intervals with 10-minute breaks. They'd figured out all sorts of other stuff too: use outline form, make the students copy the outline into a notebook, repeat everything exactly 3 times, and so on, all ways they'd found that lead to better retention of the material. But the 50-minute thing seemed intuitively reasonable. Those ten-minute breaks were indispensable.

I actually think 50 minutes is the absolute upper bound for a sitting; the optimal duration is probably lower. But the takeaway here is that one consequence of my pet theory, which we'll get to shortly, is that the ideal length for a blog is measured as a duration, not a word count.

Of course, that presents a problem, because duration is a function of word count and reading speed. I need to account for different personal speeds, and some folks like to read slowly. Heck, some don't even read at all. It's one of the amazing miracles of the internet: write-only people. They can't read but they somehow find a way to write. You see them commenting all the time in my blogs: "I didn't actually read your entry, but allow me to comment on it all the same..." Lovely.

So I need to aim for something lower than 50 minutes, to make it possible for average readers, and then hope that for fast readers I'll still have blown their entire page cache. Being a fast reader is actually a disadvantage here.

Figured my pet theory out yet? I'll bet some of you have!

Stevey's Brain-Cache Theory of Essays

My pet theory is predicated on the hopefully obvious axiom that our brain is a computer. As a computer, even though it's structually different from a von Neumann machine, it's still constrained by the same laws of physics. Hence, it probably has a multi-level cache.

I have some even more farfetched pet theories about the architecture of this cache, but whatever the architecture, caches all share the property of being limited short-term storage.

I really want to talk more about how I think this cache works, and I keep deleting paragraphs about it. I'm in a bind: if I talk more about it, my pond-boulder will get too big and crush people. But if I don't, then I'll be accused of grossly oversimplifying.

So it goes. Let's oversimplify.

Your brain clearly has at least two obvious caches: your short-term memory and your long-term memory. Your long-term memory is more complex than a cache, but behaves like a cache in the way it forgets things that aren't refreshed periodically.

The Wikipedia entry on short-term memory, linked above, says short-term memory lasts about 20 seconds. And long-term memory, of course, is persistent and can last up to a lifetime.

My pet theory posits the existence of at least one second-level cache in your brain that holds data for a while before deciding whether to commit it to long-term memory. That "while" varies but is at least 10 to 15 minutes.

Of course, writing the theory down like this makes all the holes in it pretty obvious, and I'm way too lazy to try to patch them all up here. Following the best academic tradition, I leave the hole-patching as an exercise for the reader.

In my pet theory of the brain, such as it is, your second-level cache keeps track of all your sensory input for the past few minutes. It also serves as a scratchpad area for doing computation: if you're trying to follow a complex argument, you need to construct a graph: idea A leads to B and C, C implies D, etc. Even following a scene in a story requires a graph and some computation: think of a bank robbery movie scene with five people involved. Following its progress requires a little short-term memorization and some deduction, and your mind does this for you automatically for situations up to a certain low level of complexity.

What about bigger arguments and more complex scenarios? Well, if the graph is too big to fit in your second-level cache, then your brain needs to swap some ideas to "disk" (your long-term memory). This is also known as "learning stuff." Painful, I know. I've been there.

So my pet theory is that if you want to make a lasting impression, then you need to fill up the reader's second-level cache and start blowing pages (cache elements) out into their long-term memory. If you want to imprint them with something memorable, you've gotta flush it to disk. To fill the cache you have to create a story big enough to fill their short- and medium-term memory and start spilling over into long-term memory, at which point you're guaranteed that some of it will stick. It won't be just another funny blurb that your reader sees, laughs at, and immediately forgets.

This obviously entails some effort on the part of the reader, even if they're having fun. You watch a 2-hour movie and you'll be exhausted (or at least ready for a break) because your brain is busy swapping stuff out. It uses more energy because of those pesky laws of physics that led to the cache structure in the first place.

I think this whole idea scales up to N-level caching; if you write a whole book about something, and the reader manages to get through it all, then you've probably left them with a lot more long-term memories and patterns.

But a good essay is usually just trying to get one idea across. One idea, one big rock in the pond: one sitting, one story. That's my theory. And it's the thesis of this essay, with the conclusion being that the relationship between blog length and popularity is actually causative.

"There's one thing in particular that struck me..."

In the spirit of filling your second-level cache, I'd like to offer you just one detail of my pet architecture: I think our caches are only partly LRU; I think there's some randomness involved in which pages your short-term memory chooses to discard when you're interrupted with new data. In fact, if anything, they may be MRU (Most Recently Used), given that when you're having a conversation with your friend and you both get interrupted, you often can't remember the thing you were just now talking about, but you can both remember things you talked about a few minutes before.

If that's true, then the stuff that gets swapped to disk is probably different for every reader, and may be somewhat random. In other words, everyone comes away with some different memory of the essay. It's likely also in no small part a function of how well any given turn of phrase is a match for the reader's experience. So a good essay needs to try to say the same thing in a bunch of different ways, hoping that whenever the reader's brain decides to latch onto something that "strikes" them more or less permanently, it's hopefully related to the core message of the essay.

So everyone gets something different. But I think that's a good thing. If the readers come away thinking about it at all, the essay has succeeded.

Wrap-Up

There's more I could say about my style. Expectations and page-caching theories aside, I think there's entertainment value in a good story-essay; you can't really weave in good jokes without some supplemental material, for instance. And I like to tackle inherently complex topics because they're more interesting, so it's never as easy as summarizing with something as pithy as "Java sucks". It's not that simple, no matter how people want it to be so.

So yes, there's more I could say, but my gut tells me I've reached the one-sitting limit. So I'll wrap up here.

I know I've oversimplified. I know I have no business talking about cog sci when I've never even read a book on it, unless you count Gödel, Escher, Bach. And I know that even if I'm right, I may still sometimes overshoot the ideal length significantly.

But I'm convinced, and I hope you are now as well, that my blog entries are successful because of their length, and not in spite of it. It's OK if you don't agree with my pet theory as to why the longer ones are more successful; I've certainly got nothing but intuition backing me up here. But by getting you to disagree with it, I've left my mark. At least you'll remember the idea now. Consider yourself imprinted. This one's on the house!

At this point I recommend stretching your legs. Take a walk, get some fresh air, let those disk drives cool down. You can ponder this stuff later. It'll still be there in your brain, like it or not. I guarantee it.

46 Comments:

Blogger Rob said...

tl;dr

6:48 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Gavin said...

Perhaps the same effect could be achieved by 50 minutes worth of idea repetition over the course of 10 days. I'll come back tomorrow and post that concept again with different wording.

7:03 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Eduardo Habkost said...

Don't listen to them. Blogs are tools to publish stuff. You choose in what form you will publish stuff (cute pictures, one sentence, one paragraph, or long essays).

As an example, I would be glad if Paul Graham used "standard" blogging tools to publish his essays. At least we would have an reliable RSS feed (as opposed to the manually-maintained RSS feeds that are available for his essays).

7:11 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Bill Mill said...

I talked in a blog entry a few days ago about Poe's theory that a short story should be readable in one sitting, and actually referenced your Java article. Poe says:

>If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.

7:29 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Steve Cooper said...

This probably explains why, ten seconds after reading boing-boing, I can't remember anything, but am left with a general sense that copyright is bad, somehow...

I think the complexity of the subject, plus the ability to illustrate with examples, also mean that longer pieces last. It's a formula that worked for Joel, until he started posting travel and wallpapering tips, rather than considered pieces on software development.

Lastly, you inspired me to go try ruby after your recent code-size post. And now it's burying itself in my brain.

yegge.send { |me| me.thanks }

7:32 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger HarryC said...

You're blogging for a purpose--to improve "scholarship" (or what passes for it) about our world. To that end, make your posts as long as you'd like.

7:52 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Stuart Hacking said...

I came across your blog a few months back (in fact it may have been an ancestor to this blog...) when I was looking for some joyful emacs hacks.

The length is acceptable. Long enough to read while waiting for a script to run across a few dozen computer for example, but short enough that you didn't feel you just stole time from work. (and of course since I used python and emacs in work I was at least gaining some applicable knowledge from the articles[?] I read :-) )

8:14 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Dossy said...

TL;DR.

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."

8:15 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Groby said...

I'd posit a different theory - when you've got interesting things to say, people don't mind length. You usually do - yeah, yeah, everybody else at your workplace is smarter, sure - and that's when it sticks.

Since "interesting" is different for different people, there'll always be somebody who doesn't like it. But since you only write once a month, and the essay usually is meaningful, we all come back for another helping.

(This month, I'm in the complainer fraction - but I'll still be back. I'd ask you to write about different things, but I'd suspect it's completely useless ;)

8:28 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger dot said...

I like your blog entries. They are lengthy, interesting, and thought provoking. It conveys a personal feel. In fact, I feel like I am listening to a conversation (with the entries and the comments). It feels humane.
I am however, guilty of not reading every word of it. I do eyeball scans to pick up keywords that interest me, and your entry has a lot of them.
After reading your current entry, I realized that of all the feeds I am subscribed to, I pay more attention to the articles and essay-styled entries blog than those short technical snipplets or stuff on 'my cat is cute!'.
If I want those stuff, I would be on their twitter feed.
I am trying to move my style towards essay and articles now on my own blog, and removing short entries to create a greater depth to my blog.
Hang in there, and keep the entries long. :)

8:44 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Tyler Stalder said...

For me an important metric for post length is interruptibility. I was interrupted twice while reading your post. If a essay is mildly interesting and I get pulled away onto something else this usually means the article gets axed.

With your post the headings gave me logical pause points and made it easy to jump back in. When I read long posts the formatting only second to the content with overall length coming in third

9:00 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Alexandre said...

Why should you care what impolite and lazy people think? It is your blog, write about what you like, and have some fun while doing it. Sure, your audience is larger than most bloggers, but that doesn't mean you should become a public pawn.

I would love to be able to write lengthy posts, just like you. In fact, I am jealous of writers, like you, who can dump their mind on paper with your ease.

Heck, if the only common critic, you get, is that your writings are long. You're doing hell of a good job.

9:00 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Srdjan said...

Not to jump on "Good job, Steve, keep it up" bandwagon, but I don't mind the length of your blog posts. Hell, I went through your Amazon collection of blogs in a week. Read pretty much all of them, and more importantly every word of each post. It was inspiring and humbling at the same time.

To spend 20-50 minutes once a month reading a post that will make a difference in how I view software development in general is actually a good investment of my time, not bad (See how I wove the idea of this "essay" in?)

That's enough worship at the altar of Steve Yegge for now. Keep it up.

9:23 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Daniel C. Sobral said...

Funny, I don't have small blogs on my feeds. Or, rather, they don't get read. It just feels to me that if something doesn't take a few minutes to read, it isn't worth reading it.

Unless, of course, it's news. So I subscribe to slashdot rss, and I do scan it now and then. But you, Paul, Joel, Cringely and others, you people I read start to finish, 100% of the time, even if I find the eventual post tedious.

9:38 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger SteveEisner said...

Commenter "groby" was right: people tolerate article length because you're interesting. And possibly controversial, or any number of the attributes that create interest. But your cache-busting theory seems like a rationalization to justify how much of my brain you feel you should occupy.

A related link-
http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_5.html#brooks

I read this one in 2 minutes but somehow it still remains in my head. Possibly because my memory manager is quite capable of handling its own swapping? ;)

9:46 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Paul said...

Steve, your theory is amusing and it seems consistent with my personal experience (of reading your posts). I stumbled upon your blog a few weeks ago and found it to be excellent - I'm probably about half way through its entirety.

I've read "you should blog" posts by several people with opinions I respect, but yours was the one that actually pushed me into doing it. None of the others had the significant impact on me that You Should Write Blogs did and the length of the essay shares much of the blame I believe - you simply made more of an argument

9:54 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Michael said...

I don't think your memory cache analogy can be taken as far as you've taken it. Repetition seems to be the main decider of what gets dumped to long-term memory, not lack of short-term space.

Though I am also not cog scientist, I have heard from reliable sources that long-term memory is more like hardware and short-term memory is more like software. That is, with long-term memory, there are physical neural connections in the brain that preserve that memory, which is why they last so long. Short-term memory, on the other hand, are electrical impulses that are being maintained in a non-persistent manner.

To transition from short-term to long-term, the brain notices which "thoughts" are being accessed frequently and starts to grow the neurons necessary to preserve them. Likewise, long-term memory can suffer from neural rot and fade away if not accessed for a long time.

9:57 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Valera said...

It's very strange that nobody so far mentioned bathroom breaks as a measure for essay length. Yours fit perfectly!

10:00 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Brock said...

ooo.... meta...

10:18 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger ormiret said...

I think that pet theory is a load of rubbish. Mostly since it disagrees with my own: things get retained in memory based on some measure of significance. Repetition seems to be one way of hitting critical significance, repeating in a different way increases the chances of getting there via other routes (linking into previous memories, liking the particular phrasing, hitting enough emotional buttons, etc.) I think the replacement policy is more along the lines of throw away the least significant stuff.

My theory still gives value to longer posts though :)

10:20 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger David Friedland said...

People who are too lazy to read your long blog posts don't deserve the wisdom you're trying to impart.

11:22 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Guillaume said...

I think the reason people complain about the length is because they're a bit like me. I generally have my rss reader on during the day and periodically check to see if there's anything new.

If there's a new stevey rant though my whole day's blog reading is occupied. I'm too busy to just sit around and do nothing for half an hour so instead I read things in small increments when I'm waiting on something. When there's a new stevey rant it takes me pretty much the whole day to get through it so everything else got pushed back.

Still, please don't change anything. There's a reason why everything gets pushed back when you post something new!

11:24 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger wustudybreak said...

only interesting blogs dares to be long...................

11:37 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger David Avraamides said...

Heck, some don't even read at all. It's one of the amazing miracles of the internet: write-only people. They can't read but they somehow find a way to write. You see them commenting all the time in my blogs: "I didn't actually read your entry, but allow me to comment on it all the same..." Lovely.

And they have a name: slashdotters

11:39 AM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger jps said...

You've hit the nail on the head as to why your blog is unique, I think. I heard of someone condensing your posts somewhere, for quick reading by the Digg crowd, and thought: oh, for heaven's sake. Like what the world needs is the Fox News version of Stevey's Blog Rants.

I would say, though, that your goal (of drawing people into much longer posts than expectations would allow) does influence your style. Your opening paragraphs are sometimes a bit glib and exclaimed. But that's just you gradually leading people along the path between the medium as they expect it and your content as you want them to be receive it. You need to ease the passage a bit or every bugger will turn off.

I wouldn't want every blog I read to be as verbal as yours. But if I look back at the books that have affected me the most, the ones that still stand out are those where, like you say, reading was punctuated by going for a wander every twenty or thirty minutes to frown at the kettle or watch a cheeky blackbird turn over moss in the garden. Consuming those books, I felt like I was digesting what I was ingesting, as opposed to letting it all pass through me like literary Olestra.

12:29 PM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger David said...

I just want to know if your cat is cute.

12:39 PM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Kirubakaran A said...

Stevey, I am just glad that you will continue to post big.

I don't know why these loud mouthed whiners complain all the time. It is not like they are *forced* to read or anything. Even if you switch to Twitter, these cry babies will complain about something else. [Ooh you type "I have" instead of "I've" or something...]

I love your posts, just the way they are.

Thanks!

12:59 PM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Larry Clapp said...

~tl;r

I would like to mention: longness may be necessary for popularity, but it is not sufficient.

2:13 PM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger toast said...

My only problem with your long-ass essays is that I don't know how much longer they have to go - because of all the comments at the bottom of the page I can't use the thumb of the scroll bar as an indicator.

It's a bit like sitting through the pain of a powerpoint presentation that doesn't indicate what page your on, and of how many.

So when I get about 2/3rds of the way through an article I'm thinking 'oh god, please end soon, I have to eat.' This is kind of the effect you are after, but maybe people might not give up if you numbered your headings in descending order, or something?

3:29 PM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger EKB said...

I'm no cog scientist, but I think there are some cog sci ideas related to your pet theory. First, the "medium-term memory":
http://www.agiri.org/wiki/index.php?title=Medium_Term_Memory

Second, the notion of a "triune brain". The idea (IIRC) is that short intense bursts of data tend to stimulate the reflexive (and unreflective) "reptilian" part, while the neocortex responds to more extended stimuli. The reptilian part needs constant stimulation (MTV, anyone?) while the neocortex does not. For long term happiness, go neocortex!
http://www.psycheducation.org/emotion/triune%20brain.htm

(But I could have this totally wrong -- take a look at the links.)

In any case, I like your posts because they're both long and interesting. You've gotten me to look into Haskell, but not (yet) to take another trip through JavaScript.

5:03 PM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger mattflo said...

I read your essay/post. I did not read the comments so far. I just wanted to say the length of the essay certainly helps one remember having read it because it requires a bigger investment on the part of the reader. However, I believe the value of the content has more to do with whether people commit the ideas to persistent memory. I believe this is so, because if you didn't have any good ideas and your posts were just long... you guessed, I wouldn't read them. On the other hand my mind often tosses around the content of good posts that were significantly shorter than yours. Jeff Atwood accomplishes this well. So, I would add that size does matter, but content still matters, and may matter more.

6:10 PM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Sri said...

Certainly agree with you Stevey. Atleast one benefit is we get to remember or atleast recollect essays easily as they would have been written to address a specific topic. Case in point, your essay on bad resumes about 5/6 blogs back!

7:36 PM, January 07, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Shaum said...

Just to add one data point here: I've seen this same thing at work in political blogging. In the year or two following 9/11, two of the most influential political bloggers were also two of the most verbose: Steven Den Beste and Bill Whittle. Everyone complained about the length of their posts (and in fact, one detractor started a recurring "shorter Steven Den Beste" feature, the equivalent of a "Java sucks" summary). Yet the memes they promoted were everywhere in the (political) blogosphere; even people who stridently disagreed with them at least were familiar with their arguments.

12:23 AM, January 08, 2008  
Blogger astrobe said...

Please don't forget non-native speakers (readers?) in your best-blog-entry-length-estimation. Oh, and avoid familiar terms when you make important points.

But I think your theory is not right, in the sense that length is a side effect of what makes the true value of an essay: argumentation. If you simply state that our brains are like computers and have multiple levels of cache, most people will think you're just another lunatic. By taking the time to make an introduction, elaborate, and conclude as you do, people can understand your statement.
I don't know if it exists in the US, but that's exactly what we are trained to do here in college. Students are asked to write a short essay, about 4-pages long, discussing a topic chosen by the teacher. But the ideas you express in these 4 pages do not really matter. What the teacher evaluates is the structure of your work, how well is built your thesis. I've written countless of these 'dissertations' as homework or in 2-hours exams. And it has a significative impact on how I write my own pseudo-blog entries.

4:14 AM, January 08, 2008  
Blogger Phil said...

Keep 'em long Steve and it's good to know you were at NNPS.

7:41 AM, January 08, 2008  
Blogger Yannis said...

Ironically, this was (or felt) shorter than your usual blog length :-)

This feels much like a Catch-22. I can't say that your blog entries are too long because I read them - therefore they are by definition not too long for me to read. I bet you hardly ever get people telling you "I don't read you blog because the entries are huge", but you mostly get people saying "I read your blog, but it's too long".

I'll skip commenting on the theory, as my comments would only be based on instinct, as the theory itself is. I'd like to comment on why I think people complain about the length. It's not because it's too long to read or absorb, or anything like that. It's because it's too long to fit into one's hectic, busy, time-poor day. I read two-paragraph blogs while waiting for my computer to finish something, or for a colleague to finish a phone-call. I can't do that with yours. I have to wait for that quiet day when I'm not too busy and I can spend an afternoon reading 4 of your blog entries from a few months ago. Or worse still, read on entry in multiple sitting because of interruptions.

But that's fine by you. You're happy for your essays to be read after months or years as long as you know they have an impact and reach a lot of people. So that's the right length for you. The length is merely a higher barrier to entry: if the entries were average in quality, people wouldn't bother reading them. Yours just happen to be quite good and therefore get read *despite* being quite long, but end up having a bigger impact and reach and popularity *because* they're quite long.

9:01 AM, January 08, 2008  
Blogger Pramod said...

Great blog, Stevey. Keep writing and don't change the size (despite what follows :-).

I've found that there are three kinds of blog entries of yours - type a : which I can't stop reading (good agile, bad agile, the resume tips, the code size thingy), type b: stuff that I can read, but I have to make myself read it. I keep telling myself - this guy usually has some interesting ideas, lets keep going (this entry for instance). And type c: stuff I just give up on (the vague story about the indian couple somehow related to static typing).

And based on that I'm going to propose a simpler explanation. People read well written stuff that has interesting ideas. So the quality of a blog entry is roughly proportional to two things - how much insight the reader gains and secondly how well expressed the ideas are. I postulate that your quality varies, sometimes brilliant and sometimes slightly below average. And the length of your entries is uniformly distributed across these varying levels of quality. So, when you write some thing boring after a few brilliant essays people wrongly attribute this to the length.

9:43 AM, January 08, 2008  
Blogger timseal said...

I had almost finished reading your essay, when I suddenly realised I was asleep.
(That was just the painkillers kicking in though.)

10:23 AM, January 08, 2008  
Blogger 1001 noisy cameras said...

I am glad I'm not the only one who writes long posts! (found this on reddit).

3:58 PM, January 08, 2008  
Blogger const said...

When I was visited general psychology lectures at Novosibirsk State University, I did hear about operative memory in humans. This was a kind of memory that keeps info about current activities. Longevity is about several weeks/months (after last refresh cycle).

There was also notion of "recent operative memory". The info in recent operative memory is under transition to operative memory. The duration of full transition is about 15 minutes (partial transitions are possible). Info in it gets forgotten if the person looses consciousness in a traumatic way (headstrike or sudden sleep). Loosing memory due to interruption possibly because of this one.

So split was:
1. Short memory (under minute). Similar to 1st level CPU cache
2. Recent operative memory (under half of hour). Similar to 2nd level cache.
2. Operative memory (under half of year). Similar to RAM.
3. Long term memory (almost unlimited but subject to wetware failures). Similar to HDD.

For example, operative memory keeps info that is almost hopelessly forgotten right after passing exams by students. It also keeps info about code that one is developing. So if you are looking at the code and are trying to figure out what you wanted to write, it means that info has left operative memory hopefully into long term one.

However, we used some Russian textbooks on the topic. So I'm not able to provide you with quotes.

2:13 AM, January 09, 2008  
Blogger sriram pons said...

I was thinking that the length of your posts were accidental - a side effect of the way you compose the prose. I'll read it as long as its interesting.

Another point, which I think is important is that a blog is read on-screen. So, the length should be short enough to be read on screen. I mean, I can not read a novel, however interesting, on screen.

3:21 AM, January 09, 2008  
Blogger ergosum said...

I would say it's not about the length. It's about the quality. If you write a long post full of crap, unstructured and with no novel or interesting ideas people will stop reading. If you are a good writer you'll manage to get people to read you, even if you write smaller posts. What's true is that if you try to imprint an idea, you can't explain all the facts and the mental process in just a few lines. That's why, imho, long posts by GOOD writers make a difference :)

Btw, great post! :)

4:55 AM, January 09, 2008  
Blogger Dave Sailer said...

The key is that you use semicolons. Lots of them. Encountering them short circuits the reader's mind and makes it pliable, susceptible to the entry of foreign ideas. These ideas then enter the physical brain itself and hide, lurking behind one or another of those soft warm and unsuspecting clumps of neurons that fill our normally quiet inner cavities. Then later, when it's time to molt, they pop out unexpectedly and party like crazy, and no one knows where they got all the goofy thoughts. It's true! Your writing contains tiny viruses! (Or is it really viri? Who can say?) Heh. -- Dave

9:12 PM, January 10, 2008  
Blogger indil said...

"As a computer, even though it's structually different from a von Neumann machine, it's still constrained by the same laws of physics. Hence, it probably has a multi-level cache."

This doesn't follow. Please elaborate.

1:41 PM, January 12, 2008  
Blogger Scout said...

Let me suggest a cache replacement strategy: LRI, as in least-relevant information. LRI would explain the usual inability to remember the most recent part of a conversation (less context, and therefore seemingly less relevant). It also would explain some of the seeming randomness in the things that people take away from a particular essay.

That would suggest that to ensure each reader has the same take-away, you have to build a context that will always make the intended take-away relevant, probably my completely replacing the initial cache contents. That's probably not possible, but it's interesting to think about what it would take.

(I also enjoy your lengthy posts, and appreciate your contribution to the common body of knowledge.)

11:01 AM, January 13, 2008  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

Turning off comments now that the spammers have started rolling in. (Spam deleted.)

I suspect I'll probably be leaving comments on for each new entry for about 1-2 weeks after I write it, then turning them off.

Thanks for all your support in the comments! Very encouraging.

7:26 PM, January 14, 2008  

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