Earlier this month, Buzzfeed published a piece called "Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500." The story ended up getting more than a million pageviews, which is notable because it is also more than 6,000 words long. The other notable thing: 47 percent of those views came from people accessing the story on mobile devices. And while people who read the piece on tablets spent an average of more than 12 minutes with the story, those doing so on phones spent more than 25 minutes—a small eternity, in Internet time.
Those stats are, if not counterintuitive, then counter-conventional: The working assumption, among media executives and most of the public who cares about such things, has long been that phones are best suited for quick-hit stories and tweets rather than immersive, longform reads. And while content producers have attempted to take advantage of the "lean-back" capabilities of the tablet (see, for example, tablet-optimized products like The Atavist), phone use has generally been seen as flitting and fleeting—the stuff of grocery store lines and bus rides. "The average mobile reader tends to skim through headlines and snackable content as opposed to diving into long-form articles," Mobile Marketer put it in late October.
Things are shifting, though, and not just when it comes to text articles. A survey of 50,000 people published late last year found 65 percent of mobile video viewers saying they preferred watching full movies and TV episodes to briefer stuff (music videos, movie clips) on their phones. In another survey, 8 in 10 people said they would watch TV shows on their phones, were the shows available. And even more (88 percent) said they would watch full-length movies.
The second screen, in other words, is quickly gaining primacy in our lives—and for immersive content as well as quick-hit stuff. Think Buzzfeed is primarily useful for distracting yourself at work, on your PC? Not necessarily. Overall, a Buzzfeed rep told me, the site now gets more than 50 percent of its traffic from mobile.
"I have this experience of people telling me, 'You know, I actually like reading on my phone now,'" Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed's founder and CEO, says. "More and more people are coming around to it."
So what's the appeal? Part of it, Peretti thinks, is the constant companionship phones provide. "You're in bed, and your laptop is in the other room, or your iPad, and the phone is right there," he told me. Part of it, too, is the way phones in particular are structured: That single, tab-less screen—the screen that scrolls with the flick of a finger—fits the way we most like to read.
"The immersive scroll is the oldest of mediums," Buzzfeed's editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, points out. He's joking, but he's also sort of not: There's something intuitive about the scroll as an interface. Individual pages—the stuff of books and magazines and newspapers, the stuff that had been transferred, skeuomorphically, to the web—offer reading experiences that are relatively contrived. One of Buzzfeed's most significant contributions to The Way We Web Now will likely prove to be the selection of a scroll framework over a paginated one. "I actually think that long, immersive scroll is a kind of lovely way to read a piece," Smith says.
Phones are also coming to prominence at the same time that news organizations are (re-)realizing how powerful—and alluring—lengthy, highly produced stories can be. The popularity of longform stories—of magazine stories—is telling as, among other things, a data point. "People's intuitions about longform were wrong," Peretti puts it. "They thought, 'Oh, the Internet is about the shortest possible clips, and no one has attention spans.'" But it's hard to impugn attention spans, he says, when "we see people spending 25 minutes on their phone, reading the story."
Smith agrees. That whole "the kids these days have no attention span" thing? "That's never been our experience at all," he says. Even the site's lists, he points out, are long (as lists go): Rarely will you see a "5 Things" or even a "10 Things" production; "27 Things" or "39 Things" is much more standard. Buzzfeed's time-on-page average, its rep tells me, is more than 5 minutes. And the average time spent on a longform story is double that: 10 minutes and 23 seconds.
So Buzzfeed has made a play for attention not just on the social web, but also on its own site. It has invested in longer stories, producing months-in-the-making, magazine-style supplements to its lists and quick hits and GIF-fests. It developed a template for its long stories that is devoid of ads and right-rail detritus—a template that presents a single story in the form of a scroll. It hired Steve Kandell, formerly the editor-in-chief of Spin, to be its features editor. ("Steve really hates the word 'longform,'" Smith says; "we've sort of replaced it with 'features' internally.") What Buzzfeed has learned from its work with longform, as Kandell put it recently, is that
this isn’t fundamentally any different than anything else that would be published on the Internet. By and large, the best stories—or our best stories, anyway—strike a chord and inspire people to share them with others on Twitter or Facebook or email or by printing them out and folding them into paper airplanes, and ultimately find their way to audiences broader and more immediate than anything you’d find on a newsstand.
Those stories can also benefit from people's desire to share quality stories along with Imgur pics and cat videos. "Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500" has, so far, more than 132,000 Facebook likes, and more than 4,000 Twitter shares. Wired's long article "How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses" got more than 1 million unique viewers, with an average time-on-page of 5 minutes. The New York Times's "Snowfall" got more than 2.9 million visitors and 3.5 million page views. Magazine-style journalism is an investment, but it's one that can pay off. Particularly when people are happy to lean back, curl up, and read a long story from the comfort of their phones.