Do We Really Need to Know How Long It Takes to Read Your Article?

Slate, possibly in an effort to sell you on its articles, now has a feature that tells you how long it will take to read any given piece. So, is, "2m to read" really going make you click? 

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Slate, possibly in an effort to sell you on its articles, now has a feature that tells you how long it will take to read any given piece. So, is, "2m to read" really going make you click?  Someone at Slate hopes the answer to that is an emphatic yes. 

From a marketing perspective, it makes sense. It's an easy way to tell someone that this won't take any time and if they need to leave work right at 4:30 p.m., they can click on "Kobe Bryant Is a Brilliant Investor" and have one more minute to spare because that story is "1m to read." That little tag screams, "this is short" and "click on this." Conversely, "It’s Time to Bring Back the Guillotine" with its "4m to read" is four times as long, and something you'd probably do over lunch. By the way, we're not just picking on Slate. They're not the only publication doing this. 

While it makes sense as a marketing ploy, writers aren't too jazzed about it. As, Slate's own movie critic Dana Stevens points out, this hurts the feelings a little bit:

For Writers (I have no idea how long this will take to read)

Some writers spend a really long time reporting and writing things to present to you. Something you see online might have taken hours, days or weeks to think up, write, and re-write. There's something depressing about spending all that time on something to then have it packaged as something to be consumed in four minutes. Like, this four minutes of your time is an hour or six of someone's else's. It's not unlike if you spent all day cooking dinner and then have your family inhale it and then get back to what they were doing before they got hungry. It happens, but you don't want to be reminded of it.

For Readers (This might take longer)

Can we first think of the type of person who picks out what they read based on the number of minutes it takes to read them:

"Oh Gosh. Eight minutes?" the time priority reader says, making that "sss" sound you do after you receive a particularly wicked paper cut. His eyes dart to top right-hand corner of his screen. His desktop art is a picture of a high-end time piece, a Rolex, I think.

"Too long. Need to finish this spreadsheet. Hmmmm ..." he'll say, scrolling up, down, and clicking on tabs from left to write, while dodging that one window with actual work on it. "2 minutes and lizards? There we go," he says, with his face softening into a smile.

End scene. Obviously, a person who picks stories like that is not happy. And I'd hope that that type of reader doesn't exist.

We already know people don't spend any time reading stories online. I've probably already lost 98 percent of the people who clicked on this story. What we do know is that it's usually it's headlines and then pictures, and then sentences that drive stories. And the whole basis of reading revolves around what you find interesting (for example, I've found it very hard not to click on stories about absorbed twins). 

Slate and Medium don't seem to trust their readers to judge how long a piece is for themselves or think their readers are good enough judges of quality and length. One of the things people do and may not be even aware of when they click on something is that they're already gauging how long this piece is either by how slow that little bar on the right is moving, how terribly boring /amazing all these sentences are, or how many more Internet pages it is.

And there's also the sense of time-shame. "Fast readers will be insulted, and slow readers embarrassed by these estimated reading times," New York's Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted.

I suppose "2m only!" writers and readers can take solace in this famous (and famously multi-attributed quote): 

Easy reading is damn hard writing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.