The speeding up of slowing down

Julius Honnor

​As Jeffrey Zeldman says, for lots of the web, speed is vital. When you want to know what time your train’s coming, you don’t want to have to read about the history of the railways first. When you need to pay a bill, or find out if your insurance covers you for the phone you just put on a 60ºC wash, speed and ease is of the utmost importance. The quicker the page loads, the quicker you can find what you’re looking for and get on with your life, the better.

There’s a widespread assumption that speed is always important. But there’s a whole world of content where efficient information transfer isn’t the end goal. There’s a world of content where understanding is important. Where contemplation and thoughtfulness are key. There’s a world of content for which we can and should slow down.

Zeldman talks of the 20% of the web that’s non-transactional. “It may be only 20%, but it’s an interesting 20%,” he says.

Not only is it interesting, it’s also important. To make the world a better place, we need people to stop and think. If the web is going to be more than a giant shopping mall, or a glorified catalogue, if it isn’t going to be a bookshop that’s reduced to just the reference section, that 20% is vital.

Content craft and soul

Browsing the web can be a soulless experience. Algorithms, marketing and a quantity-over-quality attitude have devalued online content. A technical-first approach to websites hasn’t helped. Fast content, like fast food, threatens to push out content craft and tradition.

Slow content is about both the process and the outputs. Taking some inspiration from the Slow Food movement, Slow Content values nurturing of content, the content recipes and the content nutrition. The Slow Content manifesto, launched at Utterly Content, is a call for an alternative future, where content is worth taking time over and the people who make it are properly valued.

Dams and discos

In lockdown, deprived of cultural opportunities and often with more time on their hands, people turned to online content more than ever. Jarvis Cocker broadcasting his domestic disco, the National Theatre streaming plays and long reads for the slow, meandering commute from the bedroom to the kitchen table have something in common: they’re all online content as an end in itself.

There are also factors beyond the pandemic that make slow content especially important for the world in the 21st century: political, social, economic and environmental issues won’t be fixed by fast content. We’re all publishers now, which is both an opportunity and a responsibility. We need to think and act like publishers.

When Greenpeace run a website that starts with investigative journalism rather than the latest fundraising campaign, they’re understanding the power of slow content. When Patagonia create great content for their Dam Truth campaign, it’s not content about the campaign; it is the campaign.

Slow content’s moment has come.

Beyond information, promotion and the transaction

Content that isn’t transactional or informational is often seen as content marketing. But that’s a reductive model: there are types of content that have other purposes than selling more stuff.

Cynics mutter about this idea and say that there’s always a bottom line, that everything’s about making money in the end. But when you read a novel, where are you in the conversion funnel? When you go to an art gallery, is it really only a precursor to a flat white and a visit to the gift shop?

Slow content is more about absorption than conversion; more about moving people emotionally or intellectually than moving them towards their credit card. There’s a whole world of ideas and debates and thoughts that deserves more time and focus than the web tends to give it.

Savouring the flavours

As Gerry McGovern says, “‘People don’t read on the web’ is one of the most damaging statements ever made about the web”. Obviously, they do.

But if you want people to read at length and in depth, then you need to work at it. Doing slow content well is hard. It’s as much art as science. It requires insight and empathy with the user. Slow content takes time to craft as well as time to read, watch, listen and digest.

Slow content is a world where the right word trumps the shortest word. Where care and attention and craft are more important than quantity.

Opportunity not frippery

Content that slows people down may seem like frippery. But it’s more important than that. If we want people to engage emotionally and intellectually with content, if we want people to laugh, cry and change the way they behave and think, we need to be prepared to invest time and money in content and content people.

Slow content isn’t just important for the world, it’s important for businesses too. It’s an opportunity. People of all sorts want and need better content, and organisations who understand this will thrive.

Standing up for slow

The web is an extraordinary thing. It democratises access to knowledge and art and opinion and human experience. It brims with possibilities for inspiration, innovation, cooperation and creative thoughtfulness.

But there are forces at work that sneer at the knowledge, intelligence and experience of hundreds of years of literature and print publishing, because now there are algorithms and analytics that show the way to quicker transactions of money and of information.

Unless we value content traditions and skills, online just as we do in print, there’s a risk of impoverishing the language of the web, the culture of the web. And with it, devaluing our wider language and culture. The web may use machines, but it is not a machine. It’s a content medium, a way of communicating ideas and experiences from one human to another.

At the very least, slow content needs to be a part of the content landscape. With systems and structures and strategic thinking that support it. It needs content strategy as well as editorial strategy. It needs us, as content professionals, to stand up for it. Unless we value slow content, there’s a risk that everything will be reduced to the transactional, and we’ll lose sight of some really important things along the way.

This article was first published on the Utterly Content website. Julius gave a keynote talk at Utterly Content 2020.

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