A few weeks ago, I wrote about getting content smaller for use on mobile devices. And by smaller, I don’t just mean screen size, but more importantly, length. And just as smaller, shorter content is ideal for mobile, it also makes sense to think small about social learning technology.

It’s a natural progression that we’ve seen play out right in front of our eyes. One of the first highlights of Web 2.0 was the advent of the blog. People could now share their stories in long-form content style, and readers could comment. Blog posts, although still active and relevant, have gotten perceptibly shorter over time. Eventually, many people began to rely solely on Facebook posts to get their message across. There is no character limit, but there aren’t too many posts on Facebook that do not fit into the preview window.

Now, people have willingly limited themselves to 140 characters on Twitter. Yet there are people using Twitter to get their voice heard by more people than many blog writers could ever hope to reach. Social video is no different. We’ve gone from hour-long YouTube posts to six-second Vine videos.

So what is happening? It’s the age-old story: people do not have enough time. It used to mean that instead of the 65-page study, people wanted the executive summary and a couple of graphs. It’s now known as tl;dr (too long, didn’t read). If it can’t be summed up in 140 characters, forget it. And trust me, I see the irony in the fact that this blog has close to 500 words.

There is pressure from all sides forcing the contraction of our communication. Most people don’t have the time to produce long-form content, and few have the time to consume it. Our social environments are optimized for quick, to-the-point interactions. The challenge is that most learning environments are not optimized this way. Everyone wants to create social and collaborative environments, and then they cram them full of two-hour courses and 60-minute presentations.

It isn’t a question of simply chopping up existing content, either. There is a real art to taking a concept, boiling it down to its essential elements, and communicating it in a way that is easily understandable. Organizations that are focused on creating truly effective social environments (especially for learning) need to find, foster and develop this kind of talent.

The tl;dr syndrome will not go away. People will always skim through content to find the essential pieces. However, they won’t always be successful. There’s a good chance they will miss something. But if the pieces of information you are providing are designed with tl;dr in mind, all the important stuff will be easy to find. It’s important to remember what makes social technology tools popular in the first place. At the same time, however, people using a corporate social platform for learning should recognize that an effective learning initiative cannot be reduced to a one-panel cartoon with a six-word caption.

David Wentworth

David Wentworth has been a senior research analyst in the human capital field since 2005 and joined the Brandon Hall Group in 2013. He has authored reports and articles on various human capital subjects with an emphasis on workforce technology. He has contributed to several reports published by ASTD, including authoring Mobile Learning: Learning in the Palm of Your Hand, The Rise of Social Media: Enhancing Collaboration and Productivity Across Generations, and Instructional Systems Design Today and in the Future. His work has also appeared in Compensation & Benefits Review and T+D Magazine.

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