The Art of the Long Form Interview
Attempts to humanize the internet have been percolating for some years now. Gone are one-size fits all web sites, here to stay are responsive design and multiple online platforms. What used to be a one-way flow of information is now pluriform, with as many avenues of communication as communicators. In a very short time, the dream of a purely horizontal field of perspectives has been achieved, and with it the supposed slow and painful death of traditional media. However, we've quickly learned that the multiplication of voices has not made for a more accessible digital space and arguably has made navigation to the essential much more difficult. Rather than getting to the information that we want and need to know, we get caught in the vortex of links. Put differently, the internet has become one of constant navigation without end. What the new media doesn't do well is clarity, stillness, and the back and forth of simple dialogue.
Recently, however, a new generation has made it their task to bring a simpler articulation to the shouting match of voices. Instead of adding to the circle of information, spaces have been opened up by paring them down to singular conversations. I'd like to dub this phenomenon, borrowing from a website that I love, The Long Form Interview. The Long Form Interview differs from the blast of quotes and soundbites by being naively unaware of the world of quotes and soundbites. It operates in a space where public conversations take place under the sign of a certain civility, and it makes sense only by recognizing the humanity of interviewer and interviewee first, and only then the public who is meant to "consume" the words spoken.
One of these projects is The Great Discontent (TGD), a web magazine with one simple task: bring great interviews to the web that highlight the creative personalities who are designing our world.
TGD is a project of Ryan and Tina Essmaker, both of Crush + Lovely, a company much after the same mold of TGD that seeks to "improve the relationship between people and technology". Originally from Michigan, the pair conceptualized TGD as a way to get at the motivations behind creative people and how they push the boundaries of their work. They situate their conversations in the space of a desire unfulfilled, highlighting the heightened awareness of a lack in the creative person, a vision unfulfilled, a satisfaction unachieved. "TGD," according to its website, "is about connecting with the human side of creativity and trying to understand the common themes among creatives from various backgrounds and disciplines." Creative people have, for Ryan and Tina, the greatest discontent, and that is why we need to learn from them. But they are still human, and so we need to learn from them in the human way, that is, through conversation and dialogue. TGD publishes one interview a week, and nothing besides.
A similar project is taken up by Krista Tippet for the American Public Media radio show and podcast On Being. Tippet describes On Being as "a spacious conversation . . . about the big questions at the center of human life, from the boldest new science of the human brain to the most ancient traditions of the human spirit." The format of the show is that of an extended, hour long interview, and within this format Tippet has spoken with scientists and priests, poets and politicians and everyone in between.
As with The Great Discontent, listening to On Being cannot be done on the fly. And this is another quality of The Long Form Interview. It presupposes the willingness and patience of the audience, which is why this model seems so out of joint with our current way of gathering information. Its a time-intensive enterprise in our world of temporal cursoriness.
One wonders why people still do interviews. For a number of reasons it seems as if they are no longer needed. Social media allows us to put forward our own interpretation of ourselves. In his article for the Guardian, "What does it take to be a good interviewer?," Simon Hattenstone writes that "in the 21st century, the interview is a dying form - stars say what they want on their websites, and make myriad ridiculous demands before agreeing to interviews." There is an element of trust in an interview that most of us in our culture of anomie do not invoke on a daily basis. Being interviewed, one must be open to someone else's way of viewing you and, ultimately, articulate oneself in a language that begins from without, from the questions of another perspective. An interview, after all, is a seeing between. The crush of online publishing outlets that model their business on page views and advertising fees don't allow for the time it takes to for an identity to unfold in the space between two interlocutors. It's no small wonder that The Great Discontent is, as far as I can tell, a labor of love and that On Being is funded by a non-profit.
No matter how you slice it, an interview is always a formal, constructed affair, often taking months of scheduling to arrange, not to mention the hours of preparation and research that goes into it from the side of the interviewer. This is good in one way, since often typical conversations do not have the sustained focus that interviews have. Conversations are more meandering and circular than the typical linear direction of the interview. And this for two reasons. First, interviews are directed one way, toward the interviewee. We get to know something about the interviewee better because we largely never fold back upon the interviewer. Her interests and character must always fall into the background.
Moreover, conversations carry an ephemeral quality in that are not typically recorded, and so we can say that technology is essential apparatus for the interview. According to Hattenstone, the first interview can be traced back to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1884 - relatively late in publishing history, presumably after the ability to record them became available. In fact TGD does most of the interviews via video chat, which then gets transcribed, by hand, edited and placed within a beautiful web presentation, all of which takes considerable time. But the technological presence and the knowledge that what is being said is being recorded shifts the attitude of both the interviewer and the interviewee. Both participants have a heightened consciousness of the words that are spoken. Both know that there are others already listening in. This enhanced sensitivity is, for me, the most fascinating aspect of the interview. It's this that allows words to become weightier, more solid and lasting.
But very often the increased focus and heightened sensitivity issue in an outcome that can be rather stodgy and uninformative. Think of the obligatory post-game interview with a star athlete and walled off appearance of a politician on the Sunday talk shows. Conversations are always more honest and more likely to reveal than conceal. And so The Long Form Interview has to tack delicately between conversation and construct, between the natural and the artificial. What makes TGD and On Being so good is that they are expert in this dance.
But, secondly, these practitioners of The Long Form Interview are good because they also choose the right people to interview. Interviews, it must be said, need to occur between two people of relatively equal stature. If not, it is likely that the interviewer will more or less sound cajoling or, worse, condescending (see Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin in 2008). The person being interviewed needs to trust that the one asking questions has the right to ask questions, and, further, that she will ask the right ones. Just by looking at TGD it's immediately apparent that an attentiveness to quality and craftsmanship are the animating principles behind Tina and Ryan's work, and similarly, one gets the sense after listening to Krista Tippet that we are in the presence of a flexible mind adept in the various languages of spirituality. Sitting opposite such people cannot but make one pause before speaking. I am sure that those who have had the occasion to sit for a good interview, say, from the Paris Review, left thinking about themselves a bit more clearly and a bit more profoundly than they did before.
It is perhaps an irony that the rise of this form of communication is coextensive with a culture that more and more has been "bowling alone." But that is why its important for The Long Form Interview to survive. The Long Form Interview is a chance to catch sight of a person coming to themselves more fully and, crucially, through the voice and questioning of another. We need examples of how to do this and how to do it well. I hope that these ways of communicating stick around long enough to be, in a small way, the examples we need.