The year is 2077.
You're reflecting on your life, your creative career, and the body of work you're leaving behind.
With a little mental math, you realize you've probably posted about 20,000 videos to TikTok and Reels (averaging one per day every day for 55 years). That's 10,000 hours of recorded content, not including the time producing the content itself.
"Thank goodness I spent all that time making TikToks," you think to yourself.
I'm laughing to myself as I write this because that sounds kind of insane, right?
Maybe that's just me.
Maybe I'm being a little harsh.
But every day, I feel pressure to create and publish short-form content. And when I slow down and think about that pressure, I absolutely resent it.
Here's the thing – I'm not just a creator. More and more, I identify as an artist.
And my art is not short-form.
I prefer to create more in-depth pieces of audio, video, and text – and my aspiration is for larger, more ambitious projects – not small, ephemeral bits of content.
But I feel this pressure to produce short-form work every. single. day.
Well, it's really visible. We see friends, peers, and competitors playing the short-form game and in a lot of cases, playing it well! After all, if they weren't playing it well, it's unlikely we'd see their attempts.
Comparison starts to sneak in.
Wow, they're making this look easy! Let me just click over to their profile...20,000 followers?! Maybe I should be on TikTok. If they can grow this quickly with THIS content, surely I can too.
We start posting to TikTok. We start posting to Reels.
One of our videos starts to hit that sweet, sweet algorithm – 3,000 views...8,000 views...12,000 views...20,000 views...
Holy crap! This really IS easy!
25,000 views...26,000 views...
Wait, why is this slowing down?
Crap. Well, that's OK, I'll just make another video.
I see (and hear) this pattern all the time. I've experienced this pattern personally. It feels SO GOOD to experience relative virality. When we see strangers liking and commenting on our videos, we think, "This is it! It's happening!"
I think we feel this the most on video platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, but it applies to text platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn too. We see the standout successes of creators on all of these platforms who exploded overnight with consistent publishing and the occasional viral post.
It feels accessible. It feels like you could do the same thing – why couldn't you?
Well, I'm not going to tell you that you couldn't. It's definitely possible for anyone to take advantage of this moment in time where short-form reigns supreme.
But what I DO want you to consider is whether or not it's really the game YOU want to play.
Why is short-form popular?
There's no denying that short-form is bigger than ever right now. So it's worth asking, why is that true?
Well, first and foremost, people like watching short-form video – commitment is low, variety is high, and it feels like we're constantly "completing" things.
Short-form doesn't require (or even really reward) high production value. Anyone with a smartphone can make good enough videos to do well in short-form.
It's also important to acknowledge that people are creating really good short-form content. You can now learn skills in 30 seconds that previously were 10-minute videos on YouTube. And before that, they may have been books!
All of those factors lead to rapid dopamine hits.
But another reason short-form has grown in popularity is that it's being prioritized by the biggest players in social media. TikTok, Meta (parent company of Instagram and Facebook), and YouTube are all pushing short-form, vertical video.
What do the platforms want?
Meta, TikTok, and YouTube are incentivized to try and attract and keep as much attention as possible – and short-form video is proving to do just that.
But attention is a zero-sum game, and so those platforms are competing with each other. To make their own platforms more attractive, they're engineering the platforms so that people have good experiences in publishing short-form vertical video.
TikTok was first with its equal-opportunity algorithm – it didn't matter who you were or what following you had, you could go viral and grow quickly on TikTok.
YouTube and Instagram followed suit – Reels are prioritized by the algorithm and shown to people outside your first or even second-degree networks. New channels began springing up purely to be Shorts channels.
As a result, if you give short-form vertical video a shot, you're likely to see more engagement on that content than you're accustomed to – because it's being given priority and reaches beyond your existing following.
It's pretty simple – if you keep attention on a platform, the platform will reward you with more attention.
So if you make great content that shows the algorithms that people are sticking around and watching, they'll put it in front of more eyeballs.
And if you consistently do that, you will consistently be rewarded.
The optimistic case for short-form
There are definitely legitimate reasons to lean into short-form. For some, it really suits their creative style – it's an amazing medium for animators or creators who do motion graphics. Being able to give a quick "wow" factor in short-form is an art that is highly rewarded in the medium right now.
It's also a great medium for educators if you're able to distill a concept down into <60 seconds. If you're able utilize short-form to efficiently transfer knowledge to someone else, you're going to be rewarded.
It even serves storytellers or comedians who like to tell short stories.
If none of those classifications sound like you, short-form can still be a good way to constantly audition for new audiences. Remember, the platforms are rewarding short-form creators with visibility to people outside of your following – so if you're focused on growing your following, there's no easier way to get in front of new people than leaning into this moment of short-form bribery.
And if you think about short-form simply as a mechanism for reaching new audiences, I think you can find some peace and fulfillment with it. Even if it's not the content you love to create most, it has a purpose to get your true art in front of new people too.
The critical case for short-form
You may have heard some of the stories out of VidCon this year about TikTok stars with more than a million followers who were unable to get any of their "fans" to show up.
In doing some research, these reports seem a little overblown – it sounds like the main story was that of Grace Africa above, and she was competing in a timeslot against MrBeast (the biggest YouTuber on the planet) and Khaby Lame (the biggest TikToker on the planet).
But it wasn't just Grace Africa – so it begs the question, how real are the relationships built from short-form video?
Will followers of short-form actually become clients or customers?
Usually when this topic comes up, I hear people begin talking about plans to use short-form to expand into long-form video...but I think that's a stretch. It's at least pretty unproven.
Do people actually want deeper content from you?
There have been some people make that leap, Logan Paul for example, but it's more of an exception than a rule.
Of course, there are ways to build a legitimate business without your viewers becoming your customers directly – sponsorships, brand deals, affiliate partnerships, etc. But direct-to-consumer sales can be a huge revenue driver (not to mention it makes your business more independent).
I briefly mentioned my bigger criticisms at the beginning of this piece – namely that short-form video doesn't feel like a referenceable, evergreen body of work.
I just read Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday and it really got me back into the mindset of creating the things I want to create and thinking through the lens of making enduring work. Something that will be loved and appreciated long after I am gone.
It's much easier said than done, but isn't that at least a worthy bar to strive for?
Where are we headed?
Every time there is opportunity, people rush in to capture that opportunity.
It still seems like we're in the opportunity phase of short-form video – even as more people enter the space, it seems like we're also spending more time consuming short-form, so there is still space for new creators.
I don't see short-form going away in the near future, but at some point the returns will begin to diminish. At some point, we'll reach equilibrium on the supply/demand of short-form content, and then we'll go in the opposite direction where we have more supply than demand.
At that point (again, who knows if this is a year from now, a month from now, or five years from now) you won't see the same organic reach on short-form video.
What happens if your efforts in short-form aren't getting you in front of as many new viewers as it used to?
Well, if you're like me, I'll wipe my hands and go back to work on long-form writing and video. Because I don't really like short-form. And if you have that same attitude (like me) then maybe we shouldn't be spending our time there to begin with.
If you will continue to create short-form because that's what you love, then that's a much better sign for your potential success in the medium.
What does balance look like?
I'm an opportunist. I see this moment in time as an opportunity to get my work in front of new people, so I have a hard time just ignoring short-form entirely.
For me, I'm looking for balance.
I think about the story of the university professor teaching his students about how they spend their time:
The tl;dr is that you have three major classifications of priorities:
You start by filling the jar with rocks, then add pebbles to fill in the cracks, then sand to fill up the smaller empty spots. That's how you can fit all of these priorities into a jar and find some balance.
How I'm approaching short-form
What this story doesn't explicitly tell you is that if you start with pebbles or sand, you'll actually be unable to fit as many rocks in the jar. They'll all settle on the bottom and crowd out the space you need to fit your rocks.
To me, my long-form pieces are rocks. These essays and my podcast episodes. I prioritize the rocks and then I'll fit in some short-form sand where I can.
Right now, that looks like pulling clips from the new video podcast for Shorts, Reels, and TikToks.
In my writing, I use some of the insights from the podcast to inspire new essays or even the newsletter content around a new episode release.
I even automatically log all my of my Tweets to Notion so that I can classify them as being worthy of reposting some day or not. For those that perform well and have some evergreen value, I can simply reuse that content to maintain a daily cadence of publishing on Twitter or LinkedIn.
At some point, I will barely even need to create NEW short-form writing to be able to post something great every single day.
I'm looking to get the most benefit from the least amount of work when it comes to short-form – but that may not even be the right approach. Maybe I should ignore short-form altogether and focus all of my energy on long-form!
There will be winners of the short-form game.
But is that the game you want to play?