Unpacking TLDR

Technology has fundamentally reshaped how we are able to explain things to one another. visual explanation leverage the ease in which we can now share images and visuals since our minds process them well. explorable explanation drop people into interactive environments to provide first-hand experience with concepts an explainer is sharing. commoditized explanation takes advantage of repeatable, instantaneous sharing that platforms provide.

I’d like to add one more to this lineup: “Compressed explanation”.

tldr; When someone asks for a ‘tldr’, they are asking for a compressed explanation. When someone wants to “unpack that”, they are asking for a decompressed explanation.

A Question of Compression 🐝

What do I mean by “compression?” Rounding might be thought of as a form of compression: If I want to transform a decimal number to an integer, like rounding 1.2 down to 1, I have acknowledged that I am going to lose some information for the convenience or necessity of dealing with simpler integers. Even though some information will be lost, hopefully the meaningful information is preserved.

Explanations can move through the same sort of compressions and decompressions. The way I see it, the ‘tldr’ (“too long, didn’t read”) is a sort of compression size. If we map out a rule of thumb for different sizes, they might look like the following:

Acronym Name Length Examples
tldr too long didn’t read sentence - paragraph 🔖 definition, abstract
nenm not enough, need more paragraph - page 📝 summary, review
fidr1 f#@! it, down the rabbit hole! source material 📓 blog, book, documentary

Compressed explanations (tldr) tend to contain less detail, are applicable to multiple contexts, and are often figurative.2 Decompressed explanations (fidr) tend to contain more detail, are more context-dependent, and are generally literal.

It makes sense that people have asked for short summarizations so often that it has become its own acronym. With the tidal wave of information we now have access to, many want the massive amount of data to undergo compression first with the option to decompress it later. Some might bristle when asked to provide a tldr, but it makes sense and is completely rational:

People want to orient themselves in the landscape of pre-existing human knowledge before committing the time to going down that rabbit hole.[^blur]

While tldrs are a form of compressed explanation, decompressions can be spotted in the wild too:

  • ELI5” for testing understanding of a concept
  • “Let’s unpack that…”
  • “Please explain in your own words…”
  • The “5 Whys3 for debugging system problems.

When a concept is explained in more detail, that concept is undergoing decompression: The smaller concepts that contribute to the larger one are brought out to develop a clearer, more precise understanding of the original concept.

It’s sort of like taking a tool or machine and inspecting its internals – where the “5 whys” is often quite literally applied to inspecting mechanical insides.

Notation Nomination 🐝

So, when someone asks for a ‘tldr’, they are asking for a compressed explanation (fidr -> tldr). When someone wants to “unpack that”, they are asking for a decompressed explanation (tldr -> fidr). But what do we call this process? The end results are certainly “compressed explanation” or “decompressed explanation”. I don’t know of any verbs that encompass both compression and decompression, but I did find this…

“codec (noun): a device or program that compresses data to enable faster transmission and decompresses received data.”

What about turning this noun into a verb? “Codacy” - pronounced “cod” (the fish) and “-acy” (as in “literacy”):

“codacy (verb): the ability to 1. create a succinct summary which preserves the essence of a larger concept or idea (compression) and 2. to unpack and describe the constituent components of a concept or idea (decompressing).”

Where To Go From Here 🐝

So, if you are coderate you are able to take an idea and either compress it or decompress it while preserving the fundamental essence of that idea. This is useful for things like content creation, where a resulting explanation needs to be a certain size for a particular audience. But it’s also a crucial skill for testing true understanding of a concept or body of work – even if just for yourself.

In how to read a book4, the authors point out that, even though our society has undergone a revolution in literacy, we have found the results lack-luster: Students, even adults, still struggle to to derive what is truly being said in a written body of work. Why? Why is it that adults who are taught to read still struggle to extract meaning from the page?

I suspect we have become a literate society, but we have not yet fully developed a coderate society.

  1. ‘fidr’ also starts moving out of sharing via linguistic communication toward sharing full experiences. 

  2. Abstraction laddering might be considered the verb-form of these explanatory nouns. 

  3. I like to call them why chains. 

  4. Which outlines the algorithm for this process while reading.