The State of Reading on the Web (and Why I'm Keeping Such a Close Eye on Betaworks)

Depending on who you ask, print is either dying a slow, inevitable death, or a quick and painful one.

Frankly, I think the argument is getting old, and even missing the point. No one knows what the future of reading holds until someone creates it.

There’s no denying that reading on the web is a painful experience at the moment. It’s light years ahead of what it was a few short years ago, of course. Responsive sites, great typography, and a trend towards clean, uncluttered design have all helped tremendously, but there’s still a long way to go.

Reading isn’t only about the way that a text is presented. It’s been proven that that side of things can be done well, by the very features I just listed. Quality sites provide a solid reading experience across most devices. So, presentation, though it can certainly be improved upon, is acceptable on the modern web, especially with the help of addons like Evernote Clearly, or the Readability and Instapaper bookmarklets.

Presentation, then, isn’t the (biggest) problem. Content is. Yes, there’s lots and lots of content out there, but I think those of us who spend time on the web have settled this issue, too. Information abundance is not information overload. We had more information than we could handle before the internet came along. We just need to get better at prioritizing.

Right now, we’re spending entirely too much time doing just that: prioritizing. A friend posts a link on Twitter, and we must decide whether or not to click it. Then we must decide whether to read it. If we do read it, do we read it now, in our browser? Or later, on our phone? Decision fatigue, anyone?

Most of us send it all to Instapaper (or Readability, or Pocket), then end up sifting through dozens of articles later, trying to figure out which ones are worth our time.

Notice how many steps are involved between finding a link and actually reading that story? This is not efficient.

Some companies have stepped up to try to solve the problem. These novel startups analyze what you read, then recommend articles based on what they know about you. The problem is: they don't really know much about you.

Most of these reading recommendation services require you to download a browser extension, then monitor your browsing to find out what you're reading. That's not a reliable way to form a complete picture of what you like to read, though. Think about it: to gather a piece of data to use for recommendations, you have to open a link in your browser- but how much reading do you do outside of your browser? And how often do you open, say, a link on Twitter, only to find out that you have no interest in reading it?

That's not to mention the work bias: because I write Sssimpli, I open a lot of links about technology-related stuff, but a lot of what I like to read falls outside of that category. To that browser extension, it doesn't matter. I'm going to see a disproportionate amount of tech articles, simply because I open a lot of them in my desktop browser.

So that's the current state of reading, but what's to be done? Personally, I'm betting on Betaworks.

Betaworks is already making fantastic things, like Digg, Tapestry, and the newly-launched Digg Reader. All of these products revolve around reading, making it obvious that reading on the web is an absolute priority. It just so happens, though, that the synthesis of all these products puts Betaworks in a prime position to sculpt the future of reading.

Let me explain. Recently, the founder of a startup (of the kind that I mentioned earlier: reading recommendations) emailed me to say that his product had recently added Instapaper support. I got a little excited- until I read on, realizing that the support that he mentioned only included the ability to send articles to Instapaper.

I have a bookmarklet to do that. Nothing innovative there. What I wanted was something to look inside my Instapaper queue to recommend new stories. Theoretically, this is possible, but (as I understand it) only for Instapaper subscribers. Instapaper pro users have access to a more robust API, which developers can tap into to make better reading apps.

Instapaper just happens to (now) be a Betaworks product. So, let’s take stock: Betaworks has Digg, which is, in their own words, “what the internet is talking about.” They have a feed reader- and, despite its infancy, a very good one. They have Instapaper, which a huge number of people use to read nearly everything they find on the web. They’re serious about these things, too: reportedly, Digg Reader will come with a pro option. That means that users can pay to use the product without having to worry about whether or not Betaworks is going to shut it down. Instapaper, obviously, already has a pro option. The business plan is in place- these guys aren’t going anywhere.

Now, imagine they begin to use all these products together. An algorithm looks inside my Instapaper queue, which includes everything I read on the web and on my mobile device, and gets really good at figuring out what I like to read by ranking topics, specific sites, even specific authors and the amount of time I spend reading an article (again, on nearly any platform).

They can also dig into what I’m subscribed to in Reader, so they’ll know I read a lot of tech sites, with some philosophy and psychology thrown in, some design stuff here and there, and a lot of literature-related blogs.

Then there’s Digg. They’ll know the stuff I “digg,” too.

That’s a lot of data about what I read. In fact, Betaworks could potentially be everywhere I read on any device.

With that kind of data, Digg could become not what the internet is talking about, but what my internet is talking about.

Imagine a Digg with a sidebar that reads: “Hey, you’ve read 13 articles by Anil Dash in the past six months. Perhaps you’d like to follow him on Twitter? Oh, and here’s his latest piece, which 45 of your friends “digg.”

That’s the future of reading that I want.

There’s one caveat: I worry about Betaworks’ dedication to the Android platform. Currently, Tapestry is a sub-par experience on Android. Digg isn’t available at all on Android, let alone Digg Reader. Betaworks promises those things are in the works, and I can’t begrudge them paying more attention to iOS, at least initially.

I know the passion is there, though. Take this excerpt from a letter from Lexi Lewtan to two interns who spent the summer at Betaworks, which she reposted on her blog and titled “Inhale Intent. Exhale Expectation.”:

People at Betaworks create their universe. Try to do the same. You’ll see how hard it is to be truly optimistic, and how its even harder to execute on that optimism. Now you can take a bit of the Betaworks je ne sais quoi with you, and be immune to the bull if you want to be.

There’s real passion at the relatively small Betaworks firm. I trust they’ll use it well.


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