Readability, Instapaper, My Hypocrisy, and Trust

Regular readers should know by now that I am scared of Facebook, and don’t trust Google one bit. While I don’t use Facebook, I still use some Google services — I can see the hypocrisy in still using Google services while actively voicing my privacy concerns about them. I get that, but such hypocrisy is impossible to avoid without actively making my short-term life a mess — so I am forced into it by my own choosing.

So that brings me to Readability and Instapaper.

I have been, over the past few months, expressing some concern about the business model, and the agency model, that Readability has with their service.

Here are my concerns:

  1. Readability can, and does, collect money in the name of others without their permission. If you pay for the service any article you save will get a percentage of the money you pay for your subscription, but what if that website isn’t signed up to get the payments? Well essentially Readability keeps that money after a year, but tells you it will go to that publisher if they sign up within the year. To me that is a lot like a bum on the street saying that they are taking donations on my behalf (without my knowledge) and then claiming they kept the money because I never came asking for the money. This may not bug you, but it bugs the hell out of me — even though I have (as of this writing) given them permission to do so on my behalf. This actually would bug me more if I was a user than a publisher on the service.
  2. I loved the idea that you had to pay to use Readability, but that clearly put me in the minority as they (apparently) couldn’t make that work. So now they are giving the app away for free and have VCs funding it? So long term, how do they make money? Readability doesn’t even know.
  3. Lastly I just think they are largely a copycat business 1 with a free model and a heavy focus on UI design over UX design.

So that has made me somewhat publicly debate whether or not to ask Readability to block my site from being “saved for later” with the service. Many have asked: “why do that for Readability and not Instapaper?”

Easy: I don’t have any of the above problems with Instapaper.

In fact I know exactly who Instapaper’s customers are: the app users. Knowing that allows me to know Instapaper’s motives: make the app users happy. In that respect Instapaper and The Brooks Review have the same customers. 2

With Readability, who is the customer? Is the free user the customer? The VC helping fund it? Or is Readability itself the customer and the Publishers the ones paying Readability to do something they never asked Readability to do? (After all they take 30% before paying out to publishers.)

The fact that I don’t know this about Readability makes me leery of the service. The same is simply not true of Instapaper — in fact I optimize this site to work even better with Instapaper.

I think that Tory Briggs makes another good point about an aspect of Readability that also bugs me:

Don’t get me wrong, the app [Readability] is gorgeous and it works great, but apparently their conviction that “good, quality content is worth paying for” isn’t so strong after all, especially since their app and service are now free.

I think that’s what VCs affectionately call a “pivot” — something I see as desperation. 3

Is it fair to slam Readability while openly embracing Instapaper? Probably not. I can even see the argument of it being hypocritical, but again I can’t avoid such things so instead I try to acknowledge my own hypocrisy to allow you, the reader, to draw your own opinions.

Others have commented that there’s no way to avoid such content scraping — and I agree — but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. In this case though, I can stop it.

Ultimately it comes down to whether or not I want to support a service such as Readability. That goes beyond whether or not I want to pay them to use the service, but also whether I want to have them pay me for others using their service.

Right now — I don’t want anything to do with Readability. I am, however, going to let things cool down before making a final decision.

In the mean time, if you truly want to support me, or any other writers on the web, just tell your friends to read our sites — that’s ultimately going to help me more than your monthly $0.13 from Readability.

  1. Not just of Instapaper.
  2. Because the people paying for the Instapaper app are paying extra just to read this site and other sites — that’s a dedicated reader.
  3. We couldn’t make idea A work, so let’s just start tossing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Originally posted for members on: March 6, 2012
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