The Readability Fallacy

Danny Silverman with a noble reason for switching from Instapaper to Readability:

You see, the ability to strip out all of the ads, pagination, navigation, and other chrome from an article and just get the pure text is a wonderful thing for the end-user, but it is not at all good for the publisher. Those ad impressions are what pay for that content. As long as I have used Instapaper I have always felt a little bit dirty.

(Update: One other thing about his statement is that my site has been carefully designed so that you don’t see any menus or ads once you start reading a post. This is because I too hate seeing those distracting things when I read.)

That reason is really nice — honestly. But there is a problem with that statement. The problem is that (at least with Instapaper) you must first visit the page before you can save the page for later — thus you have already given the publisher the needed ad impressions. 1

As a reader your job is done in (most) publisher’s eyes once you give them a page view. Clearly Silverman wants to further support people that he reads, but as a publisher myself I can say that Readability isn’t the savior many thought it would be (myself included).

As I noted this week the amount of money I get from Readability has gone from $30 to $1 — the new iOS apps may spur those numbers back up, but I doubt that many people are paying for the subscriptions given what I have seen and heard.

I have also documented the problems with Readability’s business model and the problem I have with them collecting money in other peoples names without (at least some of the time) their consent. So what if I didn’t want Readability to collect money on my behalf, say I didn’t even want to be associated with them — well that’s easy I just delete my publisher account, right? Ah, but there’s another problem: no users of Readability will know that I have am not and do not want to participate, so therefore people like Silverman may be mistakenly thinking they are supporting my site when actually they are just sending a few cents a month into a black hole. 2

I like what Readability has tried to do with the service, and the apps are gorgeous, but I have a big problem with the approaches being taken by them. For one I can’t figure out if they want to be a great place to save articles for reading later, or do they want to be a middleman that helps make money for independent publishers and large publishers alike, or… I don’t know. The motives matter to me and I can’t figure out Readability’s.

That’s the problem I really have with Readability.

I completely understand the need and want to switch from Instapaper to Readability, but please do it for reasons we know exist and not the notion that you may, possibly, maybe, perhaps, be helping publishers pay bills.

Note: I will not be switching — in part because Readability seems a lot like Things to me whereas Instapaper feels more like OmniFocus. We all know where I stand in that debate.

  1. The notable exception is when saving directly from Twitter clients. Even in the Instapaper browser you need to first visit the page before saving it for later, a friction creating step that I commend Instapaper for keeping in the app. Update: Also RSS readers completely forgot about that one.
  2. Large publishers, to my knowledge, still can’t or won’t sign up so kiss that money you are sending the NYT goodbye.
Originally posted for members on: March 4, 2012
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