Reading Lists for the Modern Web

I’m a really big fan of the Readability service. They recently opened up an API to third party developers. Yesterday Arc90 labs (the original creators of Readability) released a related service called Readlists. You can read the full release post, but basically it’s a dead simple curation service. You choose a set of links to web content over some topic and collect them into a reading list. Once you have such a list the service will collect and transform them into a number of different formats – you can send them to a Kindle or iPad or get a standard, DRM-free ebook that you can email, save and share.

Readlists is one of those services that seem really simple in retrospect but fulfill a very interesting (and innovative) niche. What’s more, it’s executed very well, both in terms of functionality and design. Readlists satisfy a real need – tablets are great reading devices but a lot of interesting content is spread out over multiple pages on the Web. It would be really nice if there was a straightforward, simple way to collect all that distributed content and send it to your tablet. Readlists does that very well (it’s not quite perfect since they have to email the ebooks to your iPad).

Equally importantly, the experience for curators is also well crafted. All you have to do is paste in some links and (optionally) provide a blurb for each one and you’re all set to go. You can share easily on Twitter or Facebook or just send a permalink to your friends. The permalink isn’t human-readable, but that’s fine – it means you can change the title of your reading list if you find yourself collecting different kinds of articles than what you started with. There is practically zero friction involved in collecting and sharing (given you have a Readability account). There are no customization options and in this case I think that’s a good thing – there’s less work for the curator to do and you can move on to more important things (like your next Readlist).

I’ve created a Readlist called “So you want a PhD” which is a collection of articles about graduate school. Though the creation process was dead easy, there are some concerns I have. I don’t see any analytics so I can’t tell how many people are seeing or reading my list. It also seems like Readlists can be updated indefinitely, which is great, but raises the question of how do I tell readers there is an update? One of the properties of the Web is that everything is potentially a work in progress – change and evolution are at the heart of web content. It would be great if I could opt in for some sort of notification when a list changes (possibly via RSS or email). Of course these things add more complexity to the service, but I think that these additions are worth it.

In conclusion, I think Readlists are a great idea for the modern web. Along with devices like the Kindle and iPad and services like Readability and Instapaper we’re moving to an increasingly readable, seamless web. We can discover great content on a laptop or desktop and seamlessly move to a tablet or other more comfortable reading device (or vice versa). There are still unanswered questions (such as changing lists) but I think we’re taking steps in the right direction. There will certainly be challenges as we move into a world of multiple devices in different forms but it’s good to know that the Arc90 folk are meeting the challenges head on.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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