To thine own reading habits be true

It’s been about two weeks since the untimely demise of our dearly beloved Google Reader. Since then many replacements have been stepping up to the plate. I’ve been using Feedly, but I hear good things about Digg Reader too. A few days after that Anil Dash wrote a post entitled “The Golden Age of RSS” where, among other things, he provides a very long list of RSS readers across various platforms. He also makes four suggestions about improving the state of the RSS ecosystem and two of those four are about the actual reading experience. While I have immense respect for Mr. Dash (and Dave Winer), I’m not excited by either of his suggestions.

First off, Mr. Dash seems to not be a big fan of the mailbox style of displaying feeds (a la Google Reader) or the magazine style (a la Pinterest and Feedly). He seems to rather favor Winer’s river of news style. Secondly, he says that he wants a blog reader — essentially a single site RSS reader that kicks in when you visit the site and gives you a content-focused, style-independent view of the site. While both of these suggestions seem interesting (and I hope someone picks them up and does cool things with them) neither of them is particularly appealing to me.

Personally, I like the mailbox-style of reading feeds. I like to be able to look through a list of titles, read the ones that sound interesting, and get rid of the rest (currently by mass marking them as “read” — not the best interface, but it gets the job done). I don’t want a river of news — I want a digest of interesting things that I can read at my own leisure, irrespective of when the author posted them. My RSS reading list isn’t a source of news, it’s a selection of authors who write interesting pieces and whose posts I don’t want to miss. Now, an argument could be made that if some post is really good, it will filter through my Twitter or Facebook circles and I’ll hear about it. But I have neither the time nor the energy to sift through those streams to find interesting things my friends are posting. I’d rather just have the good stuff come directly to a single known location. And this brings me to Mr. Dash’s second recommendation (and why I disagree with it). I don’t see much personal value in the sort of site-specific reader he wants. The whole point of having RSS for me is that I don’t have to visit the website. See above arguments for a central location for posts from approved sources.

Does this mean that river-of-news or site specific RSS readers are a bad idea? No, of course not. Anil Dash and Dave Winer are both very intelligent people with proven track records and if they’re advocating something it’s worth looking into. All I’m saying is that they’re not the best idea for me. Reading habits are a very personal thing. We like to read different sorts of things and we like to read them in different ways. Dave Winer likes to be plugged into a river of news, I prefer to have a stack of articles waiting for me at the end of the day.

I truly believe that the web is a democratic medium — it allows us to define both how we publish and consume content (within limits). While we’ve explored the publishing aspect in lots of different ways (sites, blogs, tumblelogs, podcasts, microblogs, photoblogs, vlogs), the consumption side has perhaps seen a little less action. The death of Google Reader seems to have sparked a new burst of RSS-related innovation. Once we’re done picking our favorite clone, moving our lists and syncing our devices, maybe we can think about how to make the consumption experience as democratic as the publishing experience.

The Web is for Documents: Part II

In my last post I talked about my dilemma regarding webapps: they’re wonderful and they’re letting us do amazing things, but in the effort to become a general-purpose app platform webapps seem to be struggling against the basic document-oriented nature of the web. However, there are some applications that I think are successfully embracing the idea that web is a sequence of connected documents. I mentioned Simplenotes and Dropbox in my last post and they’re both awesome apps that you should check out. However, the document nature of the web has given rise to some new uses that aren’t applications in the conventional sense of the term.

When we hear the term “document” we generally think of something along the lines of a traditional paper document. Perhaps we can blame “word processors” for that. But in this brave new age of Web 2.0 documents aren’t just flat sheets of text. The best demonstration that I’ve seen of this new potential is the HTML5 Slideshow. It’s an HTML web page, but thanks to the the tools of JavaScript and new semantic elements it’s a great presentation too. It probably took a good amount of time and effort to put together and I don’t think you want to put this much of effort into each document. Right now, it’s a great showcase but I’m hoping that eventually there will be tools that make it easier to generate these kind of HTML5 documents with minimal effort, the same way we have great CMSs for building web pages today. There are already HTML presentation tools out there, but right now I think too many of them are trying to hard to clone desktop apps.

Moving on from presentations, another really nice example of innovative documents is the the Google book/website entitled “20 things I learned about browsers and the web”. This is almost certainly not the type of thing you think about when you hear “document” or web-page. Personally I think the pageturn effects are overdoing it a bit, but it presents a large amount of information presented in a very attractive format. I also like that the format they used is quite innovative. It’s not like anything you’d expect to see on a desktop for the simple reason that it’s not a program, it’s a document. Well, that’s not technically true: there’s a significant amount of JavaScript code being executed while you’re viewing it. But would you download and install a program whose sole purpose was to tell you 20 things about browsers and the web? We expect documents to work differently than programs (irrespective of what’s going on in the background): we don’t want to run them or interact with them to perform complex tasks, we just want information. And this book makes access to that information quick, easy and obvious.

Presenting information effectively doesn’t need to have great design and cool animations. In fact, perhaps the easiest way to present information is to get the design elements out of the way and let the content speak for itself. This isn’t a call to ignore design or to consider it as unnecessary frills. Quite the opposite: creating design that doesn’t clutter up the data is a hard job that we’re only just starting to get right. Two services that are leading the pack in this regard are Instapaper and Readability.

Instapaper has the goal of letting you save long form text you find on the web for later reading. The website itself is really simple and behaves mostly as a lightweight bookmarking service; you just save links to things you want to read when you have the time. But it really shines when paired with the iPhone or iPad apps. Instapaper strips websites of all their clutter and presents just the text on a simple background in a good font. It’s goal is simple: putting the focus back on the content and letting you read without distractions. I’ve only used the iPhone app so far, but the iPad app looks really good too. If I had an iPad it would probably be my one of favorites. Instapaper lets you read web-based content without having to be in front of a computer (or even connected).

Next up is Readability. It’s a brand new service who’s mission is similar to Instapaper: make reading easier. But Readability is focused on the web. It’s a browser plugin that will take text-rich web pages and present them in a cleaner, simpler design. There are a number of themes to choose from (I like Inverse myself). There will be Instapaper-like iOS apps soon, but that’s not the real point of Readability. It’s for people who will spend time reading in front of their computers instead of on the move (such as me). I’ve only been using it for a few days, but I’m already hooked. Whenever I see a webpage with a lot of text I want to read, but the design isn’t to my liking I hit the Readability button (or just the backtick key). I get the whole article in a nice serif font on an easy-on-the-eyes dark background as well as a list of things I’ve read recently. You can see that list here. I have some more things to say about Instapaper and Readability, but that deserves to be in a post all by itself.

I think we’re only just seeing a resurgence of the web as a document platform. These are still early days no doubt: creating HTML5 slideshows or flip-page books is not something you can do at the push of a button, but I think we’ll get there. Tools like Instapaper and Readability are helping us take back the web, so to speak. There’s still a lot of to do and I’m pretty sure we haven’t even come close to how far we can push the document-based nature of the Web. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the new formats and services that get built in the years to come (and maybe build a few myself). While webapps won’t go away, we’ll also gain a lot from the web staying true to its document-based roots.