How to Internet: Reading

One of the first prob­lems you’re likely to run across as someone who’s now find­ing lots of inter­est­ing things on the inter­net is that you’re amass­ing more stuff you want to read than you’ve ever had before and it’s get­ting hard to track. If you’re like I was for about five years, this will likely take the form of hav­ing 80 tabs open per­sist­ently caus­ing your browser to be slow and your poten­tial for cata­stroph­ic data loss to be high.

There are three big obstacles to get­ting read­ing done on the inter­net. The first, and hard­est to fix tech­nic­ally, is your con­text. That is: if you’re used to just get­ting on the inter­net to offer con­stant par­tial atten­tion to your brows­ing while instant mes­saging, listen­ing to music, and watch­ing video clips, set­tling in to a multi-page essay will feel very dif­fi­cult. So too, if you fre­quently focus only on the inter­net, but click like mad and just skim everything, read­ing will feel broken to you.

There are two solu­tions to this prob­lem: change you situ­ation and change your mind. Fre­quently people who find them­selves unable to focus at the com­puter will find them­selves much more able to do so on a tab­let, e-read­er, or even phone because they have dif­fer­ent habits there. This is a subtle and auto­mat­ic way to change what you’re expect­ing on the inter­net without expend­ing the men­tal effort to actu­ally execute with the oth­er option, which is just to put some effort into calm­ing your mind and allow­ing your­self to focus. (Like most things I’ve writ­ten about this weeks, whole books could be writ­ten about this para­graph.)

The second obstacle is in some sense the most mundane, but if one is to judge by the amount it gets talked about, also the most frus­trat­ing. If you spend much time at all try­ing to read on the inter­net you’ll soon notice the fre­quency with which pub­lish­ers (espe­cially those com­ing from oth­er media) divide their con­tent to max­im­ize page views. A 1000 word art­icle split over ten pages is a good way to drive page views but ter­rible for read­er sat­is­fac­tion. There a num­ber of ways to un-pagin­ate an article—browser exten­sions, web ser­vices, and loc­al soft­ware all exist to do this pars­ing for you—but the most used is simply the print­er-friendly view that most such sites provide.

But that solu­tion gets us to the final not­able prob­lem, which is that many pages on the inter­net that house art­icles you want to read weren’t really built for read­ing. Prob­ably the most import­ant way in which they aren’t is that they have (visu­ally) loud ads and oth­er con­tent sur­round­ing them that pulls your eye and atten­tion away from read­ing. Anoth­er prob­lem is type set poorly, things like: type set too small or too large, type set in very wide columns so you con­stantly lose your place (espe­cially com­mon on print­er-friendly pages), and poor con­trast between the type and the back­ground. I believe that these prob­lem are today best solved with Read­able. What Read­able offers is a book­mark­let (a bit of Javas­cript dis­guised as a book­mark) that auto­mat­ic­ally changes any page on the inter­net to exactly the format­ting you’ve told it you want pages to have for read­ing. This concept first came from Read­ab­il­ity, but that has sub­sequently become a far more fea­ture-full and com­plex tool.

Finally, we need to tackle that tab over­load issue, because even as browsers get bet­ter at not los­ing such data they still do. And, as people get more and more power­ful and mobile phones and tab­lets, keep­ing everything on your desktop is ever less feas­ible. The best solu­tion I know of is to effect­ively out­source your tabs. Send all of them off to a book­mark­ing tool, be it deli­cious, Pin­board, nor­mal book­marks (with or without syncing), or a tool that’s pur­pose-built to handle all those art­icles you want to read.

Instapa­per is what I use, but it’s optim­ized for an Apple-cent­ric tech­nic­al envir­on­ment. It’s great if you want read art­icles off­line on an iPad or iPhone, but doesn’t have nat­ive cli­ents for any oth­er platform. Read­ab­il­ity, which was men­tioned earli­er, is a more plat­form-agnost­ic altern­at­ive (by vir­tue of a web app) which offers the nice perk that you auto­mat­ic­ally pass on a por­tion of your mem­ber­ship cost to the pub­lish­ers you most fre­quently use the ser­vice to read. (Though the fact the you’re pay­ing for mem­ber­ship is a non-trivi­al down­side.) Bey­ond those there are num­ber of oth­er ser­vices built for this pur­pose, the most prom­in­ent of which is Read it Later. I have no exper­i­ence or expert­ise at all with any of this last class.

I hope you now under­stand the import­ance of the triple threat of the print­er-friendly view, in-situ reformat­ter, and the read­ing-cent­ric book­mark­ing ser­vice. Far more import­antly, I hope you’ve found a solu­tion to your most frus­trat­ing struggle in actu­ally read­ing all that great web-con­tent you’re now find­ing.

3 thoughts on “How to Internet: Reading

  1. Bailish

    Instapa­per? Apple-cent­ric? Not sure what you’re talk­ing about. I’ve been using it on a PC for quite a few months now. I use it just as you describe: sav­ing art­icles for later per­us­al.

    Before that, I used to save art­icles off­line. I’ve got an entire dir­ect­ory of art­icles that I’ll prob­ably nev­er get around to read­ing again. :-(

  2. David Hayes Post author

    Good call out. I could have been a lot more clear about that. I feel like much of this series has been too long, so I was try­ing to be pithy but may have ended up terse.

    You’re totally cor­rect, the web inter­face for Instapa­per is com­pletely ser­vice­able and com­pletely plat­form agnost­ic. You can also grab as an EPUB or MOBI from the browser and send it off to any­where. I used that for a while with my Kindle (before free email addresses).

    What I was refer­ring to was the fact that Mr. Arment has been rather clear that he’ll (almost cer­tainly) nev­er build a cli­ent for Android, webOS, Black­berry, etc. So if you’re look­ing for a great little app that’ll auto grab all your stuff and make it avail­able for read­ing off­line, you’re depend­ent on some party motiv­ated enough to build an Instapa­per cli­ent for your plat­form. And hon­estly, while I know it’s pos­sible I don’t know that any­one has. This is dif­fer­ent from Read­ab­il­ity and Read it Later which aim to have great apps for read­ing off­line on all non-trivi­al mobile plat­forms. If I didn’t use mostly Apple stuff like Marco does, I’d think harder about using Instapa­per instead of Read it Later; that was my poorly artic­u­lated point.

  3. David Hayes Post author

    While I was edit­ing this piece I had a thought spurred by it:

    Cre­ate Read­able views that look drastic­ally dif­fer­ent than your online writ­ing con­texts to see your essay with new eyes.

    It’s actu­ally prob­ably more rel­ev­ant to tomorrow’s piece but I thought some read­ers might be inter­ested and because it’s very related to this top­ic I wanted to make sure it’s here. Essen­tially, I edit posts A LOT once they’re in Word­Press but before I pub­lish. After look­ing at them many times on the site, in the edit­or, and with my nor­mal Read­able book­mark­let, they all start to be so com­fort­able to me that I stop noti­cing the typos and odd phras­ings that I’m read­ing for. Sud­denly invert­ing the col­or of the back­ground and text, going to a dif­fer­ent sized and dif­fer­ent look­ing font is the best way I know to quickly get a new per­spect­ive. (Obvi­ously time gives bet­ter crit­ic­al dis­tance, but I mostly edit without the lux­ury of days for for­get­ting in between.)

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