This week brought the pleasing news that people are reading more than ever, thanks to the internet.
In fact, the amount people read tripled from 1980 to 2008. That’s amazing considering it had previously been undergoing decades of steady decline. Suddenly people stopped watching so much television, and started reading again.
They’re just reading on the screen instead of on paper.
Two of the tools that I’ve found most helpful for reading are Instapaper and Readability. Both of them reformat web pages, stripping out everything except the core text, making them far easier to read.
Arc90’s Readability offers instant gratification — it transforms the page immediately, right in your browser — and you can choose from several different formatting options.
Marco Arment’s Instapaper saves the reformatted pages for later, so you can read them at your leisure, either on the Instapaper web site or (my preference) in the Instapaper iPhone app.
Both tools are free, though Arment offers a premium version of the Instapaper app for $5 that adds some nice features, like automatic updates and tilt-scrolling.
Both tools tell me a couple of things about the web:
One, modern web design is way too complicated and cluttered. Ads, banners, navigation bars, sidebars, and a million other things make most web pages an aesthetic and usability disaster. Readability and Instapaper fix this, giving the content back to the readers. Some forward-thinking web designers, like Laura Brunow Miner’s Pictory Magazine, have followed this trend, by creating stripped-down, content-centric web designs that let the reader focus on what really matters. I’ve tried to follow this trend by simplifying the design of this site as well as the haiku and micropoetry site I edit, and I know others who have done the same.
Two, web standards work. The reason Readability and Instapaper work is because most web pages are structured in fairly predictable ways, with a well-accepted markup language that is widely and (usually) consistently deployed. This gives readers the flexibility to enjoy published content in the way the reader chooses: On its original web page, in an RSS reader, on an iPhone, or through the filter of a reformatting tool. Readers can also easily reblog content on their own sites, which contributes to conversation and community formation, and makes it easier for other people to find the content.
When publishers consider nonstandard web publishing platforms, they should keep this in mind. Something that’s published as a PDF, Zinio mag, Adobe app, Flash file or iPhone app is by default outside the circle of web standards. Unless the designers of those platforms include tools for reformatting, reblogging and sharing content, they’ll risk taking themselves out of the broader collective conversation altogether.
That goes for the exciting new e-magazine apps under development by my employer and other publishers, too.