A Myriad of Tiny Writers

Charles Darwin, during his now famous journey aboard the HMS Beagle, solved one of the great geologic mysteries of our planet. At that time it was reasoned that atolls were formed either by the movement of the plates or by volcanic activity. The great mystery? The islands were always precisely above sea level.

Standing on the coast of South America, Darwin reasoned that the coral islands were not the natural work of the planet, but rather of “myriads of tiny architects.” The architects were coral polyps—each island itself risen up from coral. Darwin was the first to realize that polyps can only live just below sea level: as the floor drops, they continue their massive building effort in order to stay level with the sea. ((http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/2010/06/where-good-ideas-come-from.html))

That phrase has remained with me—myriads of tiny architects. I think it’s a beautiful metaphor for the web itself, where a myriad of tiny architects are continually writing and publishing their thoughts. The sum of that work—as fine as an achievement as an atoll—is the web today.

The work of many.

Make Yourself Comfortable, Please.

Great brands evoke intangibles: feelings like design (Apple and Herman Miller), performance (BMW and ASICS), or speed (FedEx and Lamborghini). Readability, more modestly, also evokes something: peaceful reading.

This calls out an interesting tension around Readability: the more you support the reader, it would seem, the less you support the publisher. The more comfortable and less distracted the reader becomes—such that they can actually focus and read—the less likely the reader is to, well, be distracted and click away elsewhere. Maybe even on an ad. Despite millions of years of human evolution, despite the fact we’ve stood with our feet on the moon, we still largely “pay” for content online by viewing (er, ignoring) advertising.

A comfortable reader has meant an uncompensated writer.

Readability, in sincere fact, is not anti-publisher. Rather, the makers and supporters of Readability are not anti-publisher. We can say this because the logical end of being anti-publisher is to be anti-content. And what’s a peaceful reader to do with nothing to read?

Great Content is Expensive!

A few months back, after Apple incorporated the (open source) Readability algorithm into their Safari Browser, Rich explained why we built Readability. An interesting debate took shape in the comments, led by respected web journalist Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land. Danny voiced his frustration with the seemingly anti-publisher disposition of our message:

I have ads because they help support the quality journalism my blog provides. I have related links because, news flash, sometimes readers like to read related material.

If we’re talking about due respect, here’s the “harsh reality” for those readers who want to be left alone. Ads pay for what you read. Since most readers don’t want to pay for subscriptions—don’t even make voluntary donations when asked—those ads underwrite content that they consume.

Tell you what. Why don’t you create a version of your software that provides revenue to any site that it is used on, money that comes from those readers who want to be “left alone.” Because if you want to channel an income stream to us, sure, we can drop all the stuff you unilaterally have declared as just a distraction, which includes things that pay our bills.

We sat back in our office smiling: at that very time, we were working on the next phase of Readability—a platform doing exactly what Danny requested. We agreed with his sentiment.

As Danny Sullivan points out, content creation—journalism, writing, editing, publishing—is expensive. Erin Kissane made the same point last year in a panel at SXSW, as well as in a follow-up post, “Content Is Expensive.” Erin wrote:

Content isn’t free. If it’s good, it’s very expensive to make. We can subsidize its production and maintenance in any number of ways, but we have to start being honest—with ourselves, our clients, and sometimes our readers—about its true cost.

So content is expensive to produce, and we have a system that is failing to properly compensate for those activities. What we need is a platform that benefits both readers and content creators. Sure, sounds great… but how?

Mutual Benefit Society

This week, Arc90 is very happy to announce the launch of the Readability platform.

When you sign up for a reader’s Readability account, you’ll not only get a fantastic set of reading features, including support for peaceful reading across all of your devices, but you’ll be part of something larger—the funding of a viable ecosystem for supporting content creation on the web. And when you sign up for a publisher’s Readability account, you’ll be able to register and monitor the contributions made directly for your work.

As Paul Ford stated, “Goods and services, exchanged for money—it’s worked before, and it can work again.”

We think the time is right to give readers a great service: one that delivers an enhanced reading experience across all of their devices. We also think it’s time that we recognize the central failure of the web. Sure, for two decades a lot of money has flowed, but it all seems to end up in the pockets of a few. All of that creation, by a myriad of tiny architects, have gone largely unsupported.

We have a few straight-forward, though ambitious, goals for Readability. One: years from now, someone might be able to help support themselves as a writer on the web with this platform. Two: that readers can enjoy a peaceful experience interacting with that writing, across their many devices. An experience that rivals the most plush of reading chairs.

Writing is one of the great forms of human expression. Equally, it has the power to topple governments, or to bring tears to your eyes as you read a blog post in your office. Consider joining Readability. It’s time to support writing while enjoying reading.

Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. —Nathaniel Hawthorne