Spotify for readers: How tech is inventing better ways to read the internet

The market for read-later apps is heating up again, and the apps are much smarter this time.

A shelf of disorganized and organized books.

The reading experience of the internet sucks. But some startups are trying to fix it.

Illustration: cihanterlan/Getty Images and Protocol

The internet, as a reading experience, is mostly terrible. The heavy pages riddled with ads and trackers, the unexpected pop-ups, the bespoke designs that in too many places end up broken. Over the years, many have tried to fix this problem — Google with AMP, Facebook with Instant Articles — and none have succeeded. It can often feel like things just keep getting worse.

Ben Springwater certainly felt like things were getting worse. In 2016, he was working at Nextdoor, lamenting with one of his colleagues, Rob Mackenzie, that reading on the internet was so complicated. The reading experience was part of the problem, but so was the internet's unlimited supply of stuff. "It completely boggles the mind that so much of this stuff is really excellent, this life-changing stuff we could read," Springwater said. But there's only so much time in the day. "So we have filters: We go to Twitter, we check the headlines or what comes into our inbox. But those decisions for most of us are really suboptimal, relative to the potential of what we could be reading."

The more Springwater and Mackenzie thought about it, the more they thought they could build a better way. What they built became an app called Matter, a combination of a read-later app and a discovery engine for great content. Ultimately, Springwater said, it could be even more. "Reading right now is really simple," he said. "It's text on a page. But why can't you seamlessly switch back and forth between reading and listening? Why can't you see the highlights and annotations and marginalia from people you know, overlaid? What can't you jump around, like through a table of contents? If you're reading a long piece, why can't you see the 1,000-word version or the 100-word version? There's all this crazy potential for reading technology, but it's never really been developed." That's what Matter aspires to be, really: a reading technology company.

One day, Springwater imagines, you might connect RSS feeds from your favorite few websites to your Matter account. Ditto the podcasts you like most and the best long-form tweeters you follow. You'll save links to Matter throughout the day, or use its browser extension to annotate the things you're already reading. You'll feed all the stuff you know you like to the app, and then trust Matter to help you find the best of it at exactly the right moment. That's a tall order, and it requires far more than stripping away ads and improving typography. But that's where reading apps are going next.

The idea behind Matter was to fix the reading experience of the internet — and expand the concept, too.Image: Matter

Spotify for reading

The first era of read-later apps, circa 2007 or so, solved a simple problem: The web's reading experience wasn't very good. Blogs were everywhere and magazines and newspapers were publishing online, but there were too many ads and not enough connectivity, and there was no good way to build a queue of stuff to read in a pleasing way. The new iPhone (and other similar smartphones) doubled as great reading devices, but the software wasn't there. So Marco Arment, a Tumblr developer, built an app called Instapaper. Nate Weiner, a programmer at The Modern Firm, built one called Read It Later.

More than a decade later, there's still Instapaper, which has been bought and sold a few times and is now a side gig for two former Pinterest executives, and there's still Read It Later, now called Pocket and owned by Mozilla. A few competitors have come and gone over the years, but the market for reading apps never quite went mainstream, and hasn't really changed. What did change was social media; it became the place billions of people went to find stuff to read, watch and listen to.

That's where the digital reading industry has been. But Springwater and others think it's time for a change. Users are slowly beginning to turn away from social media as a source of great content; a recent Pew report found that about 48% of people get their news from social media, which is a huge number but still down 5% from even a year ago. More creators are forging multi-platform, independent careers, which can make it hard for audiences to find them. But as the forms of creation unbundle, there's an opportunity to re-bundle the consumption experience, and not just in your email inbox.

But if you really want to understand where reading is going, you have to talk about Spotify. The big green music app is the analog nearly everyone in the space seems to turn to for guidance. Springwater mentioned Spotify early and often in our conversations. So did Jeroen Seghers, the founder of an app called Upnext that aims to offer this kind of experience for articles as well as podcasts and videos.

After all, what does Spotify do? It takes a corpus of stuff (music) and finds endless new ways to show it to users. Users can save the stuff they know they like (a library), explore things curated by other users (playlists) or turn to the app's machine-learning tools for ultra-personalized recommendations (Discover Weekly and the like).

So now imagine a reading app. You can save all the articles, tweet threads, PDFs and Wikipedia pages you want into your library. You can follow other users to see what they're saving, or check out what a curator thinks you might be into. The more you read, the more the app begins to understand that you like celebrity profiles, you're learning a lot about NFTs right now, you worship at the altar of Paul Graham and you'll read anything anyone writes about "The Bachelorette." Now, every time you open the app, it's like a magazine made just for you.

That's roughly the vision for the read-it-later industry as a whole. Upnext is particularly keen on adapting Spotify's playlist concept, Seghers said. "Rather than an RSS feed of somebody's blog, it's kind of an RSS feed of what that person creates and shares on the internet." In the long run, he said, Upnext plans to make it possible for people to collaborate on these multimedia playlists and share them publicly.

The Upnext app Upnext aims to go beyond text and build a system for consuming podcasts and video.Image: Upnext

Even Pocket, the giant of the read-later industry, is thinking about Spotify. Matt Koidin, Pocket's CEO, said the company has even adopted the Spotify-created term "algo-torial" to explain the way it wants to work. "It's combining human and machine," he said. Users save good stuff to Pocket — nobody really hate-saves things, which gives the service an ideal dataset full of links people have already expressed interest in — which creates a universal set of stuff to work with that's not that different from collecting every album and single in one huge database.

Pocket's working on lots of ways to automatically make connections and recommendations from that data, Koidin said, "but the magic really happens when we start to layer in our editorial team, working with prospects that pop up from machine learning." The mega-popular Pocket Hits newsletter, for instance, is curated by an editorial team but with the help of Pocket's software that shows what people have saved, read and shared. "It's so different from what you get when you go to a Google News homepage, or these other feed-driven places," Koidin said. "We always talk about how we want Pocket to feel like stories are being recommended by a good friend and not an algorithm. And I feel like we kind of get there."

The Pocket app Discover page Pocket has invested heavily in its discovery tools, both human and algorithmic.Photo: Pocket

That idea, that a reading app could feel like a personalized haven outside the chaos of feeds and streams and recommendations, is a compelling one for some users. "It's not something you look at with a compulsion," said Joe Hootman, an early Matter beta-tester who switched over after years as a power user of Pocket. "It's something I look forward to as a welcome, interesting pleasure." Hootman compared other feeds and services to roller coasters, and Matter to "a walk around the neighborhood — if you had a really interesting neighborhood."

Hootman said he opens the app a couple of times a day, reads the stuff he's saved and searches through the app's Discover page to find new content. He's even found a few curators he loves on Matter, users who consistently share snippets from or links to articles they like. (Some are actual Matter users, but for others, Matter just ingests their tweets with links in them.) For Hootman, Matter has become "like cracking open a new print issue of, like, the love child of The Atlantic and Hacker News." He loves it.

How publishers will feel about apps like Matter as they get bigger is another question. Thanks to Reader Modes in browsers and apps like Pocket and Instapaper, they're used to if not thrilled about apps promising a better way to read. And in some cases, they've found ways to work together: Pocket and Slate recently announced a partnership to provide reading lists based on podcast episodes, for instance. Pocket's Koidin pointed to the traffic that Pocket Hits can drive to publishers as another example. "We want to build a better internet," he said, "and part of building a better internet is, how do we drive people to the great stuff, right?"

Springwater, for his part, pointed to subscription-based reading as a signal of the future. Matter doesn't show paywalled content, and Springwater said he hopes Matter can "be a force for both growing the pie of reading and also growing the pie for paid writing" by helping users discover great content. He also said he might consider compensating publishers down the road. But that relationship figures to be complicated for a long time.

It's also not clear exactly how big this market could be. Pocket has millions of users, but isn't the sort of mainstream success or household name Spotify is. Some new startups are bootstrapping, planning to build a lifestyle business rather than aim for a Kindle-sized one. Others, like Matter, are hoping they can add features that reach beyond just the read-it-later crowd.

Matter spent months in a closed beta, and while it's now available on the iOS App Store, it's still invite-only. Springwater said he wants to grow the ecosystem slowly, to create a culture of reading and sharing and thoughtfulness without users trying to game the system or cause chaos. That will be the real challenge for Matter, along with turning a reading app into something people will pay for. (Springwater said he's not sure how much Matter will cost.) Making a good reading experience, he said, has been comparatively pretty simple: People just want nice typography and a simple interface.

The team is also beginning to look beyond text, too. "Our scope is language-based media," Springwater said, when I pressed him to explain all the things that might be fair game for Matter. "So for a podcast, you should be able to read the podcast, and have the transcript synced along, and you should be able to highlight and annotate and do all the things you can do with an article." Same thing for e-books, though he acknowledged that dealing with the publishing industry is a whole 'nother thing. Same even for videos, tweet threads, whatever; Matter ultimately wants to be a place for collaborative learning and sharing, no matter the format.

Of course, that's much easier said than done. To do what Matter wants to do, Springwater said, "it's important that you're the place where the media player is consumed, which means you need best-in-class consumption and playback features." That means building excellent, native podcast and video players, and ultimately maybe competing directly with Amazon's Kindle platform. Many have tried, few have succeeded. That's why Springwater said Matter's focus will be on reading for a while.

Reading comprehension

There's another question that has long plagued read-later apps: What happens when the queue gets too long? Every Pocket or Instapaper user has a story about aspirationally saving hundreds of articles to their account before eventually giving up hope of ever reading any of it and ditching the app entirely. Even the most avid readers mostly just read things, make some notes and move on.

So while some apps are working on improving the discovery and reading experience, others are focused on what happens after all that. When Daniel Doyon and Tristan Homsi started working on a Chrome extension they called Rekindled, their idea was to take a user's Kindle highlights, pick five random ones and email them to the person every morning. "It immediately resonated with people, because they have been taking highlights, they just never had a workflow to go back and revisit them," Doyon said. Highlights are by definition interesting and important, spaced repetition is a well-known way to remember things better and people loved getting the nudge to stuff they cared about.

The Readwise app Readwise tries to make more of your reading, not just give you more to read.Image: Readwise

As it caught on, Doyon and Homsi had to rename Rekindled for obvious Amazon-y reasons, and they settled on Readwise. Now, Readwise is becoming part of the new plumbing for readers all over the internet. You can save an article to Matter, make some highlights while you read and, through Readwise's API, have those highlights show up in your Notion database. You can take notes on your Kindle or through Apple Books, and get them emailed to you the next morning. You can save a tweet thread just by @-mentioning Readwise on Twitter.

And of course, Readwise is now building its own read-later app. "We're now in position to reimagine aspects of the digital reading experience itself, from how you annotate a document, to how you navigate," Doyon and Homsi wrote in a blog post announcing the app. They explained that the app would make it easy to take notes, remember information and read in a more pleasing environment. "Now that the hardware and distribution layers are set," the co-founders wrote, "the infrastructure is in place to innovate the reading experience on the application level."

The internet, as a reading experience, is still mostly terrible. But there's finally competition to make reading the internet more social, more pleasant and more powerful. Apps are beginning to understand the stuff you read as well as you do, or maybe even better. The race to be "the Spotify of reading" is already on.

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