I'm Drew Breunig and I obsess about technology, media, language, and culture. I live in New York, studied anthropology, and work at PlaceIQ.

On Readability: Attempts to Fork the Web and Tame the Internet

Readability just announced a new web processing engine, Iris, which evaluates web content and then chooses from several different presentation filters. For example, a Wikipedia entry, with its predictable sidebar of figures, will be presented differently from a New York Times article or a Vimeo video. Readability’s last engine applied the same general reading filter to every page.

By accounting for and normalizing multiple types of content, Readability is forking the web. With its white-washed viewport for written articles expanding to include video, image, and other assets, it’s not hard to imagine a more mature Iris powering a Readability web browser. Forget about Readability cutting out publishers in shared articles; within an Iris browsers, users won’t even have the chance to see the intended web.

Let’s set aside the issues of motivation and morality for a minute and examine the macro pattern of medium normalization. In his excellent book The Master Switch, Tim Wu shows how new communication technologies emerge, disrupt, and eventually mature into a normalized, predictable state. Wu writes:

Every few decades, a new communications technology appears, bright with promise and possibility. It inspires a generation to dream of a better society, new forms of expression, alternate types of journalism. Yet each new technology eventually reveals its flaws, kinks, and limitations. For consumers, the technical novelty can wear thin, giving way to various kinds of dissatisfaction with the quality of content (which may tend toward the chaotic and the vulgar) and the reliability or security of service. From industry’s perspective, the invention may inspire other dissatisfactions: a threat to the revenues of existing information channels that the new technology makes less essential, if not obsolete; a difficulty commoditizing (i.e., making a salable product out of) the technology’s potential; or too much variation in standards or protocols of use to allow one to market a high quality product that will answer the consumers’ dissatisfactions.

When these problems reach a critical mass, and a lost potential for substantial gain is evident, the market’s invisible hand waves in some great mogul like Vail or a band of them who promise a more orderly and efficient regime for the betterment of all users. USually enlisting the federal government, this kind of mogul is special, for he defines a new type of industry, integrated and centralized… In exchange for making the trains run on time (to hazard an extreme comparison), he gains a certain measure of control over the medium’s potential for enabling individual expression and technical innovation––control such as the inventors never dreamed of, and necessary to perpetuate itself, as well as the the attendant profits of centralization.

Sound familiar?

In The Master Switch Wu shows how this cycle played out with telegraphs, telephones, radio, films, and television. Certainly, the internet’s rise towards the mainstream aligns with the first paragraph above. But with its high-bandwidth and ability to encompass multiple media and forms, whether (or how) the internet continues along the usual route is an open-question for Wu. Readability and others seem to be offering up an answer.

The current round of media startups, of which Readability belongs to, tend to address the consumer problems described by Wu which are caused by a chaotic internet. These companies construct normalizing, commoditizing layers atop messy content. Some layers affect design and legibility, like Readability and Instapaper. Others address discovery, like BuzzFeed, HuffPo and their ilk which edit the blogosphere for those too not used to wading in Tumblr, Twitter, and Wordpress. Mobile apps like Flipboard, Summify, Zite, and others are building layers addressing both issues.

For myself and others who enjoy a chaotic web, the fear is that one of these layers might succeed, economically encompass the web, and reduce the diversity of today’s internet. While it often seems bleak, I remain optimistic that the web’s flexiblity and bandwidth will continue to allow for end-runs around supposedly dominant platforms. For example: iTunes might have tamed the digital music frontier, but the rise of smartphones and broadband allowed SoundCloud, Spotify, Rdio and others to re-fracture the medium.

Protecting the web’s flexibility, by opposing SOPA and CISPA and other limiting regulations1, is of chief importance. Especially more important than reacting to every company that attempts to white-wash a small corner of the web.

Update: Just one day later, Read It Later announces a nearly identical move:

Over the next hour or so, Weiner and his team took me through their brand new product. A Read It Later not just for pages of text, but videos, images and, in the long term, perhaps much more. No longer will you “Read it Later” but rather you’ll “Save to Pocket”, or my personal preference, “Pocket it”.

  1. Note the “usually enlisting the federal government” line in the paragraphs from Wu. In The Master Switch he examines how government regulation almost always cements medium normalization. 

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