A web designed for reading

As advertising has moved from print to web, it has not followed a single path. The classifieds have gone from the back pages of your local paper to Craigslist. The personals have migrated over to dating networks like Ok Cupid. Display ads remain, but in addition to publishers, they also serve ecommerce and aggregation sites. Search ads have cropped up to fill the spaces in between.

In the mean time, the overall price of advertising has dropped, such that current online advertising spending seems unlikely to ever reach the heights of the print era: in large part because online readers are more distracted than ever before—with ever more content from ever more sources to consume—and so not as susceptible to the advertisers’ siren call.

At the same time, the ads themselves, freed from the relative stasis of ink on paper, have emerged into the world of pixels determined to take advantage of their newfound freedom. They commit horrors their print brethren could only dream of, leaping from the sidebar and dancing across the text, flinging themselves between reader and words without care for either, stalking us as we scroll down the page, taking over backgrounds as if they were the very material on which the web is made. The more we ignore them, the more brazen they become. This kind of advertising so fully disrespects the writing beneath it that reading becomes abhorrent: the kind of experience we should all avoid or get done with quickly, rather than immerse ourselves into.

Likewise the design of these pages has come to serve the needs of the advertisers instead of the readers. The basic principles of good reading design—whitespace, an appropriate measure, considered typography—are not only absent, they are actively violated. We design pages for clicks—for movement from place to place—neglecting the fact that reading is an act of stillness. We intentionally distract, polluting the visual space until it resembles less a library than Times Square. And to add insult to injury, we cover up these ills by saying people don’t read online—as if the design of a space played no part in determining its use.

And yet, people do read online. They read more than they ever did. They even read long articles, and straight to the end. They read one article after the other. They crave reading in the quiet moments of the day—waiting in line for coffee, riding the bus, enjoying a glass of wine before their date arrives at the bar. They read while walking down the street; they read at their desk in between tasks; they buy devices that permit them to carry more words than they ever could before—and with those devices in hand they read more and more.

Along the way, they’ve started to demand a better reading experience. One that respects the basic tenets of good typography; one more portable and designed especially for them—not for advertisers or search engines. Instapaper’s immense popularity represents this corner of the reading market: a small, but growing, number of readers who care so much about the experience of reading they are willing to pay to make it better.

And that’s where Readability comes along. The implicit premise in the new Readability is that readers are willing to pay for what they read—that we see its intrinsic value. At the same time, it offers a means of payment that is automatic—akin to Amazon’s 1-click, or buying music in iTunes, it removes the friction of payment by centralizing it and obviating the need for us to whip out our credit cards at every turn. And it does all this without erecting paywalls: understanding that it is not the payment that makes paywalls so unattractive, but the wall.

When you subscribe to one (or two) newspapers, and perhaps three or four magazines, traditional payment mechanisms (create an account, provide a billing address and credit card number, etc.) are perfectly fine. You do them a few times a year and then that’s it; they renew automatically (to publishers’ great benefit), and you hardly notice what you’re paying. But on the web—where you might read a dozen newspapers a day, or hundreds of blogs and magazines over the course of a month, that model simply doesn’t scale.

Our reading experience has become voracious and dispersed, and it needs new payment mechanisms that serve this behavior rather than hinder it.

Readability’s model—a centralized subscription that is automatically distributed among the publications you read—is the first step towards this new system. It is likely not the last; like any good product on the web, it is an iteration from previous models, and it will continue to develop as readers and publishers use it. Taken in combination with other efforts—boutique advertising networks that serve demure ads in return for an influential audience, old-fashioned sponsorships that resemble the radio interruptions of yore, membership drives, and patronage models—it is a promising addition to an economy that values reading more than pageviews.

Moreover, it is an opportunity for readers to vote—with their cash—for a better reading experience on the web. Even readers who are skeptical that it will raise enough money should participate, inasmuch as it publicly and financially demonstrates your hope for the future: a web designed for reading, not a web where reading happens despite the design. No reader can argue with that.