The social web’s economics are paradoxical: The more it blossoms, the more it destroys value. In recent months, we’ve seen a flurry of innovative tools for reading and sharing contents. Or, even better, for basing one’s readings on other people’s shared contents. In Web 2.5 parlance, this is called Social Reading. For this, the obvious vector of choice is the iPad: it possesses a (so far) unparalleled ability to transform online reading into a cozy lean-back experience.
A year after the iPad’s launch, the app store is filled with a swarm of forcefully competitive offerings. Like everyone else in the business, I stuffed my device with about ten (and counting) such apps, gathered in a “Daily Me” folder.
Last week, I dissected Flipboard, one my favorites because of its simplicity, neat look and speed. But I’m also enjoying News360, a Russian crawler that scans more 100,000 sources (“200,000 in the next few months…”). News 360 adds a semantic layer whose purported goal, in short, is to increase relevancy. Zite carries spectacular personalization features as well as Cease and Desists Letters from publishers (see Zite Response here).
Taptu is a more recent one. It takes a further step in customization by using the most advanced graphical features found in iOS. Many of these mobile aggregators are available on Android as well.
All of theses apps start with the same raw material. They collect and rearrange RSS feeds, they crawl Twitter or Facebook streams. Unfortunately, from a news publisher vantage point, all these aggregating apps kill value by removing ads from the articles they assemble for our reading pleasure. In order to fit their elegant and efficient layout, these apps remove “visual noise”, that is all these “annoying” ads.
The paradoxical beauty of today’s web contents is this: On the one hand, 95% of all revenues are still ad-related. On the other, that same content becomes easier to read it without commercial distractions. Publishers didn’t merely accept it, they encouraged it. I already mentioned the negative effect of generous RSS feeds on the business: see RSS Lenin’s Rope. At first, the hijacking of RSS feeds by a new breed of apps was seen as an unfortunate consequence of publishers’ naïveté. After all, when the RSS mechanism was invented more than ten years ago, the idea of repurposing it into a bespoke e-journal wasn’t on anyone’s mind. Now, the media industry faces a completely different picture. Publishers of expensive contents can’t even console themselves by fantasizing their promiscuous supply of RSS links will bring back traffic. RSS super-readers are mostly self-contained and do not send any traffic to anyone else.
And, as developers’ ability to innovate proves to be endless, more is on the way. Until now, contents providers kept defending their RSS promiscuity: “We are in control because we set the length on what we dispense on our RSS feeds”. Wrong. If you use Google to read your feeds, take a look at Super Google Reader. It’s a browser extension (Chrome only for now) that removes RSS feed limits. See for yourself. In the capture below, the “Feed” tab provides the intended, “old normal” reading experience, one abstract after the other:
Now, if you select the “Readable” tab, the feed length limit is gone, you get the full article, regardless of its size, within the G-Reader. Sometimes, it even works with paywalls.
Needless to say, if you pull-down the “Super Settings” menu…
… You’ll transform your Google Reader into a super-fetcher of RSS feeds generously provided by your favorite news organizations, bloggers or whatever.
Reprocessed RSS feeds are not the only path to an ad-free reading experience on the web. Consider Readability. The free version is a browser plug-in that transforms this page from the Los Angeles Times:
Into this page, perfect for reading and ideal for printing:
The paid-for version, with an up-to-your-generosity monthly fee, will add a “Read Later” feature and a mobile support. In addition, 70% of the proceeds will go to writers through an affiliation program of sorts. Readability will soon have its own smartphone and tablet apps too.
The same software family bred Instaper, an app without equivalent if you have an appetite for long stories. First, install the magic “Read Later” add-on in your toolbar. Now, with one click, you save whatever you want for later reading, on the web, or with your mobile application. It can even create a “.mobi” file of your saved texts, compatible with your Kindle. For a size perspective, expect 20 large stories in a 400k file, about one hundred times lighter than the PDF equivalent. Again, no ad, perfect for offline reading. In addition, Instapaper hosts great reading sites: Longreads, Longform.org, or The Browser. In effect, these sites curate the web and offer the best of magazine writing – complete with recent stories.
In other words, between RSS feeds aggregated by mobile apps, “Read Later” features, and ad-free web curators, you can enjoy the web without bumping into ads. Great for users, not-so-great for the publishing business.
This ad-free threat explains the bold move a few publishers just made. If readers (humans) loathe advertising and favor bare-bones reading interfaces, let’s see if we can make them pay for such. That was the idea behind Ongo. This official paid-for aggregator, backed by several news organizations, hasn’t shown a great deal of progress since I reviewed it in a previous Monday Note (see Ongo…Where?). Its nice look aside, it persists in putting on the same page a story on US troops withdrawing from Iraq next to an article featuring a murderer identified thanks to its tattoos. Some editing is badly needed here…
News.me is the publishers’ latest attempt to stanch the bleeding. The iPad version was launched last Thursday. It is a joint effort: Betaworks (backer of the URLs shortener company bit.ly), along with the New York Times R&D Labs. News.me is mostly a social reading service powered by Twitter. Once the app connects to your account, it will select what people you follow actually read (they have to authorize it). Below is Gordon Crovitz’s feed:
Note that stories can be expanded with a pinch-out. Clever. News.me’s a paid-for service. A rather inexpensive one: $0.99 per week, or a discounted $34.99 per year. Definitely worth it. Once your most valuable Twitter friends allow you to see their readings, News.me can become a great recommendation tool.
None of these attempts amount to a magic bullet against the value hemorrhage. Paid-for services operated by groups of media organizations will have to work hard to win against the free apps loaded in my Daily Me folder. But it is encouraging to see medias waking up to the perils of the ultimate news unbundling.
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