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June 5, 2012, 4 p.m.
Audience & Social

Sometimes, less is more in a world of information overload

Save for “sadistic news consumers,” readers may prefer less content, not more. At least they say they do. is adjusting in that direction.

Read Never

From time to time I’ll Gchat with general manager Jake Levine about future-of-news things. Today I quizzed him about what he learned from Last Great Thing, a 20-day experiment in which Internet tastemakers shared one and only one great thing every day.

Every night, yesterday’s Great Thing disappeared, replaced by the new. There were no archives, “the most controversial part of the experiment by far,” wrote Levine and collaborator Justin Van Slembrouck:

Some readers were taken with the distraction-free experience of getting just one smart thing to read or view. Some of our contributors also found it refreshing to think that their posts wouldn’t necessarily be etched on the web for all time.

But other readers and contributors were less enthusiastic. Contributor Khoi Vinh felt that users were needlessly punished for not having visited the site in time to catch a given day’s post. And soon enough, we at started to see some of the downsides of an archive-free site. Logistically, not providing posts with permalinks proved to be incompatible with services like Readability and Findings — a fact that a few users found irritating.

Attention information hoarders: has now released an archive of all those great things, allowing you to catch up on whatever you missed. Whew, aren’t you glad you have more to read now?

I’m not. I’ve had to upgrade the RAM in my iMac to handle all of Chrome’s open tabs. And like so many others, I declared Instapaper bankruptcy months ago. (I have not yet taken the frightful step of clicking the big red Archive All button; it’s so final.) I renamed my Instapaper bookmarklet “Read Never.”

To make matters worse, I recently signed up for a Pocket account and use that to save articles because it’s so nice to have a relatively empty queue again. And when I find an article I really want to read later, I find myself saving it to both my Instapaper and Pocket queues. Absurd.

This guy went even further with something called “Instapaper Placebo”:

I don’t need a nice mobile app for reading. I don’t need a way to remove all the clutter from the page. I don’t need an online cross-platform bookmark syncing service. I just need a way of offloading all my good intentions. A way to stop hoarding links. And with less stuff to read I can make more stuff instead.

So when I receive the daily email every morning, which tells me what stories my friends are talking about (kind of like a personal Fuego), I’m filled with dread. As I scan each story, I am relieved whenever I discover (a) I’ve already read it, (b) it’s something I wrote, or (c) I have no interest in it. Deleting a email without having to open a single link is a good morning indeed.

I am what Levine calls a sadistic news consumer. As he said of my kind in our chat:

They’ll tell you that they want less but they actually want more.
Or they enjoy complaining about having too much to consume.

Levine’s team is employing usage data, as well as some of the lessons learned from the Last Great Thing experiment, to develop the next update to the iPhone app. And the direction they’re headed is less, not more. Again, from our Gchat:

People are coming into the iPhone app and spending about 2 minutes reading a few articles.
Not 100 articles, not 50 articles, not 10 articles.
So in this latest version, we’re bringing people into an experience focused on just the top 5 most relevant articles to them, based on their social signals.

Won’t most users open the full feed, just to see what else is available? I know I would, at least at first. But maybe, after a little while, the extra tap would be enough of a disincentive. I might not be able to mark all articles on the Internet as read, but at least I can knock out this list.

It reminds me of the early days of Facebook’s News Feed, when Facebook felt so much smaller. There was a time when the News Feed limited the number of items in the stream. Remember? And the company actually polled users on whether they wanted more in their news feeds, less, about the same, or as many stories as possible. Users overwhelmingly voted for as many stories as possible. When you can have more, you want more.

This is the same reason I will eat a whole bag of Starburst, no matter how large the bag.


I wonder what would happen if NYTimes ran that same poll…
Kevin Slavin, who sometimes advises us, said something really insightful.
He said news is like gas. It will expand to fill any space you create for it.

So Last Great Thing “was an exploration in providing an incredibly bounded set of content,” he said. As readers are overloaded with more every day, many of them — at least the ones who aren’t sadistic — may put their trust in outlets giving them less.

POSTED     June 5, 2012, 4 p.m.
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