I’ve written in this space about the excellent Web-and-app-based services Instapaper and Read It Later, which remove extraneous elements from online content and deliver the text to readers in a stripped-down, visually pleasing fashion for consumption now or later. Both services are, in essence, the spiritual heirs of a browser plug-in called Readability. This week Readability, developed by the New York design and technology firm Arc90, took a big step forward in addressing the queasy little problem that underlies all three products: Some of that visual detritus is ads, and they pay the bills for the people who originate and host the content.
Information wants to be free, Stewart Brand said. This has turned out to be only half the story of digital content, because good information costs. Just today, to take just one example, Joshua Hersh of The Daily took readers inside the Cairo storefront where protestors are detaining and questioning suspected members of the Mubarak regime’s secret police. It’s gripping first-hand stuff, comprised of text, great photography and an audio sidebar in Hersh’s own words. Hersh is no doubt traveling light compared to the war correspondents of the past, but putting him and a photographer on the ground in Egypt, and producing and disseminating their work in a polished fashion, still costs real money, the kind a corporate parent like News Corp. brings to the table. Those costs are offset by ad revenues. It’s pretty basic: Content creators who choose to charge deserve to get paid, and that’s just as true of a blogger who runs banner ads as it is of the people who write, edit, produce and distribute The Daily.
Which is what makes the manifesto published this week by Arc90 partner Tim Meaney so intriguing. Writing on the Arc90 blog, Meaney acknowledges that the friction-free reading environment made possible by Readability — he calls it “peaceful reading” — has been created on the backs of content creators who have, in a sense, had their pockets picked. “A comfortable reader,” he writes, “has meant an uncompensated writer.” Here’s where things get interesting. That tension between the comfortable reader and the uncompensated writer has inspired Arc90 to relaunch Readability as a Web-and-app service, sort of like Instapaper and Read It Later, but sort of not in one key respect: The new Readability costs, a minimum of $5 per month, 70% of which will be distributed to content creators as compensation for having their work stripped down and repackaged. In a nice twist, Instapaper developer Marco Arment put his imprimatur on the new product, saying that he’ll create a version of Instapaper to power the service’s mobile-app versions. He’ll also opt in to their micropayment scheme, giving users of his service a way to send logs of their reading activity to Readability so creators can be compensated.
What renders this a compelling experiment is that the new Readability represents a wholly voluntary system by which readers can choose to pay for Web content they’ve previously perceived as being “free,”on-site ads notwithstanding. There are value propositions here for both creators (We’ll make it easy for you to use our system, and you’ll get a cut of the results) and readers (You pay, and we make the stuff you read look a lot better). Arc90 stands to benefit too, of course, raking 30% off the top of reader contributions. (The company says that money will go toward maintaining and upgrading the service.) What’s the catch? There isn’t one, except maybe this: Will enough readers choose to kick in to power what Meaney calls “the funding of a viable ecosystem for supporting content creation on the web”? Free is alluring, and it’s powerful, and Readability is aiming square at it. Whether it turns out to be a bazooka or a peashooter, the results will be fascinating to see.