How I Internet

Reading Online

Looking at my recent blog history, you’ll find that it has been rather bookcentric. This is largely a function of a quick book review being easier to write than a longer, more personal post; however, it belies how much of my time I actually spend reading books. I sometimes bemoan the fact that I read less than I used to, but I think I can chalk that behavior up to three factors:

  • I read a lot more in high school
  • I still get to read more than most people
  • I now read more content online

The first point is part of growing up, and the second point is part of a larger sociological question that I’m not qualified to address, so I’ll focus on the third point: how and where do I find and read short- and long-form content on the web? The list probably won’t be too surprising (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, news sites, etc.), but I’ll go into more detail on what clients I use to keep track of everything. It should not be surprising that my acquisition of an iPad in April of 2010 significantly changed how I interact with text online.

This has been a topic kicking around my head for close to a year, since I spend a lot of time connected, although some of my reading/archiving methods have changed over time. The most recent inspiration to write this up was a discussion I had with my mom back in October about how to save articles that she finds online, the way one might clip an article from a physical newspaper. Another one was this post from Brett Nordquist in May of last year about personal online recommendations, in which we happen to use a lot of the same sources/services.

Below the cut, my rather verbose recommendations on how to quickly filter a wide variety of text content online for eventual reading.

Definitions

Before I dive in, some quick definitions. This is how I organize things. It’s probably also why my posts get so long… but I think it would be useful to make the distinction between a few categories of things, although in some cases there are overlaps, or things that fit multiple categories.

  • Channel – A place where I can read content from multiple individual sources – Twitter, Google News, etc.
  • Source – An individual content producer – friend, blog team, news site, etc.
  • Service – A tool that makes it easier to read and share items from channels and sources – Google Reader, Pinboard, etc.
  • Client – An app that makes it easier to interact with one of the above – Twitterrific, Instapaper, etc.
  • Device – The hardware on which a client runs – iPad, Mac, etc.
Some services have an official client (e.g. Instapaper), some are used just via their API through integration in other clients, some are just web sites viewed in the browser. Google Reader is a particularly weird example, since it’s arguably a client (in the form of a web app) for a service (itself, as an RSS reader) which is in turn a channel for a wide variety of blog sources that I read. If anything this fuzziness in classification is just an indication of how easy it is to move text around the Web, and that everyone’s reading habits will be a little bit different.
I think that the interesting part of this is probably the more specific services and clients that I use, but I feel that I can’t talk about and review those until I introduce the ways that they are used. I’m not planning to get into devices, but my iPhone is used mostly when I’m mobile, my iPad when I’m at home, and desktop Mac or PC when I’m at my desk at home or work.

Channels

One of the important features of how I define a channel is that it has a style. That style both encompasses the typical length of content, as well as the general type of content (mostly text, or more image and video) and who it comes from (friends and family, other individuals, or other groups). That matters because when I decide to view a particular channel might be based on what mood I’m in. I also handle channels differently – some I manage more carefully, keeping track of read/unread, and others I don’t mind if I “missed” something. To some extent that behavior varies based on the capabilities of the service/client I use for a given channel, and whether or not the channel is also used for communication, not just content discovery.

You’ll note a lot of Google “products” in this list, probably because they offer the advantages of single sign-on and tend to have relatively minimalist interfaces and unobtrusive advertisements.

Google News

I access this as a site in my browser, and I haven’t customized it much. I’ve removed the Sports and Entertainment sections, and added a custom one for Mali. This is where I go for general news, and some neutral political coverage, but I don’t tend to dig very deep since there’s not much focus, and on most topics that I care about I have better sources via other channels. However the headlines alone are a good way to remain generally aware of what’s going on in the world, and thus might spark discussions on other channels.

Facebook

Facebook for me consists primarily of personal updates from friends and family, so it generally doesn’t generate a lot of content to read, although I have a couple of friends who primarily share links here. A lot of the sharing tends towards images and video more than text. That said, Facebook’s comments architecture, combined with mobile notifications, means it’s often easier to have follow-up discussions on articles. Additionally for many of my friends and family, Facebook is the best way for me to keep on life updates that I might not otherwise hear about.

Twitter

I tweet. A lot. I don’t know where I fall on the distribution, but my general sense is that I’m on the high end. I follow a wide variety of people, some friends or people I’ve met, some who are strangers. Because tweets are short, a lot of the reading is just getting quick thoughts or links, and sometimes it’s not obvious from someone’s brief description whether a link will be interesting. Twitter tends to be where I get more specific technical or geeky content, since I follow mostly technical and geeky people. I also have a close group of friends for whom Twitter is the place we go to trade a lot of sass and humor. It’s worth noting that Twitter was one of the ways my wife and I got to know eachother better when we were first dating.

Google Reader

I use Google Reader as my feed reader, so for me it’s effectively the RSS channel even though it’s a particular service. I subscribe to many feeds, most of which update only rarely, and a few of which might update dozens of times a day but for which I ignore most individual posts. A big part of my morning or evening routine is skimming the unread list and quickly ignoring articles that don’t look interesting to me. I didn’t ever use any of its social features (which at various points were absorbed by Buzz and more recently Google+), so I wasn’t upset by their disappearance. I generally try to keep the unread count at or near zero, but sometimes that involves a bit of cheating using Instapaper, which I’ll get into more below. For the most part I don’t follow links from blog posts, unless I want more context, or unless it’s a blog that tends to be in a link + commentary format.

Guild Forums

This channel is very specific to me, but it’s one of the ways I keep in touch with my World of Warcraft community, even though I don’t play much anymore. I also maintain contacts with guild members via Facebook and instant messaging. This tends to be where I find out about video game news, as well as hearing about a lot of viral internet memes.

Instant Message

This is predominantly random personal conversation on a wide variety of topics, but for longer discussions on politics or other current events it beats the other channels. Those discussions in turn require some linked content for context, which I usually read immediately to continue the conversation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by “instant message” I really mean Jabber, with my Google Talk account.

Email

Not a whole lot comes this way anymore, but my mom will occasionally send me news articles. There was a time where most of my internet memes came by way of the various SWIL alumni mailing lists, but the activity on those  has fallen off a lot in the Facebook era.

I think that’s most of them. There are exceptions, but for the most part I use each of these in one form or another most days.

Sources

I’m obviously not going to enumerate and describe every Twitter user I follow, every blog I read, or every website I visit, but I wanted to highlight a couple of high-quality, high-volume sources that probably influence me more than others. I’ve grouped them somewhat by topic, and then in some cases again by related groups of people.

Science & Technology

This is my primary interest in news, so the vast majority of non-friend Twitter feeds I follow are in this area, as well as a lot of the blogs I skim or read. Even when the topic is some tech I don’t actively work with, I like staying up to date on what’s out there. I’ll break this up into subtopics a bit, since this covers so much.

Apple

I follow the feeds of the major rumors sites, such as AppleInsider and MacRumors. Even though their accuracy is low, it’s fun to speculate. I mostly focus though on Daring Fireball by John Gruber and the blog of Marco Arment, founder of Instapaper. You could call them the 5by5 guys, since along with John Siracusa they’re members of the same podcast network that I listen to regularly. They all discuss more general tech issues, although the focus is mostly Apple. My introduction to them was probably originally through Siracusa’s infamously epic OS X reviews.

Tech

Probably the most prolific source is the relatively new site The Verge, to which I was introduced by the aforementioned Gruber. They cover a lot of stuff I can skip easily (like CES), but with enough interesting articles worked in. Unfortunately their RSS feed isn’t full text, but their site design is clean enough (with citations!) that I don’t mind.

Science

One of the more amusing sources of science news are the Twitter accounts for various probes and rovers, such as Spirit and Opportunity, and Curiosity. As far as general news sites, I find that the BBC’s science reporting is superior. In some cases, Wikipedia has near-current information about new discoveries.

Politics

Especially during campaign season, I’m pretty hooked on election coverage, as well as finding out the latest insane bile being spewed in Obama’s direction. My biggest source is Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, which fits my socially liberal/economically moderate leanings well, although he takes some positions I don’t agree with and can be stubborn at times. He has a lot of other content I skip over, but he filters a lot of other political blogs so I don’t have to. The other top one would be 538, whose statistical analysis can’t be beat. (Note: NYT doesn’t allow a full feed, but someone cooked up a Yahoo! Pipes version of 538.)

Another good resource for following up on various political coverage (which I also sometimes get by watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report) is PolitiFact, which grades politicians’ statements. These are unsurprisingly often false.

Entertainment

There is a lot of amusing stuff on the intertrons, but as far as longer form reading goes, few can beat the dry humor of McSweeney’s. In a totally different (and eclectic, probably not-safe-for-work direction) there’s the blog of Jamie Zawinski, aka jwz, of early Netscape fame; he naturally has a lot of tech-related snark as well. I read a few web comics still, such as xkcd, Penny Arcade, and Scenes From a Multiverse, but they don’t exactly fit the reading discussion (although they all have associated commentary).

To some extent, I wish I had kept track of when I started following each of these sources, and how or from whom I found out about them. It would be an interesting trend to plot, especially as I get close to source saturation and have to start either ignoring sources or filtering more.

Services

So, how do I read, save, and share all of this content from so many different sources? To some extent this process is deeply integrated with the channels listed above, but there are two standout services that I’ve already alluded to: Instapaper and Pinboard. The former is a way for me to quickly move an article from one of my channels to a medium-term store, which is especially useful when I’m mobile but don’t have time to read; the latter is a way for me to organize links for sharing as well as my own reference.

Instapaper

I’ll talk more about the Instapaper client itself in the next section, but as far as the service is concerned, the primary use for me is that it lets me timeshift my reading. This is especially useful with the client, which can download and store the text of articles for offline reading, which I like to do when I’m on an airplane.

Secondarily, it serves as a low-pass filter on the flow of what I’m reading. That is, by moving articles from Google Reader or Twitter feeds to Instapaper, and then not coming back to them for a few days, I might have a different sense of their relevance to me, and I can decide to simply delete them without reading them.  In recent months I’ve gotten pretty behind in my Instapaper queue, but that just means that I’m more aggressive in ignoring articles that I once thought might be interesting.

Finally, Instapaper is a pretty good track of what I’ve read online in total, since there aren’t a huge number of longer articles that I read that don’t pass through it. I would also add that my positive impression of the service is probably enhanced by the fact that I consume content produced by its creator, Marco Arment.

Unfortunately, Instapaper does not handle multi-page articles very well. Most of the time, if you aren’t able to enable some kind of single page or print view before saving an article to Instapaper, you only get the first page, and there’s no guarantee that when you go back later you’ll be able to access the original article (especially if you’re currently offline). This pageview-enhancing layout choice is increasingly common on news sites, desperate for ad impression cents. Additionally some pages don’t get parsed very well, or are actively trying to thwart services like Instapaper; I’m looking at you, New York Times. The end result then is that Instapaper is really just storing the link, and you have to read the content in its original form.

It would also be nifty if the service could cache PDFs or multimedia content, but I suspect that gets murkier from a copyright perspective, and stops being about “paper”.

Pinboard

A brief bit of history: Pinboard is for me a replacement for Delicious. I had been using Delicious since February of 2008, before it was sold by Yahoo!. I had never really used the “social” aspects of that service, such as subscribing to tags, except to see shared items from a small handful of friends. Fritz convinced me to join Pinboard in December of 2010, while the subscription fee was still quite low (under $3 as I recall). I was initially using it as an archive of my Delicious feed, using the Delicious interface to save and tag links, and having Pinboard store a copy of all of them. My migration to Pinboard happened in May 2011, after Yahoo! announced at the end of April that they were selling Delicious to AVOS. I finally shut down my Delicious account (deleting all bookmarks, which were now duplicated on Pinboard) a few months ago.

Once again, I don’t really use any of the social aspects, except to subscribe to the feeds of a few friends (and share similarly). In some cases I end up seeing links that they’ve shared elsewhere. I understand from the official blog that the creator of Pinboard, while creating a simpler service than Delicious, has gone to great lengths to accommodate the fanfiction community that has fled from there.

So, for me, the main purpose of a bookmarking site is to comment on an archive links for my own future reference. It might be to indicate that I read something interesting; or it might be something that I would want to reshare with someone after an initial posting has faded from memory. It also gives me some flexibility in deciding when and on which channel to share something, since I can pop back to my history to grab some past link (with tags and notes to remind me what’s what). On occasion I go back to a document for my own reference, and the pinned page is easier to find that just googling it.

I also use Pinboard to archive all of my tweets. Unfortunately it can’t go back in time in the Twitter archive to grab tweets from before I used Pinboard, and sometimes there’s a delay, but as far as searching my own tweets goes, it’s vastly superior to Twitter’s interface.

Another reason I like both of these services was their very forthright and honest handling of a major disruption in service they experienced in June 2011 due to an overly broad FBI raid on the hosting provider where they both happened to have servers located.

I should briefly mention that I used to use Readability, contributing a few bucks a month to help support publishers. I really liked the idea of paying a little bit for content online. However, since I never used the text conversion aspect of their service (relying on Instapaper), and I was cutting back on extraneous online expenses, I decided to close my account. In addition I felt that if I was contributing real money for each pageview (as far as I know, a dollar or so is significantly more than most advertisement rates online), I shouldn’t have to deal with the obnoxious stuff most sites do to make money, including multipage articles, ads, and tracking.

If I’m feeling feisty, I’d like to play around with the Instapaper and Pinboard APIs to generate some nice graphs of my usage over time. That would I think make for an interesting follow-up post. I suspect that it tends to be spikier than my actual reading habits, since I don’t always save or pin everything I read, or immediately after I read it.

Clients

A big part of using these services the way I do is dependent on the quality of their interfaces, which is either a web application or a native client. In my experience the native clients are simpler and cleaner, but for full functionality you need to use the service’s website. This distinction is blurred a bit by the availability of APIs that allow various channels and services to expose some of their functionality to other clients, allowing for tighter integration, where you might not need a dedicated client because it’s just a function of another client.

I’ll cover channel clients first, and then service clients (although there’s just the one). For anything mentioned in a previous section that’s not discussed below, you can just assume I use the website, although I will briefly talk about bookmarklets since to some extent that counts as API integration with the browser as a client.

Facebook Facebook app icon

The official Facebook app for iPhone and iPad is pretty notoriously bad. Even after the recent update that improved things like photo viewing, I get all sorts of weird UI rendering errors. I pretty much just use these for viewing push notifications, and occasionally to update my status while I’m mobile. Another annoyance is that you can’t turn off Facebook chat (or hide your buddy list) in the iPad app.

Twitterrific Twitterrific app icon

My client of choice has changed a lot of the four years or so that I’ve been active on Twitter, and only very rarely do I use the actual Twitter website (especially as it’s changed over the years to grow more and more complex). My favorite by far has been Twitterrific, by The Iconfactory (I think I used one of their free icon packs back in the OS 9 days). The interface is clean, and the use of contextual menus (well, action sheets, but you know what I mean) makes it very easy to read and share.

There are two features they’ve added fairly recently that are useful to me and relevant to this discussion: Instapaper integration (I can send any tweeted link to Instapaper instead of viewing it), and support for Tweet Marker, which makes jumping between my iPhone and iPad much nicer now. They also have improved handling of Twitter’s stupid t.co automatic link shortening, as far as getting back to the original link is concerned.

At home I mostly use my iPad for web surfing, email, Twitter, etc.; the times when I’m at a desktop at home or work, I use the Chrome extension Silver Bird (formerly Chromed Bird). The interface isn’t pretty, but it works, and has desktop notifications. I’ll probably grab Twitterrific from the Mac App Store to replace this at some point, especially if I spend more time on my Mac this semester.

Now a quick review of past clients, and why I moved on from them. When I first started tweeting, I actually used the instant message interface for a while, because I liked the notifications, and I already had IM clients installed everywhere. On my original iPhone, before the App Store existed, I used a web interface called Hahlo that at the time was better optimized for Mobile Safari. My first desktop client of choice was Spaz, also an AIR app. If you view my Twitter stats, you can see that I used TweetDeck a lot, and for a long time, before they were bought by Twitter proper; this was mostly due to their cross-platform nature, and before I realized how terrible Adobe AIR is. I also used the TweetDeck iPhone app for a long while (after moving on from the Twitter mobile site), but it was pretty unstable and had a crappy UI. I never used the official Twitter app (née  Tweetie). My TweetDeck usage also coincided with my most prolific period of tweeting, and my highest involvement with the social media community in Boston.

Reeder Reeder app icon

This iPad app is my preferred method for accessing Google Reader. It’s one of those interfaces that “gets out of the way”, and the integrated (and configurable!) sharing menu makes it much easier to pass RSS feed items from this channel to one of the other channels/services. It’s very easy to quickly skim through posts, either reading them then and there, ignoring them, quickly sending them to Instapaper for later consumption, or tagging them for saving to Pinboard.

The only major downside to reading RSS feeds on the iPad is the totally inconsistent way videos are embedded. I think this is mostly the fault of the original author (or their CMS). Sometimes they play using HTML5 <video> in Reeder; other times the video only works by viewing the original post; and, of course, some videos/players either disable embedding or don’t have a non-Flash version, although that’s decreasingly common. I sometimes get crashes in this app, but it’s mostly either associated with video playback, or when I’m viewing a linked site in a WebKit view; both are presumably due to memory limitations on my iPad 1.

I do use the web interface for Google Reader, if I’m at my desktop. The recent redesign didn’t bother me at all, since I never used any of the sharing features that got replaced by Google+; it took just a little while to get used to. I think if I used a desktop Mac more often, I’d probably consider the full version of Reeder. I pretty rarely have reason to look at the mobile interface on my phone, which is why I didn’t buy the iPhone version of Reeder. (This is one of my biggest complaints to iOS developers – I’d rather pay more for a universal binary I don’t fully use than to have to deal with multiple versions.)

Instapaper Instapaper app icon

Suffice it to say I wouldn’t be using Instapaper as a service if it weren’t for the app, whose killer feature is that it can cache your saved articles from Instapaper on your device for reading offline. There’s not much more to say; this is a great, wonderfully designed app, and it works very well. I predominantly use the iPad version; the few times I’ve used the iPhone version has mostly been at the gym. There are a few tasks that are better managed on the website, but not many.

When I am offline, and I want to mark an article as read but I intend to post it on Pinboard later, I move it to a local folder called “Pinboard”, which I then go through, tagging articles. I haven’t played around much with the font options, but you get a lot of control over the presentation of the text. Like Reeder, there are a lot of sharing options built in, so if I’m reading a saved article I might tweet it directly from in the app.

This is not relevant to the client per se, but when I’m reading articles that I found via Google News, or were otherwise loaded in my browser, I often use the Instapaper bookmarklet to save extracted text. I don’t use any of the Instapaper “long reading” feeds, but it is to a large extent the client and service through which most of my text consumption flows.

My client usage has shifted over time, and which clients I continue using depends in large part on how well they’re kept up-to-date in terms of compatibility with services and usability on my current set of devices. At this point I think my current choices are going to be stable for a while, given that I’ve got a pretty good setup now for how they all work together.

Readflow

Most of the individual steps in my reading flow have been discussed in the preceding sections. I’ll summarize with this flowchart, which simplifies some of the options, but gives a general idea of how I process text as I read it (or ignore it).

Flowchart showing how I use reading channels and services

I read sources from channels using services and then share via channels.

Conclusion

Conveniently, this post has at over 4500 words easily reached the length threshold that makes it perfect to use with a service like Instapaper! I didn’t do that intentionally from the outset, but I seem to have quite a few opinions on this perhaps overbroad topic. Hopefully this (or a portion of it) has been helpful in demonstrating one way to process a lot of mostly-text information from the web.

Posted in Reviews, Social Media Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Nurd Up!

Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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