Readability Continues Iteration Toward Zero

June 13th, 2012  |  Published in etc

Readability provides a bookmarklet and mobile apps that allow readers to strip the ads from web pages. Its tools provide a cleaner copy of the content for later reading. 

There are a number of services like Readability, and there are a number of opinions about those services, since they combine a benign function (saving content for later reading, even if you’re down in a subway tunnel or up in an airplane) with a more contestable one (getting rid of all the ads) that makes it harder for publishers to make money for their content. Most of these services make money by offering a free Web service but selling a mobile app, or by offering additional subscription features such as the ability to send content to Kindles or other devices.  

Readability added another layer to the controversies surrounding services like it with its business model: Rather than selling an app, it offered a kind of  subscription, where users would pay Readability as little as $5 a month. Readability would, in return, keep track of what the users were reading with its service, and then divvy up 70 percent of each user’s subscription among the publishers whose content the reader was consuming via Readability. The publishers, in turn, had to register with Readability to get their cut. It’s not too far off the idea batted around from time to time that musicians should give away their music for free and institute a tip jar of some kind that they can use to supplement a life lived on the road, gratefully peddling merch to their fans, whom they are to understand are now their patrons, and not their customers.

Readability today announced that it has decided to end its payment collection service. According to the announcement, only 2,000 publishers ever registered to collect their cut of payments Readability was collecting in their name. Ninety percent of the money it collected from subscribers ($150,000) has gone unclaimed and will be donated to charity unless publishers present themselves to Readability by July 15. 

I never felt comfortable with Readability’s model. Even though a lot of publishers are making their own content unpleasant to read, Readability was operating from a naive conception of the business models behind ads. Pretending that an ad is nothing more than an image rendered into a bit of money by virtue of a browser loading it certainly simplifies the conversation, but it’s not the whole picture. Yes, lots of display advertising is untargeted and dumb; some of it is somewhat targeted and dumb; and some of it is pretty damn targeted and maybe even kind of smart. There’s more to the economics of advertising than getting paid for impressions. 

In devising its subscription service, Readability didn’t really care about those distinctions. Because it had decided to make itself an uninvited middleman and create the impression among its users that it had managed to create a contract where none had previously existed, it wasn’t in Readability’s interest to dwell on those distinctions. And because you really can’t have a contract without at least two willing parties — no matter how you gloss the details with your subscribers — Readability  held on to any money it collected if a publisher didn’t step forward to claim it. $150,000 as it turns out.

We each have the ability to decide whether or not to we think display advertising is a good model. We have the ability to  use technology to help us enforce our own decisions about whether we want to participate in the attention economy. Publishers will eventually have to come to grips with what will be an increasing number of people opting out of that request to contract for content in exchange for attention, especially with the uptake of tablets and proliferation of services and apps like Readability’s. But Readability’s subscription model — despite all the flowery language about “helping” and “loving” publishers and writers — didn’t help with any of that: It dumbed down a discussion on just how advertising models work so it could erect a (cheerful, well-lit) toll booth and wet its beak.

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