a readability triptych from brent simmons

Anyone interested in publishing words on the internet, or reading words that are published on the internet, should read the three essential pieces below from Mac developer Brent Simmons (he publishes the inessential blog). I’ve pulled out some nuggets that I particularly like here, but you should read the text of all three.

What Simmons is imagining is a world in which publishers care more about the product they are presenting than the advertising dollars and eyeballs they are pulling in. It’s a world where text and stories are given top billing and advertising is kept at a minimum. It’s a world where stats tell you how many people are coming, but editorial decisions are made based on the very best content, not SEO. I like this world, I like it a lot and it’s proven to be a successful model for bloggers like John Gruber, Seth Godin and The Loop. I think it can be successful for most independent bloggers or people creating content for organizations — like non-profits — where content generation is a side business designed to get people to invest in your core mission or product.

Unfortunately, I don’t see how this model scales. That is, I don’t see how big news organizations that depend on a large international staff to investigate and collect news and analysis could ever survive in a future where readability trumps all. There’s too much money needed and too long a history to move to a new model. It  would be interesting to see if a truly federated news organization — one where writers set up their own editorial presence on a loosely affiliated network — could scale an idea like this. Each writer could be responsible for his or her own revenue and pay a support fee (for back-end technology, design, etc.) to the federation. In this way, you could get a wide variety of sources and maintain readability. Think of The Huffington Post or Daily Beast, but much less sucky from a user-experience standpoint. Oh, and probably a lot less profitable.

Here are Simmons’s ideas:

The Pummeling Pages

I think it was in the Space Merchants (or maybe in The Merchants’ War) where this future was predicted: lower-class people would be subjected to a ton of advertising — accompanying every moment awake and asleep — while upper-class people would be insulated.

It seems obvious now, but in the ’50s I don’t think it was. And now we’d add that it’s not a class thing entirely — technical proficiency is part of the equation. If you’re technical enough to figure out how to install AdBlock (the most popular Safari extension, it appears), you’ll cut way down on ads. If you go even further and edit your hosts file and make your browser use an ad-blocking CSS file, you’ll cut down even further (and you’ll opt-out of a bunch of tracking too).

If enough people do this, publications will have to show more ads, just to make up for the ad revenue they’re missing from me and you.

Put Rules

Allow a single analytics system
I’d just call it stats, though.

Ideally stats would be completely unobtrusive — a system that reads the log every night and generates a report. Or it might be slightly obtrusive, like Mint, but no more than that.

Keep ads minimal
And no moving ads, or ads that appear above other things, or ads that need to be clicked to be closed, would be allowed. No interstitials. (It’s a sign of industry sickness that I even know the word interstitial.)

I’d want to use good networks like The Deck.

The Readable Future

Part of me wants to appeal to publishers based on the Apple argument. That argument says: if you do what Apple does — pay extraordinary attention to user experience; make elegant and delightful things — then you will make money.

Though Apple continuously proves this argument true, I’m not sure most people will ever believe it. It requires a certain amount of faith, and it requires trusting intuition and taste more than analytics and received wisdom. It requires a belief in humanity — or, perhaps more accurately, respect for humanity — that is believed to be incompatible with business.

And people don’t get fired for measuring things. People don’t often get fired for continuing to do things the same way they’ve always been done. But people do get fired for taking risks that don’t pan out.


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Hi, I’m davidconell. I’m married, have two kids and live in the world’s greatest planned community. To make money, I serve as the director of digital marketing for Ocean Conservancy. Most recently, I made money as an associate director of digital media for strategic communications at The Nature Conservancy, which is a long way of saying I set the web strategy for a fairly big part of the organization (but not all of it). Before that, I was a web editor for the American Society of Landscape Architects, where I wrote and edited their email newslettercreated their blog, recorded some podcasts with well-known landscape architects, managed their website, took late-night calls about server outages and dealt with pretty much anything having to do with the www dots. ASLA has a cool green roof, which you should really check out. I learned the ways of the force and fell in love with Apple products while working for Advisor Today magazine. In 2001, the magazine needed a website, so I teamed with a designer and a developer to make one. We ran it for a while and won some awards. I made a little money doing this as well. During some of the time I was with Advisor Today, I went to American University, earned a Masters of Fine Arts in Fiction and wrote a short story cycle/novella. No, it has not been published, but someday I’d like to self-publish it for my family and friends. I didn’t make any money doing this. In a former life I was a reporter for some very scary publications – some of which are now defunct. These jobs pretty well sucked, but I met my wife while doing them so it all worked out in the end. I claim Danville, Pennsylvania as my hometown, because it’s where my heart lies. I attended Dickinson College, which is an amazing place that I didn’t appreciate nearly enough while I was there. If I could be anywhere in the world right now, it would be Duck, North Carolina; Chamonix, France; or Caherdaniel, County Kerry. If you’re reading this sentence and just got choked up a little, you know who you are. Enjoy…