The truth about read-later services

My recent entry about the the apps I use already needs an update… Typical. This past weekend, I decided to get rid of my read-later app, which happened to be the excellent Matter.

For years now — I even want to say for a decade — I’ve joked that my read-later list should be called my read-never list. It’s not even a joke, but an evergreen truth: who reads the articles they save for later? How many of these articles do they even start to read? For both, I’m thinking of a single digit percentage. As far as I’m concerned and if I’m guessing the average of the past ten years or so, I must have started to read 10 to 20% of all my saved articles, and finished reading maybe 20 to 40% of them: that’s what? 2-8% of the total?

I will take the full blame here: I’m not a big reader, but I’m a big saver. I spend all my days at work reading, editing, reviewing, and writing content, so my brain is a bit too tired to do the same thing efficiently on my spare time. Not only this could explain my laziness to read anything, but it also justifies the core concept of read-later services and the reason I needed one for so long, and maybe still do. Don’t feel like reading this 15k-word column? Here’s a neat little tool to remove all guilt for not reading it right away, and maybe, just maybe, eventually read it, one day, next week, next month…

When you take a look at the websites of all the great services that joined Instapaper and Pocket, their promises are based on the idea that people will actually come back to the saved articles and read them, somehow ignoring the high probability that most of them won’t, and it’s all just a illusion:

Your own private corner of the web to spend quality time with great articles.

Save all of the interesting articles, videos, cooking recipes, song lyrics, or whatever else you come across while browsing.

Save articles, newsletters, and documents and read them later — focused and distraction free. Add notes and highlights.

Collect anything, anywhere. Say goodbye to information overload.

Better read-it-later is just the start. Follow your favorite writers, save Twitter threads, and get control of that newsletter situation. With Matter, you’ll never miss out on a great read again.

Only Readwise seems to acknowledge this, yet don’t really say why their product is different than all the others:

Our read-it-later apps should improve over time. Instead, they worsen. Why? Because we save more stuff than we have time to deal with.

This world of “read later” workflows is obviously an optimistic take on reality. A reality on which they have to bet to make their products appealing. I can’t help but think that deep down they know that most users won’t really benefit from these services, never mind how great they are, but they can’t afford to be cynical. Maybe that is why Safari’s Reading List never bothered to evolve: maybe Apple engineers designed the most minimal and dull read-later tool as a statement on the real-world usefulness of these?

The biggest shame in all of this? Not my laziness, not my lack of commitment to read these great pieces of content I naively saved for later. No. The biggest shame is that these services are great. Matter is very refined and polished (the iPhone app is a delight to use), Readwise Reader is very promising, Omnivore looks good, even Cubox is arguably a very well-made product, despite everything. All of these inspiring tools are begging for commitment, and their mutual core concept deserves users that will truly benefit from the power of a read-later service.

I know people who have been using Pocket né Read-it-later since the very beginning. I know several bloggers that still rely on Instapaper. These apps/services do work, they do help their users get the job done, they do fulfil the mission they so enthusiastically describe on their websites.

It just doesn’t work for me.

I’ve been trying, I’ve been saving (in the shadows, for my time). Did it make me read more? Did it help me write more on this blog? Did it make me feel good about myself? This weekend I realised that the answer to these questions is a big and shiny “no” or “not very often.” The only impact that any of these services has had on me over the last decade is a sense of awe looking at the amount of crap I manage to save for later. Well, that’s not true: read-later apps 100% fuelled my inspiration to write the article you’re currently reading.

So what’s next?

I’m trying a new thing, and bear with me because it might sound crazy: I’ll read the articles I want to read right away, at least I will try. I will try to live by the idea that if I don’t read in the moment, I’ll eventually close the tab and never read that article. I just won’t save the articles to a “Read Later” stream like I used to.

Instead, I’ll try to use this bookmarklet more: from a web page, it downloads a text file containing the title and the link of the page, along with the text selection and an optional comment, all formatted in Markdown. I’ve configured Folder Actions on my Mac so it detects all text files from my download folder and imports them automatically to the library folder of The Archive, so a new tiny text entry appears in my draft list, already including my initial thought on the article.

For other links that don’t have the potential to be commented for this blog, I’m either keeping tabs open until I read them, or reading them right way and saving them in my bookmarks (remember bookmarks?). Simple as that.

To summarise, either I read right away and save the link into my bookmarks or import it into The Archive, either I don’t read right away and keep the tab(s) open until I do. If I close the tab, then the article is either read or forgotten, not “saved for later” anymore.1

I’m always curious about other people workflows when it comes to putting content on the internet: blog posts, podcasts, newsletters, tweets… How do you organise yourself? How do you train yourself to be consistent, and what service or app do you use to help you achieve your goals? Please let me know by using the link below.

  1. reader of the blog Adam told me that my workflow wasn’t very clear when it comes to what I do with articles I want to read later, so I added this paragraph.↩︎