Free stuff I’d pay for: Readability and NYTimes.com/recommendations

One might ask, “Why pay for something that’s free?” If you’ve ever paid 99¢ for an iTunes download, you might know at least one possible answer to that question. There are many others that have to do with convenience, timing, aesthetics, authenticity, experience or habit.

Here are two examples of things I’d potentially pay for that are free in other forms.

I’ve written on this blog before about my love of Instapaper — of how it allows me to save content from most any website to read later on my iPad or iPhone or computer in an ad-free, book-like format. It has really changed my reading habits during the past 18 months. (“I once said it was an app so awesome I can’t believe the anti-awesome police haven’t gone after it.”)

It’s so amazing, that every time I read an article using Instapaper, I think to myself:This can’t last forever. As much as I’m of the “information wants to be free” school, I expect to pay something in “soft” compensation – looking at ads, for example. Instapaper enables free content with no quid-pro-quo, like, say, putting up with the advertising that surrounds copy provided by, say, the New York Times, whose website is one of my favorite sources for Instapaper’d content. I can argue why this is okay once in a while as it introduces me to media sources and brands — but someones gotta pay when I’m partaking of a firehose of premium, unique and valuable content with no ads or other forms of value exchange.

I know when something’s too good to be true, so I’ve been preparing for the day when that Golden Age of Great Reading is going away — when I can no longer merely click on that “Read Later” button and get great writing into a form that actually enables good reading.

Several months ago, via an introduction from Dave Winer, I spoke with Richard Ziade, the developer of another one of my favorite “helps-me-read” services Readability, the open source software that lets you click a browser extension button and turn any web page into an ad-free, easy-to-read document. A real-time, read-it-now rather than later version of what Instapaper does for the time-shifting readers. (If you use Safari, Readability is at the core of Safari Reader, the feature that Apple says will, “allow you to remove annoying ads and visual distrations.”)

Richard told me he was working on a concept that would allow people to continue to enjoy the content displayed with services like Readbility and Instapaper, but that would also compensate the publisher of the content.

I told him I thought that was a great idea that I would sign up for it in a heartbeat on both the reader and the publisher side — but then I sorta drifted into the part of the conversation that said I’d likely be one of the very few people who would — and that it would likely never work because it’s, in effect, the creation of entire industry standard that’s equivalent to the performance rights infrastructure that governs the music industry — something that’s required by federal law and is byzantine in both concept and practice.

But I think he only heard me say the “great idea” and “I’d sign up for it” parts — and I think I was one of the very few people who said that; most probably just said, “Why?” I mean, who in their right mind would say you should pay $5 a month for something you can buy for free.

Fast forward to today: Readability: now has introduced the subscription model. It may not work. But, one day, I predict we’ll pay for unique versions of content we can obtain for free. And I predict it will be more like this model that magazine-by-magazine subscription model. Who knows, maybe there will be ASCAPs and BMIs for content (ugh) one day.

Oh, wait. I was going to mention another kind of content I’d pay for; and it’s even from the New York Times and I now get it free. It’s one of those fulfillments of an internet promise that’s never quite made it to prime time. NYTimes.com now offers a recommendation service that is one of the first uses of collaborative filtering for content recommendations (it’s used in commerce all the time) since we used it a decade ago on SmallBusiness.com (slightly ahead of its time). I would pay for this service — and probably will have to one day. If you’re logged into the NYTimes.com website, you can see your version at http://www.nytimes.com/recommendations. (A screengrab of mine is below.)

So there you have two things I’d pay for that I can get free:

1. An ad free, readable format for long-form articles by great writers.

2. A service that tracks every article I read and from that information filters articles that it knows should interest me, just me, not my friends or the people I follow — just me. (Oh, and another thing: it would need to find articles everywhere, not just the New York Times.)

Addendum: One more thing. Readability, while a click-now-and-read tool, has developed a “powered by Instapaper” app that allows you to “read-later” also. I can speculate (deduce?) that such a relationship between Instapaper and Readability creates an ipso-facto subscription model for Instapaper, as well. Or, I guess I should say, an subscription model as it relates to content that is sourced by one of the cooperating publishers.

Bonus link: Megan Garber has an excellent story based on interviews with the developers of the NYTimes.com’s recommendations project. While they don’t come right and use the term “collaborative filtering,” the way in which they describe the process of developing recommendations comes close. As Amazon, Netflix, Pandora and scores others have demonstrated, the collection and comparison of usage patterns weighs heavily in the effectiveness of personalized recommendations. It makes sense that recommending what story to read next is very similar to recommending what book to read, movie to watch or song to hear.