The Digital Reader: Instapaper

Monday, November 1, 2010

Even the most well-tended Twitter feeds and RSS readers wouldn't do much good if I had to read every item as I found it. This works for blog posts and box scores, but not the meaty essays, investigative journalism, and short stories that make spending so much time on the web worthwhile. Before I started using Instapaper, I cobbled together a process of saving bookmarks, emailing things to myself, and using the star feature in Google Reader, but nothing consistent or very portable. I was still tied to reading on a desktop or laptop, which even a tech geek like me can admit isn't always fun.

At its core, Instapaper is a service for saving web pages to read later, but that's the least of what it does. Bookmarking services have been around forever, but they've always been slightly nerdy and more geared toward sharing and organizing links rather than reading. Marco Arment, the founder of Instapaper, started the service as a hobby for his own personal use while he worked for Tumblr. Instead of focusing on all the hot social media trends like tagging and sharing and networking, he made a tool that he wanted to use himself, something simple and efficient for reading. When you log in to your Instapaper account, you just see a basic list of articles with some simple organizing features like folders. It doesn't demand that you connect with others, share your links, star them, like them, or tweet them.

The interface is intuitive, but the real magic is the text-only feature, which lets you read a version of the article stripped of all the advertising, clunky formatting, and most images. What's left is a distraction-free interface for reading long-form text on the web. Still, Instapaper wouldn't be as valuable as it is without the fantastic iPhone and iPad apps. The apps download the articles you've saved and let you read this streamlined, text-only version offline, even when you have spotty wireless service. The apps have hooks into all kinds of Twitter clients and news applications that make it easy to both save links for reading later or sharing with others.

Instapaper has changed the way I read everything on the web. Every Twitter client and news reader app I use on the iPhone or iPad has an easy way to save links to Instapaper, so the good stuff doesn't get lost amidst the poop jokes, political rants, and breakfast updates. Arment also built bookmarklets that save articles from a standard web browser with one click. As I begin my day with Twitter, I send all the links that look worth reading to Instapaper. I do the same as I browse my RSS feeds, saving longer pieces that I can't read on the first go. Once I'm caught up, my Instapaper queue is my own customized magazine that I can read at my leisure and update the rest of the day.

I can't understate how much I rely on Instapaper, both for collecting links and reading itself. Being able to sit down with my iPad to read a lengthy piece from the New Yorker or short story from your favorite online literary journal creates that "lean back" experience that print nostalgists claim is missing from the web, and it's this reading experience that has allowed me to drop all my print subscriptions and never look back. Instead of abbreviating my attention span and tolerance for reading online, Instapaper makes it better. I'm not sure what I ever did without it.

This is the fourth post in the Digital Reader Series, about reading in the information age.