Fat Pages

Today, in a Wired interview about Instapaper, Marco Arment offered up:

“People love information,” Arment said. “Right now in our society, we have an obesity epidemic. Because for the first time in history, we have access to food whenever we want, we don’t know how to control ourselves. I think we have the exact same problem with information.”

Meanwhile, Clay Johnson’s InfoVegan states in its thesis:

As we consume food, we also consume information. Yet few of us make deliberate decisions on what kind of information to consume or how much. We do make unconscious, non-deliberate decisions though— we’re naturally drawn towards the opinions we agree with, whether it be through following our friends on twitter or the mass media we consume. We naturally avoid diversity in the news we consume— you won’t find many conservatives watching MSNBC or being fans of Keith Olbermann, and you’re not going to make any liberal friends happy turning on Glenn Beck in their living rooms.

Information consumption also has a consumption chain, just like food does. Most news, for instance, comes from a set of facts on the ground, that get processed, and processed and processed again before it ends up on your television set boiled down into chunks for you to consume. But it also gets filled with additives— expert opinion, analysis, visualizations, you name it— before it gets to you. If this was food, a vegan would want none of it. They’d head straight to the data, to the source, to the facts, and try and get as much of that additive business out of their way.

There’s a lot of thoughtful, broad vision in what these smart geeks are getting at, but some small part of what they’re articulating is merely about clutter. I’d attribute some large part of the success of app phones to the fact that they’ve merely erased much of the clutter that we take for granted in most of today’s web experiences. Instapaper’s one of my favorite New York City startups, not simply because of my usual New York boosterism, but because the future of media ought to be decided here in New York. And something simple and readable, with room to breathe, feels like the future.

Of course, I’ve tried to practice what I preach here on this site; I got rid of ads about a year ago, and kept only one image on the page, not counting any illustrations in the posts. The one concession to the proliferation of Digg/Like/Tweet spam I’ve added is the “Read Later” link in the sidebar, which of course would let you read this content later in Instapaper. I decided that was worth the tradeoff because the intention to read something later is, at its core, a fundamentally hopeful and optimistic tendency, and I want to encourage that in my readers. And also because this blog is usually among the top ten Google results for “TL;DR“.

I’ve also tried to bring that ethic of decluttering to other projects I work on (Gourmet Live has a page reader that looks almost as clean as Instapaper, which is surprisingly uncommon in the magazine world), but I know for lots of web publishers that’s an unaccustomed luxury.

Trim The Fat

So, if these smart folks are right, and lots of people value a clean experience, and right now publishers are making zero dollars off of readers who prefer uncluttered reading, who is going to be the first to charge for a clean version of their site? And which bloggers are going to choose to eschew all the flashing ads and obnoxious sharing buttons, forgoing a few dollars in revenue in exchange for a better presentation for their ideas?

We already know people will pay for more control over presentation and the ability to skip ads on TV. That same drive has helped satellite radio take off. We see even the Gawkers of the world headed towards designs with fewer ads. And lots of us pay a premium to use computers that aren’t pre-loaded with spammy software or covered in advertising stickers. Hell, I’ve been linking to the (cleaner, less ad-cluttered) print versions of articles on this site for the better part of a decade. Why not simply give the people what they want?