Tags: readlist



Returning control

In his tap essay Fish, Robin sloan said:

On the internet today, reading something twice is an act of love.

I’ve found a few services recently that encourage me to return to things I’ve already read.

Findings is looking quite lovely since its recent redesign. They may have screwed up with their email notification anti-pattern but they were quick to own up to the problem. I’ve been taking the time to read back through quotations I’ve posted, which in turn leads me to revisit the original pieces that the quotations were taken from.

Take, for example, this quote from Dave Winer:

We need to break out of the model where all these systems are monolithic and standalone. There’s art in each individual system, but there’s a much greater art in the union of all the systems we create.

…which leads me back to the beautifully-worded piece he wrote on Medium.

At the other end of the scale, reading this quote led me to revisit Rob’s review of Not Of This Earth on NotComing.com:

Not of This Earth is an early example of a premise conceivably determined by the proverbial writer’s room dartboard. In this case, the first two darts landed on “space” and “vampire.” There was no need to throw a third.

Although I think perhaps my favourite movie-related quotation comes from Gavin Rothery’s review of Saturn 3:

You could look at this film superficially and see it as a robot gone mental chasing Farrah Fawcett around a moonbase trying to get it on with her and killing everybody that gets in its way. Or, you could see through that into brilliance of this film and see that is in fact a story about a robot gone mental chasing Farrah Fawcett around a moonbase trying to get it on with her and killing everybody that gets in its way.

The other service that is encouraging me to revisit articles that I’ve previously read is Readlists. I’ve been using it to gather together pieces of writing that I’ve previously linked to about the Internet of Things, the infrastructure of the internet, digital preservation, or simply sci-fi short stories.

Frank mentioned Readlists when he wrote about The Anthologists:

Anthologies have the potential to finally make good on the purpose of all our automated archiving and collecting: that we would actually go back to the library, look at the stuff again, and, holy moses, do something with it. A collection that isn’t revisited might as well be a garbage heap.

I really like the fact that while Readlists is very much a tool that relies on the network, the collected content no longer requires a network connection: you can send a group of articles to your Kindle, or download them as one epub file.

I love tools like this—user style sheets, greasemonkey scripts, Readability, Instapaper, bookmarklets of all kinds—that allow the end user to exercise control over the content they want to revisit. Or, as Frank puts it:

…users gain new ways to select, sequence, recontextualize, and publish the content they consume.

I think the first technology that really brought this notion to the fore was RSS. The idea that the reader could choose not only to read your content at a later time, but also to read it in a different place—their RSS reader rather than your website—seemed quite radical. It was a bitter pill for the old guard to swallow, but once publishing RSS feeds became the norm, even the stodgiest of old media producers learned to let go of the illusion of control.

That’s why I was very surprised when Aral pushed back against RSS. I understand his reasoning for not providing a full RSS feed:

every RSS reader I tested it in displayed the articles differently — completely destroying my line widths, pull quotes, image captions, footers, and the layout of the high‐DPI images I was using.

…but that kind of illusory control just seems antithetical to the way the web works.

The heart of the issue, I think, is when Aral talks about:

the author’s moral rights over the form and presentation of their work.

I understand his point, but I also value the reader’s ideas about the form and presentation of the work they are going to be reading. The attempt to constrain and restrict the reader’s recontextualising reminds me of emails I used to read on Steve Champeon’s Webdesign-L mailing list back in the 90s that would begin:

How can I force the user to …?


How do I stop the user from …?

The questions usually involved attempts to stop users “getting at” images or viewing the markup source. Again, I understand where those views come from, but they just don’t fit comfortably with the sprit of the web.

And, of course, the truth was always that once something was out there on the web, users could always find a way to read it, alter it, store it, or revisit it. For Aral’s site, for example, although he refuses to provide a full RSS feed, all I have to is use Reeder with its built-in Readability functionality to get the full content.

Breaking Things

This is an important point: attempting to exert too much control will be interpreted as damage and routed around. That’s exactly why RSS exists. That’s why Readability and Instapaper exist. That’s why Findings and Readlists exist. Heck, it’s why Huffduffer exists.

To paraphrase Princess Leia, the more you tighten your grip, the more content will slip through your fingers. Rather than trying to battle against the tide, go with the flow and embrace the reality of what Cameron Koczon calls Orbital Content and what Sara Wachter-Boettcher calls Future-Ready Content.

Both of those articles were published on A List Apart. But feel free to put them into a Readlist, or quote your favourite bits on Findings. And then, later, maybe you’ll return to them. Maybe you’ll read them twice. Maybe you’ll love them.


In 2005 I went to South by Southwest for the first time. It was quite an experience. Not only did I get to meet lots of people with whom I had previously only interacted with online, but I also got to meet lots of lots of new people. Many of my strongest friendships today started in Austin that year.

Back before it got completely unmanageable, Southby was a great opportunity to mix up planned gatherings with serendipitous encounters. Lunchtime, for example, was often a chaotic event filled with happenstance: you could try to organise a small group to go to a specific place, but it would inevitably spiral into a much larger group going to wherever could seat that many people.

One lunchtime I found myself sitting next to a very nice gentleman and we got on to the subject of network theory. Back then I was very obsessed with small-world networks, the strength of weak ties, and all that stuff. I’m still obsessed with all that stuff today, but I managed to exorcise a lot my thoughts when I gave my 2008 dConstruct talk, The System Of The World. After giving that magnum opus, I felt like I had got a lot of network-related stuff off my chest (and off my brain).

Anyway, back in 2005 I was still voraciously reading books on the subject and I remember recommending a book to that nice man at that lunchtime gathering. I can’t even remember which book it was now—maybe Nexus by Mark Buchanan or Critical Mass by Philip Ball. In any case, I remember this guy making a note of the book for future reference.

It was only later that I realised that that “guy” was David Isenberg. Yes, that David Isenberg, author of the seminal Rise of the Stupid Network, one of the most important papers ever published about telecommunications networks in the twentieth century (you can watch—and huffduff—a talk he gave called Who will run the Internet? at the Oxford Internet Institute a few years back).

I was reminded of that lunchtime encounter from seven years ago when I was putting together a readlist of visionary articles today. The list contains:

  1. As We May Think by Vannevar Bush
  2. Information Management: A Proposal by Tim Berners-Lee (vague but exciting!)
  3. Rise of the Stupid Network by David Isenberg
  4. There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom by Richard Feynman
  5. The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era by Vernor Vinge

There are others that should be included on that list but there’s are the ones I could find in plain text or HTML rather than PDF.

Feel free to download the epub file of those five articles together and catch up on some technology history on your Kindle, iPad, iPhone or other device of your choosing.

Responsive readlist

I’m in Madison, Wisconsin where myself and Aaron are wrapping up three days of workshopping with Shopbop. It’s all going swimmingly.

This last of the three days is being spent sketching, planning and hacking some stuff together based on all the things that Aaron and I have been talking about for the first two days: progressive enhancement, responsive design, HTML5, JavaScript, ARIA …all the good stuff that Aaron packed into Adaptive Web Design.

We’re also assigning some homework: reading material for the Shopbop gang to read at their leisure after we have departed Madison. Aaron created a readlist called Adaptive Web Design and I’ve made a readlist called Responsive Enhancement.

Feel free to peruse the links contained therein and send them all to your Kindle or download them all as an epub file for the iPhone/iPad/Readmill/whatever.