The density barbell

By Felix Salmon
December 8, 2011

Virtually everybody I know with Instapaper and/or Read It Later uses it all the time — the ability to read long articles in a clean format, at your leisure, on planes or subways or just when you have a few minutes to kill standing in line at the supermarket, is a great improvement to quality of life. And both of them are now popular enough that they can start extracting interesting patterns from their data.

Read It Later has a new post up about which authors are the most read on its platform, and the results are quite startling: the list of most-saved authors, and the list of authors with the highest return rate (the authors who people actually read, after they’ve saved an article) are both dominated by a lot of Gawker Media writers. “Nick Denton’s Gawker Media properties (Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Deadspin, Gawker),” write Coco Krumme and Mark Armstrong, “are among the most popular any way you cut it.”

This is partly because Gawker Media is a big and popular media company. But it’s also, I think, indicative of an important trend in the way that information is presented and consumed online.

There’s no doubt that our digital lives are becoming increasingly cluttered, and that we’re presented with more information per minute spent online than at any time in the past. There’s been a steady rise in the density of information that websites present to us, and the most successful websites (the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail are prime examples here) tend to fill their pages with enormous numbers of links and shiny things to click on.

One of the things that the Gawker redesign did was to make every Gawker Media webpage extremely dense, with lots of links to lots of stories. That’s a good thing. But it also makes it harder to give individual stories, especially long ones, the kind of space that readers like. And so those readers turn to tools like Read It Later when they come across a Gawker Media post they want to give real attention to.

Call it the density barbell: information is being presented in either a very dense form, or else in a very clean and sparse form. Both have their uses. And as tools like Instapaper and Read It Later become more widely used, websites can be even more aggressive in ramping up the density on their pages, safe in the knowledge readers can easily strip it away if they want to.

This kind of binary approach to information stands in stark contrast to what’s going on at Google, where a redesign of Google Reader, Gmail and other web apps has met with a vast outpouring of unhappiness. What’s happened there is that Google, in an attempt to make information easier to read, has massively decreased the density of its pages — even as the rest of the world is going in the opposite direction. For any one piece of information, that’s great — it’s easier to find and read. But for information consumption and navigation purposes, it’s dreadful: the redesigns slow down productivity, in a world where Reader and Gmail are key productivity tools.

What Google should have done, I think, is go in the other direction, and increase the density of the information in its apps — while adding some kind of simple tool allowing extraneous information to be eradicated at the touch of a button. People like simple and uncluttered in theory, but in practice we’re on an inexorable ride towards complex and cluttered — with tools then added on top for the purposes of filtering or reading. Give me everything, and then give me an easy way to find and read what I want. Don’t give me an unacceptable subset of everything and ask me to make do.

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