I remember last summer in Paris, in a great English bookstore, finding a book that collected poems and stories, categorized by the amount of time each took to read. Each section contained pieces of the right length for a specific situation, from elevators to planes. It was an attempt to solve the problem of knowing what to read when we have only a finite amount of time (which, ultimately, is all the time).
Nowadays, many of us read more on digital devices than from books. But the problem remains, of fitting what we read cleanly into the time we have.
A great solution would be a service or plugin that categorizes everything based on reading time. At the most basic level, this would be calculated by the word count. There are already a number of plugins for WordPress that accomplish this1, and it can be done with less than 10 lines of PHP.
While this is a good start, I’d like a much more advanced time-based service. Word count would be the basic benchmark, but the service would learn from behavior. Over time, average words per minute would be calculated for the specific user. Average words per minute would even be calculated separately for different sites. There are some sites where I tend to skim the articles and others where I read thoroughly, even re-reading pertinent sections, and the algorithm would (broadly) reflect this. For example, reading 500 words on Mashable or TechCrunch usually isn’t the same as 500 words on the New York Times website. Aggregate data would determine average reading speeds for sites the user doesn’t visit frequently. Other factors could also be incorporated into the calculation of reading time, like reading level (obviously, the more advanced the reading level, the longer it takes to read).
Ideally, this would be integrated with existing apps, like Instapaper, Read It Later, Readability and Google Reader. While anyone can add reading time based on a simple calculation, the real power would come from the customization and the way it would be tailored to each individual user, learning from behavior. Obviously, its integration would be up to the individual developers, but scripts can be used to add functionality to Google Reader, and browser plugins can blanket every site with additional functionality.
With the number of distractions today, time is the ultimate scarcity3, and a reading site or service built with available time as its focus would fit perfectly into our busy lives.
A platform for digital reading
A central focus of reading time provides a lot of opportunities for advanced features, and the idea could be extended into a very cool general-purpose reading engine4.
Recommendations would be given, based on how much time the user wants to spend reading, or how much time is available. For example, articles in Instapaper and Read It Later could be organized by reading time. Public transportation to work? Open up your app of choice, tell it you’ve got about 20 minutes, and it’ll make sure you’ve got something to read until you reach your destination.
Over time, with the consent of the user to have all reading tracked (for the sake of more accurate estimations), trends could be provided online. Overall reading time, average time spent reading each day, total time spent reading each specific site, and more could all be calculated, and even factored into recommendations (For example, “something different” could provide a site you don’t read often). Recommendations would have an element of serendipity, but always the right length for the right occasion.
The Internet and all of our portable devices provide more opportunities for reading than ever, but the Internet also provides more than we could ever hope to read. What we need is something to help reach a balance: a reading service (or app) with intelligence, and with an emphasis on fitting reading into our lives as they are.
An idea I first came across in Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price (p. 185). Time scarcity is directly related to attention scarcity and the attention economy. For more on my thoughts about Free, see my post on the problem with abundance thinking. ↩
Readness.com seemed promising as a broad reading platform, with history and recommendations. The Next Web called it “Last.fm for News.” Unfortunately, the project was discontinued due to lack of funds. Instapaper’s latest update, which added the option to follow what others “like,” is also an interesting direction. ↩