I have endorsed the use of read-it-later apps and tools here at The New Leaf Journal in several articles about Wallabag, a free and open source software (and paid software as service) read-it-later solution. At the moment, I am trying a different set-up, but having a read-it-later tool to complement my collection of RSS and ATOM feeds is a key component of how I read and discover interesting writing from around the web. In addition to touting read-it-later apps, I have also dedicated a number of posts to advocating curating a collection of RSS and ATOM feeds, notably in my general introduction to feeds, and in my posts arguing for RSS as a Facebook alternative and Twitter alternative.
However, I wrote all of my posts advocating for RSS over big tech social media (and some non-big tech social media) from the perspective of someone who has never devoted much time to social media. For this reason, it is interesting to read articles written by people on these and related subjects who have a bigger footprint in the social media world. A 2015 article by Mr. Tiago Forte titled The Secret Power of ‘Read It Later’ Apps made the case for the merits of such apps in and of themselves and also as a healthy alternative to wasting hours scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or the like.
I note from the outset that, while I agree with Mr. Forte’s ultimate conclusions in favor of read-it-later apps and in favor of using them to read long-form content instead of using social apps to read activity streams, I recommend his post with the caveat that I disagree with many of his specific points of analysis, methods, and ancillary conclusions. However, rather than dwell on those points, I will use a few key passages from his post as a springboard to explaining how read-it-later apps can, with feed readers, form the basis of a replacement for social reading for many in the digital sphere.
Threshold matter: What is a read-it-later app?
Mr. Forte described read-it-later apps as follows:
So-called ‘Read It Later’ apps give you the ability to ‘save’ content on the web for later consumption. They are essentially advanced bookmarking apps, pulling in the content from a page to be read or viewed in a cleaner, simpler visual layout.Tiago Forte
Moreover, many read-it-later apps add additional functionality:
On top of that core function they add features like favoriting, tags, search, cross-platform syncing, recommended content, offline viewing, and archiving.
Mr. Forte listed several examples of such apps in his original 2015 article: Instapaper, Pocket, Sendto Kindle, Feedly (also a commercial feed reader), and Apple Safari’s “Add to Reading List” functionality. All of those solutions are still extant (to the best of my knowledge), but proprietary. BecauseI generally promote free and open source software, I will add several open source alternatives for your consideration:
- Wallabag (self-hostable and also available as a service)
- Shiori (self-hostable and easy to run on localhost on a single machine as well as on a server)
- Omnivore (free and open source online read-it-later app, not yet self-hostable)
- Floccus (extension and app for syncing browser bookmarks)
- Save pages locally (see Rolling my own Read It Later solution by Mr. Joseph Nuthalpati – a version of this is part of my own system and you can save articles, organize, and read them with many tools)
(Note that this list is not at all exhaustive. It is merely a list of a few open source tools, services, and concepts that I have some experience with.)
At the moment (subject to change), I am using Handy Reading, an entirely local free and open source feed reader with read-it-later functionality for Android.
Because Mr. Forte’s post in praise of read-it-later apps has inspired me to write an essay touting them as social media replacements for digital reading, I will highlight a few pertinent passages from his essay.
What has become exceedingly scarce (and therefore, valuable) is the physical, emotional, attentional, and mental capability to sit quietly and direct focused attention for sustained periods of time.Tiago Forte
Excessive use of social media – or arguably any serious use of social media – has a negative effect on one’s ability to carefully attend to long-form writing or writing that otherwise demands careful attention from the reader. That is, social media not only has a tendency to induce people to spend their time reading and interacting with fluff instead of meaningful writing, it also has the tendency to impair one’s ability to attend to meaningful writing in the future.
The problem is that our entire digital world is geared toward snackable chunks of low-grade information–photos, tweets, statuses, snaps, feeds, cards, etc. To fight the tide you have to redesign your environment–you have to create affordances.Tiago Forte
I would be more specific than Mr. Forte and propose that the digital world is geared toward engagement, but it does not distinguish meaningful engagement from unhealthy engagement. Facebook’s goal is to keep you on Facebook. The same goes for Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and the like. The point Mr. Forte highlights ties in neatly to my criticism of many of the free and open source and decentralized alternatives to big tech social media, namely that they import the flaws of their inspirations (largely bad, meaningless content formats). Good digital reading necessarily involves controlling one’s digital environment to facilitate reading interesting, meaningful writing.
My Own Perspective On Why Read-It-Later Apps Can Replace Social Reading
I noted at the top that while I find Mr. Forte’s article interesting and credit it for inspiring the article that you are reading, he approaches things from a very different perspective than I approach them. Instead of listing where we diverge, I will make my own case and I encourage you to read Mr. Forte’s essay alongside my own. Moreover, note that I am also proposing this set-up as an alternative to relying primarily or exclusively on proprietary news aggregators such as Google News and Apple News.
I begin by quoting me in my 2021 essay, Productivity, Production, and Productive Leisure:
[I]f one recognizes that his or her leisure time is unfulfilling, he or she has already taken an important step toward rectifying the problem. Instead of punishing oneself by paying for lessons from productivity gurus or mono-focusing on blocking distractions, however, one should begin by considering oneself worthy of something better, indeed, something productive. When viewed in that light, it is only natural for one to try to fill his or her life with good, valuable, and pleasant things, and not waste time with frivolous things that leave one feeling empty or worse.N.A. Ferrell
Many people who endlessly scroll or swipe their way through social media or have their moods ruined because someone said or did something on the internet have enough self-awareness to recognize that these activities are not fulfilling. However, as I highlighted with some levity in a fictional 2021 dialogue on existential social media misery, recognizing one’s own unhealthy behavior is not the same thing as fixing it – or even wanting to. Trying to paper over the self-inflicted misery with productivity gimmicks is nothing more than the prelude to relapse. One of the key themes of my productivity essay as applied to internet usage is that (A) web surfers should recognize that their time and attention is valuable, and (B) to the extent they use the web or other screen-based devices, they should fill their time with good things instead of bad.
Writing here in the abstract, some of Mr. Forte’s arguments in the essay that inspired me – intentionally or not – veered too closely to touting read-it-later apps as a means for the social-addled to resist the temptation of social media. Viewing feeds, read-it-later solutions, or similar tools designed for controlling one’s web content inputs and reading or viewing good content as ways to block temptation is exactly the sort of thinking I cautioned against in my productivity article. I wrote in the conclusion to that essay:
If one concludes that he or she is not spending his or her time productively, one should consider why that is. What would be the alternative? What would productive living be? Identifying a problem and eliminating it is one thing, but nature abhors a vacuum, as they say.N.A. Ferrell
Feeds and read-it-later solutions are not means to the end of distracting one from social media. They are superior alternatives for reading good writing that is worth the reader’s time. Although a good read-it-later solution can, by itself, form the foundation of a good system for reading good writing on a screen, it is best combined with a feed reader. Below, I describe the benefits of a hybrid approach combining a feed reader and read-it-later solution. (See my introduction to feeds and feed readers if you are not already familiar with them.)
A feed collection is the foundation of this set-up. Following sites via feeds empowers the reader to choose which sites contain writing and media worth having delivered to his or her feed reader. Updates come directly from the site the reader subscribed to without any algorithms or platforms running interference. Feed readers make the reader gardener and gate-keeper.
The particulars of how a read-it-later solution will enhance a purely feed-based set-up will vary depending on the tools employed. For example, Mr. Forte’s set-up appears to have centered on the use of a read-it-later tool with a convenient way to export notes and highlights from articles. My prior set-up involved receiving articles from my feeds in a feed reader and saving certain articles, along with interesting links within those articles, into Wallabag. My current set-up involves using a single app (Handy Reading) for both collecting feeds and read-it-later functionality, saving articles for long-term reference as favorites in my feed reader and links in a markdown file that I sync to all of my devices via Syncthing, and saving pieces I may need to return to later as PDFs or markdown files.
Because there are many ways to create a good set-up with a feed reader and read-it-later app or system, I will not delve into too many particulars here. Instead, I will explain the most important way a read-it-later solution, in whatever form it takes, can enhance an otherwise pure-feed-based set up for the purpose of fully supplanting social media and algorithmic news services for online reading.
How Feed Reader + Read-It-Later Can Replace the Algorithms
Big tech social media usually uses algorithms to help you discover content purportedly based on your interests. Tools such as Google News, Apple News, and the like, highlight articles for reading based on their own algorithms. Many search engines, including Google and Bing, can try to refine your search results based on your profile and search history. In both cases, these tools can unearth articles or other media that an individual would not have otherwise seen. The extent to which this can be useful, notwithstanding some of the everything listed above is beyond the scope of the instantarticle.
A pure feed-based set-up can run into a discovery issue. That is, if you only read articles from a select set of feeds, how will you discover what is going on outside of your favorite sites? A failure to answer this question could drive some back to the easy embrace of the aforementioned centralized, algorithmic solutions.
The best use for read-it-later tools for someone who relies primarily on feed subscriptions for reading is to perform the function that algorithms purport to perform for the majority. If you subscribe to interesting long-form articles, many of the articles that you read will have links. These links will either be to other pages on the article’s website or to articles from around the web discussed or cited to in the article. For example, if you are one of our feed-based subscribers, you will note that this article has many internal links. These internal links are the key using a curated feed collection as the foundation for reading content from the broader internet.
Articles from my feed subscriptions are my main input. When I see a link inside one of those articles that looks interesting, I send that link to my read-it-later app. At the moment, since I am using an Android feed reader that also has read-it-later functionality, this process is as easy as clicking a link in an article I received via RSS or ATOM feed and saving it to “read later” in my feed reader app, which puts that article from outside my new feed articles in the app’s unread article list.
The simple step of saving an link from one of your feed articles into your read-it-later app can have a snowball effect. Once you start reading the article you just saved, you may find interesting links inside that out-of-feed article – sometimes two, three, or four links. You can then save those new links for later reading and, if you are lucky, those new articles may also link to interesting articles.
In this way, your read-it-later solution, whatever it may be, turns into a sort of content browser in and of itself. The initial input for this system is the feed reader. By adding a feed to your feed reader, you are making the judgment that articles from this feed source are worth your attention – that is not to say you will read every article from the source, but the source has enough reading worth your while for you to want to stay abreast of its. Presumably, if your initial inputs are good, they will cite to – with links – other good and interesting sources. For example, if you find my writing here at The New Leaf Journal interesting, there is a good chance that you will find articles that I cite to interesting as well. In this way, subscribing to The New Leaf Journal (provided you enjoy our writing, of course) could help you discover other interesting articles.
To be sure, this set-up is not an algorithm. It is not a one-to-one replacement like /e/ OS is to Android. There is no program or formula recommending articles to you. Instead, I recommend it as a superior option, or loosely put, an alternative. Its success depends on your own ability to choose interesting websites to follow, then using good discretion to spend your time only with links from those websites that look interesting, and finally exercising good judgment in extracting interesting internal and external links from feed articles that you read. To use the New Leaf Journal as an example again, I would be surprised given the number of topics that I cover if even my biggest fan is interested in everything I write about, not to mention that some of my articles are certainly better than others. Moreover, people who use this approach should attend to their feed lists. Because one finds a site worth subscribing to a point A does not mean that he or she will be interested enough in it to keep it on the list at point B. Moreover, my idea for using feed articles to recommend new articles applies to feeds as well. You may find entire websites worth subscribing to from links you follow in your feeds.
I will offer two recent examples of how this works for me. I read an article in Atlas Obscura (one of my feed subscriptions) about an unfortunate bird in Hawaii going extinct. That article linked to several external articles about bird conservation issues from around the world. I saved several of those links into my read-it-later solution. Those links about different birds and their conservation challenges were also interesting, and at least two of those links yielded additional links of interest. Thanks to one article in Atlas Obscura, my list of articles to share in future editions of The Newsletter Leaf Journal’s weekly around the web section grew by about four.
Being a resident of Brooklyn, New York City (this is well-documented here at The New Leaf Journal), I subscribe to a number of very local feeds. While reading through local articles, I came across a website called Streetsblog NYC, which had written about an issue of particular interest. I saved the Streetsblog link into my feed reader, and from the saved article I saved two additional links. After reading the additional links, one of which irritated me with its pro-bike position and inspired an idea for a new New Leaf Journal article, I figured that I had seen enough to add the site to my feed collection. I confirmed that Streetsblog NYC has an un-advertised RSS feed, and I added it to my feed collection. It is entirely possible that at some point a Streetsblog NYC article may link to a site I had not previously heard of that I want to add to my feed collection.
All of this is theoretically possible without a feed reader or read-it-later set-up. But having a feed reader ensures that you receive timely updates from your favorite sources and having a read-it-later tool makes it exceedingly easy and convenient to make the best use of your updated articles for comfortable reading, saving and archiving, and seamlessly discovering new articles and websites linked from your preferred sources.
One reason that people like, or think they need, social media and tools like Google News, is timeliness. The internet promotes new content. However, my set-up does not deliver everything (other than articles from my feed sources), but being alerted the moment it is off the presses is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the best online writing is worth reading well after it is originally published. I subscribe to enough news sources to stay abreast of the current event issues I am interested in as they occur. Through my feed articles, I find links to other perspectives or angles on those issues when they occur and articles from previous months and years that remain thought-provoking today.
Mr. Forte noted that some read-it-later solutions (not to mention feed readers), have their own recommendation engines and algorithms. He cited to Pocket as an example in the read-it-later field, and I believe that some of the commercial feed reader services offer this functionality. While I strongly advise curating a feed collection with an eye toward subscribing to sites that have the tendency to provide you with good additional reading, using a service like Pocket or Feedly can provide one with an additional, algorithm-aided sea of article recommendations.
I also recommend subscribing to feeds or sites that have a tendency to share or post external articles that you find interesting. For example, I subscribe to the Hacker News page one RSS feed. I am not interested in most of the articles that make page one, but I will usually find a couple of links to look into each day. These links (not to mention the sometimes-interesting Hacker News discussions) come from sites that are not in my feed subscription list. Thus, my Hacker News page one feed is a great tool for “discovering” new articles outside of my personal bubble. Another good example in my case is my subscription to Brownstoner, a Brooklyn real estate blog. On weekdays, one of its columnists posts an article containing interesting links about Brooklyn news. These often (but not always) come from sites that are not in my feed collection and thus offer additional reading options outside of my feed collection.
Note on the Other Purpose of Social Media
I recall seeing some responses to my post on RSS as a Facebook alternative, which was our first article to make an appearance on Hacker News page one, complaining that people use social media for networking in addition to reading. Note, for the record, your author is aware of this. While I do not personally use social media for keeping in touch with people – I use ancient tools such as SMS, XMPP, and some exciting new tools like Matrix – I recognize this use-case. The instant article is about replacing social media for online reading. I also submit that it is about replacing solutions like Google News and Apple News, which exist largely beyond the user’s control, for reading (although note that you can subscribe to Google News queries via RSS, for those so inclined). There is no feed reader/read-it-later set-up that I am aware of that will allow you to seamlessly communicate with those on your social graph. However, for those who need, say, Facebook or Instagram, for some social or business purpose or another, consider my suggested set-up as a way to ensure that you only need your big tech social media for utilitarian social or business purposes, and can leave your online reading and curating to feeds and read-it-later. On the off-chance you happen across an interesting external link on social media, you can save it to your read-it-later solution instead of reading it on the spot.
(Note that some social media does offer feeds. YouTube has built-in RSS feed functionality, and, no longer having a YouTube account, I use RSS feeds to receive updates from a small number of YouTube accounts. It is possible to get RSS feeds from Twitter, although I know not whether that will remain the case indefinitely. Fediverse social media software, including Mastodon and Pixelfed (I discussed Pixelfed feeds in an article) offer feeds. However, for whatever it is worth, I generally disfavor following microblogs such as Twitter or Mastodon by feed for reasons I explained here.)
Additional Recommendation: Read Books
Nothing in the instant article should be construed as recommending feeds and read-it-later tools as an alternative to reading books, something I am getting back to doing more of now that I dealt with some technical issues here at The New Leaf Journal. Books and interesting papers are the best in long-form content. This article is solely about making the best of online reading. Ideally, making the most of online reading will help some people who have been damaged by years of flitting through social media pages develop the attention and discipline they need to once again tackle books, whether on e-readers or in paper form. A good feed collection may even recommend good books to read along with all of the interesting online writing.
My particular preferences in how I use feeds and read-it-later tools may not work for everyone, but I think that there is some set-up along the lines I suggested that will work for everyone looking for a good and convenient way to find and read interesting writing (as well as view interesting media) online. To the extent I set these solutions against social media, I am advocating for replacing social media reading because your time is valuable and that the system I propose will make make reading articles worthy of your time as convenient as possible. I reiterate that the way to replace mindless scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit or (please no) TikTok is not a gimmick, it is instead something better.
Much of the internet is a cesspool of ads, self-serving algorithms, blog-spam, generally bad content, and general wastes of time. However, the internet is also the doorway to great writing, great works, and meaningful news of the hour. The best way to use your online reading time is to choose your reading wisely and make it easy to expand your reading universe.