Take back control of what you read
A kinda-sorta review of Readwise Reader.
What you read guides your decision making. And the internet is full of things to read, curated by corporate algorithms or people with powerful agendas, each piece barking at you to click and consume, now now now.
The good news is that there are tools to help you wrestly back control of your information diet, and make reading online fun again. That let you create a sort of ever-evolving magazine, filled with stuff you like and can learn from, bypassing the algorithms and agendas, stripped of ads and nonsense and noise. And that you can then digest in your own time, on your own terms, without ever needing to browse the open web or log on to social media.
I don't normally plug specific products. But I've found Readwise Reader (RR) to be the best of these tools that I've tried so far. In the months I've been using it, it's improved how I consume information. It's saved me a lot of time hunting for articles. And it's introduced me to many new viewpoints.
RR is paid software, but I get nothing from recommending it. And while it's not perfect, if you're up for trying it, it could help you get more control over your information diet, too.
So here's a short rundown of how I use RR for my current workflow: collecting articles, curating them, and consuming them.
Here's how it works. You create an account in RR. Then, you follow some publications and authors, by adding them to your list of 'feeds’. You can follow blogs, newsletters, media outlets, even YouTube profiles. Just click ‘add feed’ and enter the URL you want to follow.
I mainly follow sites that publish content with a longer shelf-life: opinion, analysis, essays and the like. (Social media and legacy media websites are still best for breaking news. But in 90% of cases, I don't need breaking news.) And I try to gather a range of views, which include arguments I expect to disagree with.
Whenever the sites you're following publish new content, RR puts it into a list. This is your main 'Feed'.
RR makes it easy to scan this list, either on the web or mobile. You put articles you want to save for later into your 'Library'. The rest are automatically marked as ‘seen’, and disappear from the list (you can retrieve them whenever you like). I scan this list two or three times a day, going through a few dozen articles each session.
Click on any entry and you'll see the whole article, without ads, clearly formatted.
There's another way to get content into your Library. Say you come across a link you’d like to save for later. Or you have a newsletter in your inbox you don't want to read right now. With RR you can send it all straight to your Library with a few clicks.
Now whenever you fancy a reading session, you open up your Library in RR and dive in. Once you’re done with an article, you send it to your 'Archive' with a click. Everything you’ve read is easy to find again should you need it, which is great for doing research.
I do this twice a day, usually with a coffee. (If I need to concentrate on a piece, I’ll print it.)
Other clever features
RR has a few other useful tricks.
Its mobile app can read articles to you if you're on the go. It can summarise articles using AI, to help you figure out if a piece is worth your time. It accepts PDFs and e-books. It makes it easy to pick up articles where you left off. And it lets you highlight important parts of the text to recall later.
Also, it generates a transcript for YouTube videos, obviating the need to watch them.
What could be better
RR is missing a few features for me. It's in constant development, and some of the suggestions below are on the product's roadmap. But for the sake of completeness I'll mention them here.
I've had a few exchanges with the developers, and sent these points to them as feedback. So this gets a bit technical – skip this section unless you’re curious.
[Update 04/03/23: The developers responded with some detailed comments.]
1. Help with article overload
With a few months’ curation of two hundred feeds, I’ve got an embarassingly large backlog of articles right now in my Library. As a result, great articles get lost; scanning the Library for things to read now takes time.
(I know much of owning your information diet is about building good habits, and for sure I'm not there yet. Perhaps I should have been more selective, or followed less feeds.)
Anyway, RR has a ‘Daily Digest’ feature to solve this, which proposes old articles to read. But, in its current form, it doesn’t fit my workflow, since it requires me to browse feeds I’ve already been through. I could organise my library by tags, which might make it easier to navigate. But I can’t get the hang of doing this, because I can never figure out what tag to apply.
I wish the software could surface articles I'm most likely to enjoy reading, based on my reading habits. And apply some kind of loose organisation, like the sections of a magazine. (I know that would introduce algorithms back into the mix. But I'd be OK with it since it'd be drawing from a pool of content I've already curated.)
2. Make the links shareable
I've curated my Library twice a day for several months. Those minutes add up. So for that investment, I think I should be able to share the links to all these articles, too. RR lets me export a list of links, but this isn’t practical. An RSS feed would be better.
3. Make it easy to get the articles out of RR
RR wants you to read in its apps, and it does a great job here. But since these articles are just text and images, I should be able to get this content out of RR easily. Let me select the articles and generate a PDF, for printing or sharing.
4. Make it private
In the movie Seven, detectives tracked down a serial killer by analysing who took certain books from the library. I don't have anything dubious in my feed, and I'm not a serial killer. But the principle remains: reading habits will tell you a lot about a person. It's private information.
Other reading apps use iCloud for sync, which is quite secure. RR should at least have two-factor authentication to ensure this information is kept from prying eyes.
5. Make it simple
RR is too complex for the average user. There are too many options. While I like tinkering with it, I wish the software was more opinionated and made the hard choices for me.
For example, instead of letting me change line length and spacing in my articles, pick the best typography for my screen size. Settle on one workflow and polish the hell out of it. Offer the most intuitive views and searches instead of limitless ways to look at my content.
The software needs to be humanised and simplified. Less Google, more Apple.
6. Accept podcasts as a format
I listen to a lot of podcasts, but don't have time to hear them all. It'd be great to be about to upload a podcast episode into RR's Library. The software could then produce a transcript, which I could search, highlight, summarise and keep safe in my archive.
Using a reader app feels delightfully subversive. It's like cheating: you get the best of the web with none of the shite. And Readwise Reader is top-notch software for doing it. Give it a try.