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by Jacob O'Bryant

The messy future of social media

The Next Chapter of Readwise, published last September, explains how Readwise is expanding beyond being just a reading highlights app. With Readwise's current product, you do your reading in some other app (like an ebook reader), and then you sync your highlights to Readwise. Then they help you review and organize your highlights.

Now, they've launched a private beta for a reader app. You could think of it like a souped-up RSS reader that also handles newsletters, ebooks, etc.

One framework we've found especially helpful to structure such product discussions is to separate reading into three components: before, during, and after you read.

Their first product addressed the "after" stage; the new product will let them move into the "before" and "during" stages as well.

There's also Matter, which raised a Series A round in couple months ago. They seem to be building something similar. I myself have used Feedbin for a while, which is a simple web app that handles RSS, newsletters, and tweets.

I'm excited for these kinds of apps. I hope they grow in popularity and get lots of competitors. RSS readers are nothing new, but there's so much room to innovate. These apps take the reading experience away from social media sites, where the product has been optimized to serve the network, and move it into a standalone tool, where network effects have less influence on product decisions.

Optimizing for the network isn't (necessarily) a bad thing, since users benefit from having a strong network. But I think separating the reading app from the network (with different organizations working on each) provides a valuable check-and-balance.

I think declare that the best path forward for social media (for lack of a better term) is for more people to start working on these independent reader apps and for other people to work on "a la carte" networks that can be overlaid on top. My own product is an example of the latter, as is Refind. Both are recommender systems delivered by email—in The Sample's case, we aggregate newsletters and help you find new ones to subscribe to, whereas Refind aggregates articles and sends you a handful each day based on your interests.

Since these networks deliver their content via a standard protocol (email), they can be plugged into different reader apps easily. You can try out different reader apps without being tied to a network, and you can plug into different networks without being tied to a particular reading experience. And that means it's easier for people to experiment, creating new apps and networks without having to overcome high barriers to entry. It's Mike Masnick's vision of Protocols, Not Platforms, and it's already here—just not evenly distributed.

I call this future "messy" because there isn't one big "social media protocol" under which everything operates. Protocols are nice for helping different apps communicate with each other, but they come with coordination overhead, which can slow innovation. The winning approach is to have lightweight protocols which cover only the essentials—just enough so that we can keep reader apps and networks interchangeable. SMTP, RSS and HTTP already go a long way in this regard. Based on my experience building The Sample, I think we'd benefit from one more simple protocol. Perhaps I'll write about that next week.

Published 12 Dec 2021

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