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Readability Q&A: Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky of Longform

This post is part of an ongoing series of conversations about the reading experience and the broader possibilities surrounding digital content, publishing, and the future of reading. From time to time we sit down with the brightest folks we know to get their thoughts on those topics and share them with you here. 

Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky are the creative and editorial forces behind Longform, a venture dedicated to collecting and presenting quality long form articles from across the web. In addition to running, they launched a successful iPad app this year, and are a featured content partner inside Readability’s own apps.

We caught up with Aaron and Max earlier this week and asked them a few questions about their work.

When did you first get the idea for Longform? Was it something you’d been thinking of for awhile, or did it become apparent after a certain event or the appearance of a particular piece of technology?

We started to think about doing the site as a response to getting iPhones and becoming a bit obsessive about having stuff to read on the train.

Originally, there was a small group of friends who were forwarding a lot of stories to each other, and it seemed like it was worth presenting the best of them on a website along with “read later” buttons. We intended to do the site as a hobby, but it got popular enough quickly enough that we started to take it a bit more seriously. The release of the iPad and stuff like Send to Kindle certainly helped spur interest.

Do you think your jobs as editors varies from the traditional definition of the role? What’s your day-to-day like? 

Yes, absolutely. We’re not even sure “editor” is the right title. We’ve always framed our job as “pick interesting stories” and “deliver them efficiently.” In terms of stuff we work on, picking the stories is only a part of what we do. We spend more time working on how to best get those stories in front of readers, whether it’s through a read later service, our app, Twitter, a weekly email, etc.

“We’re not even sure ‘editor’ is the right title. We’ve always framed our job as ‘pick interesting stories’ and ‘deliver them efficiently.’”

Aaron’s focus is mostly around designing Longform as an overall product, and the bulk of that day-to-day is working on our app, which will be coming out in a significantly expanded format for the iPhone (in addition to the iPad, which it’s already available for) in the next 3 months to 15 years. (We like to keep it mysterious.) We’re obviously huge fans of Readability and the whole concept of read later, but we’re trying to envision a reading service that works entirely in-app, no web browsing necessary, so a lot of the day to day is figuring out how that works as an editorial, design, and development challenge.

Max manages the editorial stuff, so he spends his day working with our growing team of contributing editors, talking to editors and writers, and keeping an eye on the awesome recommendations our readers submit. He also handles the business side of what we do—advertising, sponsorships, partnerships—and manages the Longform podcast, a weekly conversation with a non-fiction writer.

We both do quite a bit of reading.

You’ve chosen to focus specifically on long form content. What led you to that? How do you see that evolving over time? 

There is a specific experience that the internet is very good at, in which you rapidly move through content of all kinds, most of it pretty short. We’re not against this experience—we might even be addicted to it—but we wouldn’t describe it as a “reading” experience.

“Filtering the internet at the 2,000 word mark removes almost all of the bullshit.”

We don’t see our focus as being on “long,” but rather on stuff that you can actually sit down, concentrate on, and read. We choose to organize ourselves around that kind of content because, unlike a short blog post, it’s better experienced outside of a web browser. That gives us an opportunity to design a new (hopefully improved) experience around those quote-unquote long articles that contrasts, rather than replicates, the browsing experience. We’re fans of apps like Flipboard, but they’re a good example of design that brings the web browsing experience inside an app. We want to do the opposite—bring the cleanliness and simplicity of the e-book to the great writing that is available all over the web.

Also, there is more incredible long form writing available on the web than ever before. We only link to articles over 2,000 words. Filtering the internet at the 2,000 word mark removes almost all of the bullshit. Not many publishers are pushing scammy, link-bait crap that’s over 2,000 words. It’s just not worth their time.

In terms evolution, we see a lot of places to expand without shifting focus. Letting readers customize the site and app to reflect their unique interests is one way we can do that. The stream is general interest, but we can do more for readers who want to geek out on a specific topic.

You mentioned that it started with a small group of friends forwarding articles to each other. How big a role does that kind of shared discovery play in your daily reading routine? Is it something you ever envision incorporating into your work with Longform? 

Shared discovery plays a huge role in our personal reading and a lot of it ends up on Longform. Longform gets recommendations from our readers, and we read almost everything that comes in. We have five to six editors working on the site now, and we found most of them because they were heavy recommenders. Writers and editors are encouraged to send their own work and lots do. It should be no surprise that writers and editors are huge readers, and they’re a great source recommendations. We’re starting to develop some new modes for finding stories, like taking say Hacker News or Metafilter and running all of their links through a 2000-word-plus filter and seeing what comes out on the other side.

We’ve thought of including more direct sharing functions, but always ended up concluding that Twitter, Facebook, and email do a pretty damn good job, and everyone already knows how they work. Twitter is great because it’s a very large group of people trading links and the links are accessible to all. We’ve met people who’ve never been on the site and only access Longform through Twitter and that’s awesome. We’re not a pageview-driven project, so however you want to interface with the articles—the web, our app, Twitter, email newsletter, RSS, whatever—is encouraged.

When you say, “better experienced outside of a browser,” why is that? Is that because of a quality that’s inherent to the Web, or is it an artifact of bad design and learned behavior? 

Bad design has certainly contributed, but there are publications out there designing beautiful page layouts (SB Nation features, Pitchfork cover stories), so we think it’s unfair to make an argument based on the worst examples. The culprit is the browsing mindset. And even if browsing is “learned,” it seems unlikely that anyone is going to unlearn it now.

The whole web is set up for maximum browsability—the experience of quickly jumping across pages and moving on to the next thing. You can masterfully design a little park for quiet contemplation, but that doesn’t change the honking frenetic city that the park is locked within. Tools like Readability are great for focusing in on an article, but they don’t disable the nine other open browser tabs that a reader has luring them. People shouldn’t feel bad about it—the web is just set up that way. Knowing that browsing is just a part of your average reader’s day, we want to design around other parts of their day. Competing for “browse” time is a losing battle. So we try to figure out how to be a part of people’s commutes, flights, and Sunday coffee—all activities that don’t mix well with browsing.

David is the founder and principal of Stuntbox, LLC and former Readability Product Lead. You can follow him on Twitter.

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