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“Twitter Isn’t Raising the Character Limit. It’s Becoming a Walled Garden.”

Smart take from Will Oremus, writing for Slate. He posits that Twitter’s rumored move to allow longer tweets is effectively its version of Facebook’s “Instant Articles”:

Twitter, like Facebook, has long played the role of a switchboard that routes people to in-depth stories elsewhere on the Web. This is great for those other sites, but not so great for Twitter, which is essentially giving away one of the Internet’s most valuable commodities: readers’ attention.

“Beyond 140” (Twitter’s code name for the new feature) would essentially replace links to external content with content hosted by Twitter itself.

This makes sense, from Twitter’s perspective (even if I resent the change as a content creator. I would’ve guessed that Twitter might partner with Medium, a closed blogging platform that already hosts writers’ work in a similar way. Medium was founded by Ev Williams, who also co-founded Twitter and still sits on Twitter’s board. But apparently Twitter would rather keep users’ content in-house.

One question about “Beyond 140”, though: why 10,000 characters? Twitter applied that arbitrary limit to direct messages last summer, but how did they arrive at the number? 10,000 characters is approximately 2,000 words—longer than most blog posts and long enough that many users would never even approach the limit. So why not just drop the character limit entirely?

My guess: Twitter considers brevity an essential part of its brand identity. An unlimited character limit would mean that Twitter had effectively done nothing more than build another closed publishing platform. But if the announcement includes a fixed limit (even an absurdly large number like 10,000), Twitter can market the change as a natural extension of its familiar clipped format.

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Instapaper crosses the “tricky line”

My read-later service of choice, Instapaper, recently added a signature feature: multi-page stitching. When activated on articles split into separate pages, Instapaper will now fetch all the content and splice it together for you. Very handy!

The addition represents an about-face for Marco Arment, Instapaper’s developer. As he wrote last July,

Nearly all of Instapaper’s competitors… offer automatic multi-page fetching and stitching into one long page. To date, I’ve intentionally not offered this feature on Instapaper. I’ll seek out publicly available “single page” links and automatically fetch those instead, but I don’t create a single-page view that doesn’t otherwise exist publicly on a publisher’s site.

I’ve been torn about this for a while, since I’m losing business to competitors because of it. It’s a risky move for me to even talk about it like this. But I feel like multi-page stitching is a tricky line to cross, and for the time being, I don’t feel comfortable crossing it.

Marco Arment, “Saving John Siracusa’s massive Lion review to Instapaper”

Why does (or did) Marco consider multi-page stitching a “tricky line”? My guess: it undermines (or, at least, side-steps) many online publications’ business models. Ads get stripped out and go entirely unseen by the reader. Sites that make single-page articles a premium feature (e.g. Ars Technica) lose out on potential subscribers.

Whatever Marco’s reasons for toeing the “tricky line,” he crossed that line on Thursday. He unveiled a brand new version of Instapaper’s page-saving bookmarklet–one that fetches, then stitches together multi-page articles.

The change’s timing was interesting. Earlier that same day, Readability (arguably Instapaper’s main competitor) released their own long-awaited iOS app. A few hours later, Instapaper integrated stitching, one of Readability’s marquee features. It seems unlikely that the near-simultaneous releases were coincidental.

Readability has enjoyed massive attention these last few days. Apple featured it as “App of the Week.” Its stylish typography and attractive font options have earned admiration from the designer crowd. Perhaps most importantly (and unlike Instapaper), Readability is completely free. Did Marco counter the Readability hype by adding a long-hoped-for feature to Instapaper? Did Readability’s encroachment into the App Store prompt Marco to finally “cross the line”?

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Readability is Apple’s featured iPhone app this week.

On yesterday’s Build and Analyze podcast, Marco addressed the situation. He shared candidly about the challenges of “competing with free.” He recounted how his history with Readability’s developers left him feeling screwed. Surprisingly, however, Marco didn’t mention his change of heart on multi-page stitching.

Instead, Marco lambasted his competitors for stealing features from his own app. “I am very concerned with appearing like a copycat myself, even though they pretty much copied my whole product,” he said. He then went on to assert that “The fonts [in Readability] are pretty much the only major thing their app does that I would want to ‘steal’.” This seems disingenuous to me, considering the recent addition of multi-page stitching to Instapaper.

Again, I’m a happy Instapaper user. And I enjoy Marco’s blog and podcast. But I’d love to hear a bit more from him about two issues:

  1. Why “cross the line” now? Was the addition of multi-page stitching a nod to pragmatism? Has the competition grown too fierce to leave it out—even if publishers resent the lost ad views? Even if it makes Marco feel uncomfortable?
  2. Did Instapaper copy multi-page stitching from its competitors? If this doesn’t count as copying, why not?

UPDATE: Marco responded on Twitter (the tweet below is part 2 of 3):

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UPDATE 2: My follow up (and his reply):

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Libraries and ebooks.

Libraries may be doomed. The digital age will force these beloved community institutions to streamline, prioritize, and (ultimately) reinvent themselves. In fact, this transformation is already underway. Libraries (like mine) are incorporating digital assets into their collections. At the moment, I’ve got Born to Run, The Accidental Billionaires, and the A Game of Thrones quadrilogy queued up on my iPhone.

Now, this new service may not stem libraries’  long-term financial blood loss. But for patrons like me, library eBooks offer some great advantages. First (and foremost), they’re free. All you need to check out titles is a local library card. Second, they’re convenient. Lending periods are comparable to those of dead-tree books, and you can browse, check out, and download eBooks from the comfort of home. At last, you can visit your local library in just your underpants.

But there are some significant downsides to library eBooks, too. For one, transferring books onto your device is clunky. Here are the steps: visit the library website on my PC, download an authorization ticket, email said ticket to my iDevice, open it with my favorite reader app, download the book itself. In other words, the process is too complicated for the average bibliophile!

Other disadvantages are common to all eBooks, whether borrowed or purchased. For example, the hardware still isn’t ideal. On phones, the screen is too small. Get ready for a lot of swiping; because so little text fits on each tiny page, the average book easily balloons up to a thousand pages. Tablets fare better, but their resolution is so low that text can look jagged and fuzzy–not ideal for extended bookworm sessions. Such problems are exacerbated by poorly formatted eBooks (all too common). Often, you’ll lose precious screen real estate to weird spacing bugs, irremovable margins, and mal-adapted images.

A final disadvantage: eReading demands serious self-discipline. My phone is packed with apps–most of them far shiner (and less productive) than my eReader. Who can press through another paragraph, when faux Scrabble awaits? Why exegete another endless sentence, when Angry Birds requires no such concentration? Why strain to follow a chapter-long argument, when bite-size tweets are infinitely more digestible? By the time I finish with my other apps, any leisure time I had is long gone.

Still, despite the problems, publishing’s future lies with the eBook. Presumably, then, eBooks must figure prominently in libraries’ future, as well. Hopefully, they survive long enough to work out the kinks.