Nov 202013
 

The most intuitive way to structure a paywall with respect to premium content — like, say, a longform reported magazine piece or a Snowfall-style multimedia feature — is to offer the cheaper content for free and put the premium stuff behind the gate. I say intuitive simply because it costs you more to produce that stuff; it makes sense, to the extent you’ve decided to charge at all, that you don’t give it away.

But recently I’ve been thinking about the argument for a simpler metered approach where all content counts equally, that came to mind thanks to this quote from Nate Silver (who wasn’t talking at all about paywalls). Here he is via Nieman Lab:

On balancing features and blogging-style analysis

We see them as two related, familial, but separate content silos. From a practical economic standpoint, one of the wonderful things about blogs, as they were originally invented, was you had relatively low transaction cost for producing a blog post. Not that it doesn’t have to be high quality — but you’re not necessarily spending as much of an editor’s time on it, you’re not going through multiple iterations. It’s more thinking about things in real time.
So in some ways, we want to, on our blog, get back more to what we think are the core differentiating values of blogging, and not this kind of in-between space a lot of news organizations have wound up in where everything became called a blog, and then it became unfashionable, so nothing gets called a blog.We do make a distinction based mostly on how quickly the content is turned out. What we call a feature is something where it’s assigned, generally in advance, and goes through at least one, maybe multiple rounds of edits.A blog is something which still has to be very good — and it’s as hard, relatively, to hire bloggers as it is to hire feature writers. It’s something that might get a quick read, and maybe has a little bit more voice, but also saying “this is my thinking in real time,” or my work in progress. How we’ll flesh that out exactly in practice, I’m not sure, but I feel like there is an important distinction to be made between the two.

This got me thinking about the awesomeness of truly good blogging, the way it makes you want to check in every 10 minutes to see if the author has something new to say. It’s why I still want to read everything Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, or Tyler Cowen writes.

Now here’s Silver on balancing between loyal readers and broader traffic:

I think with almost any web product you have two types of audience. You have your core, everyday readers and then you have the people you reach out to from time to time. I think that having the right content mix, where you can have big spikes in content by doing something interesting and different from time to time, but also making sure that people who are reading the site every day feel they’re getting a good healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday, full of FiveThirtyEight content.

All of which made me suddenly reconsider my intuition on paywalls and premium content. I hear Silver making the case for a metered model that treats everything equally. The high quality stuff can “travel” on social, reaching readers who otherwise wouldn’t stop by, and because they haven’t used up their content quota, they can view it for free. It’s essentially a loss leader that attempts to draw in more regular readers. And what those devotees are paying for isn’t high production value or in depth reporting so much as immediacy and consistency. They want to read all (or lots of) what you put out.

We see both models today: The New York Times and The Washington Post are metered; The New Yorker makes it harder to get to its premium magazine content than to its blogs. But when I think about my own willingness to pay (or lack thereof) the metered approach strikes me as a bit more plausible, because it pulls out all the stops to build an affinity to the brand. Put another way, you’re making it extra difficult to gain paying customers when you put your best products out of reach.

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Nov 162013
 

Watson_Jeopardy

I recently read Tyler Cowen’s latest book Average is Over, and I’d recommend it to anyone thinking about technology and the future of the economy. It’s a highly readable vision of what the coming age of ubiquitous intelligent machines will mean for workers and the economy. Here’s a bit from Chapter 1 that captures Cowen’s thinking:

Workers more and more will come to be classified into two categories. The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? … If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch. Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other. That’s why average is over.

To be clear: the book is not about whether this is a good or bad thing, or whether its results will be positive or negative. But his articulation of what the world will look like is bleak:

We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given an okay standard of living to a society in which people are expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now. I imagine a world where, say, 10 to 15 percent of the citizenry is extremely wealthy and has fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives, the equivalent of current-day millionaires albeit with better health care.

Much of the rest of the country will have stagnant or maybe even falling wages in dollar terms, but a lot more opportunities for cheap fun and also cheap education. Many of these people will live quite well, and those will be the people who have the discipline to benefit from all the free or near-free services modern technology has made available. Others will fall by the wayside.

(You can read more about what Cowen thinks this will do to U.S. politics in this excerpt at Politico.)

If we accept for the moment that Cowen’s vision of how machine intelligence will transform the economy is basically right, how might we avoid this sad state of political and distributional affairs?

Enter the minimum income. As The New York Times recently explained:

Every month, every Swiss person would receive a check from the government, no matter how rich or poor, how hardworking or lazy, how old or young. Poverty would disappear. Economists, needless to say, are sharply divided on what would reappear in its place — and whether such a basic-income scheme might have some appeal for other, less socialist countries too.

(You can read Cowen on some of the shortcomings here.)

I see a few reasons why a guaranteed minimum income would fit nicely with the future Cowen describes.

1. Supplement the incomes of those unable to compete in the labor force. This is obvious. But the guaranteed minimum income strikes me as a way to maintain the notion of a guaranteed standard of living for all. Moreover, as intelligent machines put pressure on the labor market, tying that standard to work — as we do through the minimum wage — may make less sense.

2. Incentives to work would matter less than they do today. As the Times notes, one of the biggest concerns around a minimum income is that it would serve as a disincentive to work. But that should matter much less in the world Cowen envisions, where unskilled labor is largely displaced by machines. In that world, the fact that some citizens opt not to work would matter less to GDP. Moreover, it would be unlikely to impact the motivations of higher skilled workers, who would set out to earn far more than the guaranteed income provides.* This logic applies both to citizens working despite the option of a guaranteed minimum income and to the disincentive of higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy to support such a program. Don’t buy this? It would be even more true given #3.

3. Increased cultural emphasis on self-motivation will already be necessary. The world Cowen describes prizes self-motivation above almost everything else. If you’re motivated, you’ll take advantage of cheap education to work your way into the most productive echelons of the labor market. In such a world, a cultural focus on increasing self-motivation would be extremely helpful. Moreover, such a cultural emphasis would serve to bolster my arguments in #2, undercutting the argument that a guaranteed minimum income disincentivizes work. In other words, we would accept that financial incentives to avoid work existed, but overcome them in part by becoming a society obsessed with promoting curiosity-based learning and a quest for mastery or “flow.”

4. Some slack in the economy will be necessary to promote art and entrepreneurship. In this hyper-efficient, ultra-competitive world, the creation of a strong safety net would arguably be even more necessary to promote things like entrepreneurship and the arts. Entrepreneurship is mentioned as an argument for the guaranteed minimum income in the Times piece and I think it is a strong argument in two senses. First, a stronger safety net helps to de-risk entrepreneurship; if you forgo a higher income to found a startup and then fail, you’ll at least fall back on some level of comfort. Second, a minimum income would help to subsidize entrepreneurs’ incubation period, as already happens through “entrepreneur-in-residence” programs. If entrepreneurs can eat and live somewhat comfortably while working on their idea (but before it is at the point of making revenue or being attractive to investors), they’ll be more likely to take the plunge.

As for the arts, the tight labor market envisioned in Cowen’s book would put even more negative pressure on the wages of artists. Huge swaths of those without the skills to succeed in complementing machines would seek to become musicians, actors, painters, etc. bidding down wages for those industries. A minimum income would make it possible for artists to do their work.

For all these reasons, I see a guaranteed minimum income as a natural fit with the world Cowen describes. To be clear, I’m not saying I think we’ll necessarily get that world, or that a minimum income is actually a good idea. But as we ponder a world of machine intelligence and a bifurcated labor market, it’s something to at least consider.

Image via Wikipedia

*Even today, I would argue that the most productive workers are largely not motivated by money. Rather, they’re motivated by status, curiosity, and a sense of mastery. To the extent that money is a motivator, it’s largely as a substitute for status.

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Nov 162013
 

tetris

There was a piece in Fortune earlier this month with which I strongly disagreed, on the subject of healthcare, technology, and “gamification”. The post centers around a health tech hackathon and, I think, in dismissing the promise of gamification, misses one of the most promising aspects of health IT. Here’s the gist:

Several months ago, I sat in on a case competition at Boston University’s School of Management. The event played out over two days, during which 15 teams of five students from B-schools all over the world — India, South Korea, Canada, but mostly the U.S. — pitched their ideas for a company, one that would revolutionize health care (the stated goal was particularly jargon filled: “to leverage information technology to transform global health care and create value”)…

Immediately, a theme emerged, and the theme was games. “How do we gamify health care?”… As the day wore on, one of the Merck representatives finally asked, in exasperation, “Why would you make a game out of taking a pill? This will never be fun,” which is true…

I happen to think this is a bit needlessly cynical with respect to drug adherence, but the point I want to make is different. The term “health IT” tends to conjure the thought of medical records and the efficiency of medicine more broadly. But one of the most promising areas in my mind, specifically with mobile technology, is in gamifying health.

If you look at what’s driving U.S. healthcare costs, a huge chunk is driven by diseases directly caused by poor health behaviors like smoking, overeating, and lack of exercise. As I put it in a post a little over a year ago:

Want to crack healthcare costs? Help at-risk individuals smoke less, drink less, exercise more and eat better.

This is where the potential for gamification lies. (If you don’t like the buzzword, call it behavior modification.) Think of it like this: using a doctor to treat the fact that you eat too much and don’t get enough exercise is a terribly inefficient health plan. You go in every few months, the doctor scolds you for not sticking to your diet and exercise regimen, you go home and don’t change.

The opportunity is to leverage the fact that we now all carry powerful computers connected to the internet with us at all times (in the form of smartphones) to nudge us toward better behavior. This is by no means easy! And for now it’s way worse than the alternative of relying on a mix of social support from family and friends along with willpower and attempts to form better habits. But is it out of the question to think that mobile technology can supplement those things?

Think about RunKeeper, the running app, or GymPact, the workout commitment app, in this context. They’re both, basically, turning fitness into a kind of game, and they’re both using different motivational levers to try and increase your likelihood of exercising. This kind of thing — the good behavior layer — is where the potential for gamification lies. Not in making it more fun to take your pills or to receive a medical diagnosis.

The area that excites me in terms of health technology isn’t revolutionizing medicine, as big a deal as that may be, but revolutionizing health.

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Oct 042013
 

Contrary to what you’ve heard:

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 9.51.13 AM

 

That’s via a report from the London School of Economics, which concludes:

The music industry may be stagnating, but the drastic decline in revenues warnedof by the lobby associations of record labels is not in evidence.

This isn’t to say all is well in the music industry, and it doesn’t speak to the distribution of revenue between artists, studios, platforms like Spotify, etc. But the report points out that the music industry is making exaggerated claims about the harm that piracy is causing, in order to advocate for stronger intellectual property protection. Whatever the challenges faced by musicians, making it harder to remix and share culture isn’t the answer.

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Sep 022013
 

EconomicsHome

The questions of whether we can trust economists and what economics is good for are back, thanks to a New York Times post last week making an outrageous claim:

The fact that the discipline of economics hasn’t helped us improve our predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science

At Bloomberg, economist Justin Wolfers notes that the post contains no actual evidence for that claim (though Wolfers himself does not offer any). My take is that economics almost certainly has improved our predictive ability, but I won’t attempt to make that case here. (I’ll also note that much research into whether experts predict things well tends to focus on the most difficult cases in the field. Related: Wolfers has documented the strong degree of consensus within the economics profession, which doesn’t always come through in the media.)

But apart from all this, it strikes me that whether we can trust economists is an impoverished debate. How to trust economists – how to interact with their claims, when to trust those claims and when not to – is more interesting, relevant, and important. Yes, economists too often take on the role of philosopher or political scientist. Yes, sometimes their biases shine through in their recommendations. Yes, economics doesn’t have all the answers. And yes, some of those answers even turn out to be wrong *cough* Great Moderation *cough*. But plenty of the time, listening to economists is a good idea!

So I thought I’d transcribe the last page of a book called The Assumptions Economists Make, a very pessimistic tour of economic models throughout history by HBS professor Jonathan Schlefer. It’s an entertaining read; Schlefer has a PhD in Political Science, and his quite critical take focuses on the inconsistencies in economic models throughout time. (If the book has a central flaw it’s that it tends to do battle with these abstractions in the abstract; their usefulness is mostly secondary to their validity.)

Nonetheless, his concluding recommendations are a must-read for anyone grappling with how to trust economists:

  • Economists should transparently describe critical assumptions. These assumptions should be realistic and pertinent to the situations that a particular model seeks to explain.
  • Economists should explain the structure of their models. The structure of a model constitutes the perspective it sheds on some crucial aspects of an economy. Thoughtful individuals should not believe, and policymakers should not use, an unexplained model.
  • However realistic its assumptions, a model stands an excellent chance of ignoring crucial aspects of an economy because, among other things, incorporating them might well make the model too complex to handle. Think what factors it might miss.
  • There are always conflicting models to explain any given aspects of an economy  In looking for practical conclusions, weigh conflicting models.
  • Macroeconomies are incredibly complex. One of the most useful things economists can do is explain publicly what they do not know.

Though many of these are focused on what economists should do, turn them around and you have a nice list of questions to ask economists about their recommendations. The fourth one is particular important. I’d add that we should what data the model successfully does and does not explain.

Taken together, this provides at least the beginnings of a toolkit for politicians, journalists, and citizens to engage with the recommendations of economists. And engagement, ultimately, will be more fruitful than either blind acceptance or dismissal.

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Aug 282013
 

A series of recent blog posts and news items – here, here, here, here – have me worried about how Silicon Valley* and the startup world relate to the rest of culture and society. There’s a reason Wall Street has a bad name; Silicon Valley shouldn’t have to end up like that. Part of it is just not saying really silly, out-of-touch stuff. But an even bigger part has to do with what startup culture is really about.

I’m only an observer, so far be it from me to really define what startup culture is or isn’t. But it seems to me there are a few related factors that are emphasized to different degrees by different people and groups. They are: building new things; adding value; and making money.

In an ideal world, all three fit together. But it should be obvious that it’s possible to make money without really adding any value to the world, just as it’s possible to create something that’s new but doesn’t add value. And it’s the value-add piece of the startup and tech culture that I really think needs to be emphasized. I love hearing that community talk about their obsession with solving difficult problems, with providing utility for their users. And I actually think, considering how much money flows through startup land, the culture there does at least an OK job of not making it all about financial success.**

So what I’m a bit concerned about is a culture that’s overly obsessed with newness. Drop that heuristic – that new is good – into most places of the world and it’d be an improvement. But with the cost of creating something new now so low (at least in the software space) might Silicon Valley culture be over-emphasizing the desirability of merely bringing new things into the world?

A friend asked me recently what the latest wave of internet-enabled technology had actually done to improve the world, and I had to think a bit longer than I was comfortable with. I think there are compelling answers, but we have to provide them, and argue for them. It’s not enough to simply assume that new equals better.

If Silicon Valley wants to avoid sharing Wall Street’s reputation, it’s going to need to think about how it relates to the rest of society. In doing so, I recommend emphasizing a culture of solving problems and adding value, rather than just focusing on what’s new.

*I’m using ‘Silicon Valley’ more to refer to startup culture broadly than to the geography

**Maybe my view from the East Coast is skewed on this one and it’s not as good as I think

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Aug 262013
 

In the spirit of blogging more regularly, I just want to quickly flag something Fred Wilson said this month, though I don’t have the time to give it the attention I’d like to. Here he is, via Business Insider:

However, now that Android is winning, he [Wilson] says, “My new worry is that Android could run the table.”

After seeing that Google has 80% of the smartphone market, and more hip tech snoots are into Android, he’s worried that Google will completely control the smartphone market.

He’s hoping Apple releases a truly low-cost iPhone to gain marketshare.

“I find myself rooting hard for Apple now. I sense the danger they are in and I don’t want either smartphone OS to be so dominant that we lose the level playing field we have now,” says Wilson. “It’s very important for startups, innovation, and an open mobile ecosystem for all.”

Business Insider goes on to zero in on the idea that Apple could be in trouble. I want to touch on something else.

I like Wilson’s writing a lot, but I am very confused by the implication, as I read this, that more competition in the smartphone OS market will mean a more open mobile ecosystem. Really? Apple is historically the antithesis of open. And while Android isn’t Linux, there is a very real sense in which it is more open than iOS.

Put another way, “open” and “competitive” are different, though more of either of them tends to mean less control by any single company in a given market. That doesn’t mean they’re the same. “Open” is vague and means different things in different contexts, so let’s go to Tim Wu’s definition:

First, “open” and “closed” can refer to how permissive a tech firm is, with respect to who can partner with or interconnect with its products to reach consumers. We say an operating system like Linux is “open” because anyone can design a device that runs Linux.

We can agree, hopefully, that by this definition more Apple market share is unlikely to mean more “openness” in mobile.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing good about a more competitive landscape, or nothing to be feared by Google’s dominance. Ideally, I’d like to see relatively more open systems like Android push out more closed systems like iOS, but in a way where no single company has inordinate control of the open system(s) that are left. That’s not how things are looking with Android.

So we can argue about whether we need Apple and iOS as a counterweight to Google, and whether such a counterweight is good for startups and for innovation. But I don’t see the case for an increase in Apple’s market share leading to more openness.

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Aug 242013
 

“The problem with [a] spending freeze is you’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel.” -Barack Obama, 2007 presidential debate

The implication of the metaphor above is that it’s important to use the right tool for the job; you wouldn’t attempt surgery with a hatchet, after all. It’s a good line, especially when talking about cutting. But, of course, you wouldn’t try to perform a surgery only using a scalpel either. The list of surgical instruments is long, and the procedures are complex enough that there is no single tool that can itself get the entire job done.

McDonald’s and Wages

This idea that any single tool is likely inadequate for a complicated job has been on my mind lately, following an interesting debate about the wage that McDonald’s pays its employees. In particular, Business Insider’s Henry Blodget and Josh Barro have nicely captured this debate in competing posts (and in the short video debate below).

Blodget says McDonald’s just needs to suck it up and freely choose to make less profit in order to pay its workers more. Barro makes a standard economic argument to the contrary, suggesting that should McDonald’s do so, they will suffer for it:

Nor is the enforcement of such a moral norm likely to be an effective way to advance the interest of workers… If McDonald’s decides to pay more than it must, it can be outcompeted by competitors who will feel no such obligation.

Instead, he says, better public policy is the answer. Even there, though, there are limits. A higher minimum wage would almost certainly be good policy, for instance, but raise it too high, Barro argues, and you will start discouraging the hiring of low-wage workers. (Here’s a primer I wrote on the minimum wage a while back.)

If you care about the plight of low-wage workers, this can all be a bit depressing. Simply demanding that companies treat their workers better seems problematic, and at least some relevant public policies have their limits.

The answer, it seems to me, is to rely on multiple tools simultaneously. To pressure companies to treat workers better, while also raising the minimum wage, expanding the earned income tax credit, pursuing sound macroeconomic policy, etc. Rather than relying on any single approach to solve the problem on its own, hope that a number of levers can each make a dent.

Using the Whole Toolbox

There’s nothing original about the idea that thorny problems are unlikely to be solved via a single mechanism, and no doubt this point has been made by many authors in many contexts. But I want to build off one such formulation, offered by Lawrence Lessig in his book Code 2.0. His point, visualized below, is that behavior is shaped by laws, social norms, the market, and by physical architecture. He goes on to suggest that software defines the “architecture” of our online behavior.

Lessigs-four-forces

 

As I’ve been thinking about issues like the one above, I’ve kept coming back to Lessig’s drawing, but have mentally added several components. Here’s a very non-pretty articulation of what I’ve been thinking of:

Toolbox - Multi-lever thinkingTechnology: I’ve renamed “Architecture” here, to focus on the role that technology can play in solving a given problem.

Peer production: Though likely not relevant in the wages scenario, peer production – best articulated by Yochai Benkler – is a powerful new tool for thinking about a host of issues. It involves lage-scale collaborative production, often enabled by the internet and typically lacking hierarchical decision-making structures. Think Wikipedia, Linux, etc. I situated it between norms and technology to reflect its reliance on both.

Norms: Our commonly held knowledge, customs, expecations, etc.

Social enterprise: Situated between norms and markets, any commercial effort that is explicit in its desire to improve human well-being in ways that diverge from profit maximization. If a company decided to pay its workers more, for instance, not out of a belief that doing so would increase their share price, but because they felt it was the right thing to do, that would count. An enterprise specifically devoted to making a product or delivering a service because that product or service would help solve a certain social problem would also count.

Market: In my view, it’s wise to frequently ask, when confronted with a problem, could competitive markets solve this? And it’s wiser still never to assume the answer will be ‘yes’.

Market-based policy: Any policy that seeks to channel the benefits of markets. For example, “sin taxes” on things like booze, cigarettes, or soda seek to utilize market incentives to discourage unhealthy behavior. Cap-and-trade for climate change would be another example.

Law and policy: Any attempt to solve a problem through legislation or government rule-making.

Oftentimes, I end up approaching social problems primarily through the lens of policy. What’s the most efficient legislative fix to the issue? Or I might consider what role markets could play, or technology. But seldom do I consciously approach a problem with this entire toolbox in mind. It’s a goal of mine to do so more regularly.

I’m sure in some cases utilizing multiple tools could lead to some crowding out, where the use of one tool disrupts the use of another. But my guess is that in our messy world, we’re most often better off utilizing not just a hatchet, or even a scalpel, but the full range of tools at our disposal.

 

 

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Aug 162013
 

For years, the idea that the internet and social media are making us [insert ill here] has been a common trope in newspapers and magazines. It’s making us lonely! Narcissistic! We don’t communicate anymore, like really communicate, man! Despite the frequency of such claims, the evidence has pretty roundly contradicted it, as I’ve written seemingly over and over.

But is that the end of the story?

The honest answer – one that I’m loathe to admit sometimes, partly out of bias, and partly out of a frustration with the anti-tech bias of so many critics – is that we don’t yet really know.

So, in this spirit of reasonableness, I’m recommitting to keeping an open mind on this issue. I haven’t yet given some of the more credible critics the chance they deserve, but to start, here’s a list of interesting and recent arguments that give me pause.

Via BuzzFeed:

According to a University of Michigan study published yesterday in the online journal Plos One, Facebook use was seen to predict declines in the well-being of surveyed participants, negatively impacting both how people feel from one moment to the next as well as overall life satisfaction.

Separately, what impact are screens and the web having on children? Here’s an NPR segment that comes highly recommended:

Very young children, like many of their parents, can become totally absorbed with mobile touch-screen devices. Some argue that compared to the essentially passive activity of watching television, children and even toddlers using i-Pads, i-Phones, Androids and other kinds of touch-screen devices can have a far more stimulating, positive and educational experience. But parents and their children are way ahead of any research: No one can say for sure how using this technology shapes developing brains,if at all. Please join us for a conversation on young children and touch-screen devices.

Finally, here’s one more critical take that comes recommended from a former editor of mine.

Too often, tech critics have not only taken on straw men, but done so with an almost willful disregard for existing evidence. But that’s no reason to ignore serious, thoughtful analysis that questions the value of technology in our lives. I plan to give all the authors above the consideration they’re due, and hope you will as well.

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Jun 152013
 

I’m currently reading an excellent book about the financial crisis called After the Music Stopped by Princeton economist Alan Blinder. I’m about 3/4 done, and I’ve already recommended it to many people. The problem is that it’s 443 pages; I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to devote that much time to a comprehensive account of the financial crisis. On the other hand, I’ve wished at times it was longer. I would love to read Blinder’s take on the rift within macroeconomics during his discussion of stimulus, or on the ways that fiscal and monetary policy interact. I would probably have read the book at 600 pages; nerdier readers than me might have digested 1000.

Why don’t we, as readers, get to pick how long our content is?

If I want to read a 20 page summary of the financial crisis, why can’t After the Music Stopped be compressed to that length? And then if I find a part that fascinates me, why can’t I opt to go deeper, reading an additional 20 pages just on one particular subject?

This idea is in no way original. We already do it informally: when books get published, authors often promote them with a shorter article in a magazine (a great way to digest authors whose books, realistically, you’ll never find time to read). And many books, articles, and blog posts come with summaries.

But it’s time for content tools that do this automatically.

When you go to a lengthy article online, you should be able to select different versions of different lengths, and then (provided you didn’t select the full one) dig deeper as you choose at points throughout. Yes, this wouldn’t work for everything. It is a better fit for explainer-style writing than narrative. But for lots and lots of content online, it makes sense.

Blogging pioneer Dave Winer has understood this for some time, and has built tools to accomplish it. (See how you can expand and shrink items as you go in this post.) My hope is that others will build on this approach.

Building content around what amounts to an outline will be a challenge for some writers, but ultimately it is an opportunity. Lots of publications that produce long form content are having readers stolen away by aggregators who provide a reasonable service to readers by condensing the most interesting bits from the article and publishing them in a 500 word blog post. The strategy described above would let publications optimize for readers at varying levels of interest and busyness without writing multiple pieces of content.

In some cases, providing more depth won’t be about writing more, but about linking better. Offering the option to “expand” on a topic could mean quoting (reasonably) from another source, or perhaps pulling in relevant content from publicly licensed sources like Wikipedia.

If readers want to go deeper, the content should let them. And if they are short for time and only want the basics, it should let them get that, too.

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