A Web Designed for Readers: Mandy Brown Confab 2011

Here are my notes from Mandy Brown’s Confab 2011 talk, A Web Designed for Readers.

You can find Mandy at:

A Book Apart (Editor)
A List Apart (Contributing Editor)
Typekit (Community and Support Manager)
A Working Library (Great writing)

Mandy asks, how can we craft a better, sustainable reading model for the web?

Aby Warbug was a German scholar, from a wealthy banking family. He was expected to take over the family business, but he was more interested in literature and in reading books. To be able to spend his lifetime doing what he loved, he convinced his younger brother Max to take over the family business, on the condition that Max bought Aby as many books as Aby wished.

As part of taxonomy, today, we use the Dewey Decimal System to organize books in libraries. Warburg’s library was circular. He used a thematic aproach to organizing his library, which he changed and evolved over time. He even became frustrated with shelving. He wanted to have a visual system, and created a Mnemosynea way to post images on large black clothes.

This is a great metaphor for reading on the web, the cross-functional, contextual way we read on the web. You’re collecting this great big, source of personal references and texts in messy, interesting ways.

Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory–Warburg was constrained by the technology of his time. We’re not constrained—that’s what the web does best, connecting things and ideas.

There are ways we can make reading on the web better.

Content on the web is dispersed. Consider the newspaper, for example. Content is changing. It used to be delivered to your door. You’d get one, maybe two newspapers. Nobody gets 15 papers delivered to their door, it’s too impractical. The web makes the news better. You can read as many newspapers as you want and you can get perspectives on things from all over the world, including Twitter. Eye-wintess accounts on Twitter are now part of the news.

Good content is dispersed, liberated, sustainable, and generative.


The web depends on content being shareable.

A single piece of content with no way in or out is in a silo. The anchor element is our connection to the world. A proliferation of links is what makes reading on the web so powerful.


In print content is stuck, other than photocopying a page and mailing it, you can’t do anything with it. On the web, you can transform the content, you can save it to your desktop, post it to Twitter, port it to Instapaper, etc.


Reader attention is renewable, but it is also finite. When you talk about sustainability on the web, you must talk about money.


Subscriptions are steadily declining. The Economist is an exception, the Wall Street Journal is an exception. But, they violate the shareability principle. They’re not connected—hyperlinks break when a pay wall is in place. The New York Times is trying to make content connectable and shareable, but there are problems. Is their model sustainable?


Classified advertising is nearly non-existent. Craigslist has taken over. The personals have even migrated to places like match.com. They’re not coming back. Dictionary.com stooped so low as to have a takeover ad that became the entire site. Bad idea!

Readers are good at focusing on content that they want, and skippping over ads. Mandy says she doesn’t think this kind of adverting has a future. Advertising is a disease—the logical conclustion is the million dollar homepage—all ads, no content.

Advertising that disrespects readers is not sustainable.

There are examples of advertising that have been done well, that offer value to readers. Ads that respect the readers’ experience include The Deck. The Deck does two things well: the ads are relevant, they only feature products that readers care about; they’re unobtrusive, one ad per page, there’s no competition with other ads. They’re discreet, they actually add value. It’s a polite approach to advertising. Fusion ads must be attractive to be included as part of the network. The ads are invitation only—as in “this is a product we love and want you to know about it.” They’re great for the advertiser because they come with editorial content.


A List Apart magazine earns money from The Deck. ALA started as a listserv. There is a whole generation of designers and developers who learned how to do their work by reading A List Apart. A Book Apart and An Event Apart (the book imprint and the conference event) are able to be successful, because of the audience that reads ALA. And, ALA is free.

Company blogs

On the Typekit blog, they cover the technical aspects of working with type. They bring in contributing writers. It is the single best conversion souce for Typekit over any other source of traffic.

Patronage models

How we can directly pay for content?

How people pay for things on the web has changed over the years.

Shawn Blanc did a membership drive, asking for $3 a month to help support his wish to be a full time writer. Not a pay wall, more like a PBS membership drive. If you don’t pay, you still get content. However, there are members-only perks, such as the daily podcast, where he shares what he’s reading, what he’s thinking about, what’s getting his attention. There’s no real reason for Mandy to want to pay for this, but she enjoys getting access to his life as a writer. This reminded her about a Roger Ebert post—where he wrote about when he learned he could no longer eat solid food. He craved food at first, but realized it wasn’t the food he missed, it was the company, he missed the conversations that happen during meals; the community. It’s a connection that’s powerful

We’re at dinner right now–Roger Ebert


Frank Chimero’s book, called The Shape of Design, started off hoping to raise $27,000. It raised $112,159. Very successful funding, similar to Shawn Blanc’s membership plan, you get added content from the creator as a person who contributes. Frank creates trailers that show parts of the book that he’s working on.

Robin Sloan:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist. (Divergent)

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time. (Convergent)

These models are small, personal, and focused on the community. You feel like you’re part of something great.

It’s kind of like a farmers’ market approach as opposed to the national chain. It’s more expensive, less conveneient, but SO much more meaningful.

But can it scale? NO.

We need to find ways to support content so that we can help small, independent content providers have sustainable business models.

Cameron Koczon on liberated content:

  1. Distillation First, the content is stripped down to its raw essence. That essence could be an article, a tweet, a recipe, even a full webpage. What matters is that you end up with all wheat and no chaff. Distilled content is not, however, without attribution. The content never forgets where it is from and neither do you.
  2. Association After distillation, the raw content is free-floating and in need of a new home. This is done by tying that content to a user. The typical approach is to have a user account or a desktop folder where the content can reside.

Pinboard is a service for storing content for later, for cultivating links. It’s a bookmarking service for people with more bookmarks than friends. It’s powerful, minimal, and secure. Pinboard is not free. There’s a startup fee, that you can put toward an annual subscriber fee.

Yahoo slide was leaked about sunsetting Delicious. Whatever sunsetting was, it didn’t sound good! Pinboard got some crazy traffic. They went from 100 signups to 2500 signups per day, which is very challenging to deal with. Pinboard had to turn off a bunch of features to manage the growth. If PB wasn’t a paid sevice, the day that the sunset was leaked (December 16) would have taken them down. They’re sustainable.

Readability is a customized reading experience that shares revenue with content providers.

Recipe tools. I want someone to digitize my recipes, cross-pollinate them with fresh produce information and have an app that spits out what I should make today, based on what I can get fresh in New York.

Maps What if we could map content to a particular geography? What if we could stand on a streetcorner to see what people were writing about ten years ago during a historic moment?

Recommenations engines, human curators, text playlists, annotations: I’d like to see a way to gather things like the five things about wikileaks that you must read and why.

What happens to your bookmarks when you die? We’re going to need digital executors, so that your digital writings, your collections remain intact after your death.

Are we still READING?

Jakob Neilsen wrote that people don’t read. They skim. Only 16% of people read word by word, reading on the web is not about reading every single word. Skimming is the act of reading something quickly or superficially.

Book reference: How to Talk About Books you Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard.

If you’re spending a lot of time reading, you’re writing—you’re compelled to respond.

My most treasured books are the ones I couldn’t help writing in.

—Michael Lopp

One more pricniple: Generative: the ability to create content as well as consume it. This is the way in which reading becomes more than reading.

One final thought:

If you want a revolution, rhetoric is good, but running into the streets with torches is more effective.

—Rich Ziade

Readability may not work, but we can explore why.

There’s the concept of “rough consensus and running code” that creates change. It’s more than a simple majority, on the concept and running code. As content creators, we need to think about content and how others will perceive it, what will they do with it.

Get rough consensus and get running code: go make something!

3 thoughts on “A Web Designed for Readers: Mandy Brown Confab 2011

  1. Thank you so much for posting your notes! It shames me how much better than mine they are.

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