Is Time-Shifted Web Content an Alternate Channel?

By Deane Barker

I’m wondering at what point does “time-shifted” web content constitute an entirely different distribution channel?

By “time-shifted,” I mean services like Instapaper, Readabilty, and Pocket (formerly ReadItLater, and my personal favorite). These services allow you to save web content to read it later, free from design, context or ads. When does this have enough usage to be respected as an entirely different distribution channel to which we must consider when writing or formatting content?

I already make concessions to it. If you look at the source of Gadgetopia, you’ll see a couple CSS classes called instapaper\_title and instapaper\_body that were placed there specifically for Instapaper. As a site owner with a content-focused site, I want people to consume this content in whatever method suits them best. If this CSS helps someone get cleaner Gadgetopia content at Instapaper, fantastic.

It helps that my business model is minor, I suppose. There is an ad on this site (there used to be more), but it’s down to just a few hundred dollars a month. If I depended on this site for more income, my perspective might be different.

Other people have made this argument:

Potential ethical issues aside, if we assume that time-shifting is a valid channel and that we want to embrace it, what do we do about it? Beyond just making the content easier to parse, what other changes would this drive?

The biggest thing I would speculate are content changes mean to compensate for the loss of context. I often read things in my Pocket queue not remembering where they came from or why I found them interesting enough to save them. I usually figure it out after I start reading, but not always – sometimes I finish an article and say to myself, “Well, that was interesting, but why the hell did I think I needed to save that?”

I’m wondering if Gadgetopia shouldn’t detect an inbound time-shifting service capture and change the content – add a paragraph at the bottom for “Saved from Gadgetopia, a blog about technology” or something? Additionally, we could perhaps move some links for related posts inline where they’re more likely to get included on the stripped content.

But, how far do you take this? Someone saved the content (instead of bookmarking it) to get the content in a more readable form. If you start tinkering with that, will it remove the value-add for those people? Will they remember that you muck with the content when they save it and not save your content anymore? They might decide to read it on your site (maybe a win, except for hard feelings) or skip it altogether (always a loss).

(A couple years back, publishers started messing with text when it was copied to the clipboard. That action was met with universal derision, and I speculate had zero positive impact for the publishers.)

Finally, what do we call this type of channel? I’ve been borrowing “time-shifted” from the Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios case back in the 80s. Is this a valid use? The similarities are clear – the content is available at a different time in a manipulated (or manipulable) format which allows the consumer to strip context.

For now, I’m going with “time-shifted content.” I unabashedly embrace these services, and I’m interested to find out what the general feeling is among publishers, and what those with strong feelings – either for or against – plan to do about it.

This is item #72 in a sequence of 356 items.

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