The Instapaper years

The risk of automation

A post for #WeblogPoMo2024.

Maybe you’ve read a few of these blogposts about bensinterests and thought about visiting my old Tumblr account of joyous links.

If you have clicked through you’ll be disappointed. The front page is all links to longform articles with no context, as is the second. It’s not until halfway through page three when that changes and I link to a lovely quote by Raymond John Baughan about happiness. From May 2015 to the final post in October 2016, it’s all bland links to long reads.


In a word, Instapaper.

For the uninitiated, this is a service where you can save links to long pieces of writing. It creates a little reading list for you and presents the text in a really nice easy-to-read way1.

I loved it during those go-go years when Medium was first launched and there was a bit of a renaissance of really good longform pieces of text kicking around, all linked and discussed on Twitter and elsewhere. Keeping up was tough; Instapaper made it easy.

Once you’d read something on Instapaper, you could do a few things. Archive it from your account, delete it maybe. If you chose to favourite it, there was an option to cross-post a link to a few different services.

Including Tumblr.

I was reading a lot, and a lot of what I was reading was Important and Substantial. Posting it on my account of fun things seemed like a great idea so automatic cross posting was duly enabled.

But long reads, by their nature, tend to be narrative. Narratives tell a story, and for a story to work it has to have controversy or conflict2. A trend appeared - what I was reading and appreciating most was often about bad things and their discovery. Trump’s ghostwriter. A motel where every room was wired. Fights between Apple and the FBI.

These were the things auto-posted to bensinterests. Not the happy work of artists but the exposure of terrible wrongs.

2016 happened. Brexit and Trump. Where was joy? Seemingly gone, like my ability to discover and post great new things on Tumblr.

Cross-posting can work really well but the context has to be right. I love services like Robb Knight’s Echofeed where you can post once and distribute everywhere and I see Echofeed being used thoughtfully and effectively.

I got it wrong. My online place of simple happy content became a boring list of in-depth articles with no indication as to why I was sharing them.

  1. Or, at least, it did. It’s been sold and resold so often since 2015 that who even knows anymore? ↩︎

  2. At least it does in Western storytelling, but that’s a topic for another blogpost ↩︎