In Praise of Instapaper

Shortly after Marco Arment and Dan Benjamin started Build & Analyze in 2010, I bought Instapaper. I did not buy this app out of any particular need for it, though, but rather out of a desire to give Marco a little something in exchange for the hours upon hours of enjoyment he had provided me in the form of his podcast. Fast-forward just a few months, however, and — just as I do now — I had begun to use Instapaper daily. Even so, it took me nearly four years — until just a few weeks ago, in fact — to realize that the true value of this service did not lie in its ability to strip away ads and annoying sidebars nor even keep my saved articles available for reading offline, nor did its value stem from its intended use case as a way to time-shift the reading experience. Instead, I found Instapaper incredibly handy because of the psychological tricks it lets me play on myself.

Over the last four years, I have spent a great deal of time curating the list of people and websites I permit to command my time in any meaningful way: I only subscribe to about thirty-five RSS feeds, and thus far I have managed to keep the number of people I follow on Twitter down to a manageable forty-two. Although this means I do not have to live in Reeder and Tweetbot, it also imbues everything I see from this relatively small number of sources with an indelible sense of importance: this article came from one of these few writers whom I have elevated above all the rest, and so therefore I must read it, as it is most assuredly of great import. Even as I say this I realize the fallacy in my reasoning, but it nevertheless plays out in this way time and time again. Obviously, though, I do not have enough time to read everything that crosses my path. And so I often go through my day with some level of guilt at having ignored what my brain constantly reminds me could have been an exceptional piece had I only taken the time to read it.

Instapaper effectively silences that voice: thanks to Instapaper, I can send every hot-topic article of any remote interest to me over to this generic bin, where it resides for a few days as I work my way through a lengthy back-catalog of articles saved during the previous days and weeks. The true value of Instapaper, though, as I said earlier, does not lie simply in this ability it affords me, but rather in the ability it gives me to cull that list with the wisdom permitted by a somewhat lengthy remove. In this way, I can send ten articles about the Beats acquisition over to Instapaper and then, when I realize that I have absolutely zero interest in this topic, delete them all without any guilt: I have fulfilled the implicit contract I made in my head with these writers, and thus now I feel free to manage these works based purely on their merit rather than anything else.

This is the single most valuable aspect of Instapaper, to me, and the reason I love this service so much. I realize Pocket and Readability and the numerous other contenders could do this just as well, but I have grown quite fond of Marco’s brainchild over the years, and so that is where I will stay.