If you consider yourself a reader, you've probably heard the web is destroying your ability to focus and financially crippling the people that write for you. But Aaron Lammer, cofounder and editor of Longform, thinks it doesn't have to be that way.
"This is a golden age for writing on the web," says Lammer. "There are more publishers than there ever were, more people writing, more great stuff than there's ever been."
The problem, he says, is the awful UX of reading on the web today—which in turn creates a cascading effect of broken feedback loops and ill-adapted business models. Lammer and his cofounder Max Linsky hope to change all that, starting with their new Longform for iOS app, released last week to coincide with iOS 8.
What's fascinating about Longform isn't its success—people have always loved to read—but how it went from a fairly simple website to an ambitious world-changing platform by nothing more than user feedback. No abstract theories about "the way we read" or big-name partnerships or new devices. Just the simple power of going iteratively from MVP to a product people want, a concept that seems particularly difficult to grasp for the rest of the top-down world of editorial publishing.
"We know people want to read this stuff, but many of them gravitate to books on the Kindle, since it's so simple," he says. "The idea of having a rich media diet drawn from the web is just too hard for many people."
This was the observation that launched Longform in 2010, as a web-based curation service. Lammer and his cofounders would post three or four high-quality, in-depth articles from around the web that day. "The first year was: How does one operate a professional website?" says Lammer. Meanwhile, they were getting flooded with emails from enthusiastic daily users with all sorts of product suggestions. More gaming content! More international writers!
"Knowing these people were committed, it gave us a blank check: What else can we do for the user? What else would they like?"
They decided to prototype their next step with two new products: The first was a "rinky-dink" iPad app which, at $5 a pop and 60,000 downloads, helped them raise enough cash to stave off a big seed round. Secondly, they began conducting their own interviews with writers whose stories got popular on Longform, and turning those interviews into podcasts. Today, after 110 episodes, the podcast averages over 40,000 downloads per installment.
"The podcast worked because people get attached to writers," says Lammer, "but there wasn't a good way to get behind the scenes and see how they work." Years of user feedback began to crystallize. "We saw how much people identified with the writers, and we thought the writer was the most common through-line."
Hence the big innovation in the new Longform app: It allows you to follow individual writers' work, no matter which site it's published on. And without all the noise you'd get following that person on Twitter or Facebook.
"If you love an article, the most consistent thing you'll like next is whatever that writer publishes," says Lammer. "If you build up enough, say 20 writers that you really like, you've basically just built your dream publication, in the sense than an editor would think of it," he says. "And that's what we see people doing."
With 150,000 articles on the platform, you'd think Longform might shift to algorithmic curation, like many of the services that obliquely compete with it—but Lammer says that's the wrong approach.
"We're sitting on a lot of reader data, but we're careful about how much we expose that in the app," he says. "If you put a smoking fireball with a '340 Likes' next to an article, that affects what you want to read. We're saying: Listen to the team of editors, not the smoking fireball."
If Lammer and Linsky succeed at building a platform for all English-language articles, the way Netflix or Spotify did for their respective media, it could put writers in the same position of creative control as their counterparts in music, film, or TV. Even writers not associated with a major magazine or newspaper could find traction on a platform like Longform. But Lammer won't start building those features until he sees proof.
"If we're so popular that we're skewing publishing like that, then I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he says. "But I think the lesson for publishers would be: Put your best foot forward. Publish less bullshit."