My journey to Instapaper Zero

I know the title sounds faintly (ok, a bit more than that) ridiculous, but… it is what it is. If you’ve found this post because you too reached the end of your tether then I hope you’ll understand.

A couple of months ago I had about 1,400 unread items in Instapaper, with things saved over the past 5 or so years. I think the oldest article was from sometime in 2011. I suppose I could’ve declared Instapaper bankruptcy and just deleted everything, but where’s the fun in that?

Now I’m down to a couple of hundred articles, and that number’s ticking down nicely. Here’s how I did it.

Choose your weapon. I found most of the steps below lot easier on iPhone/iPad apps than on the desktop site. Especially sorting – can you even sort on the desktop site?

Know thy enemy. If you haven’t already, put the badge on the app icon so you can see the number of unread articles you’re dealing with.

Get the enemy in your sights. We’re going to be doing a lot of sorting, and you can only sort the articles you’ve downloaded, so go to settings and set the app to download up to 500 articles at a time. If you’ve got more than 500 to work through then you’ll need to keep refreshing as you go along, to bring in more articles.

Stem the flow. Turn off any RSS importing you might have set up. If you’re like me then you probably thought that was a good idea for a day or two, then failed to keep up. Use an RSS reader like Feedly for that sort of thing.

Remove dead wood. Sort your list by ‘Shortest Articles’. Anything that shows ‘Unable to download’ can be deleted straight away. These are likely to be articles that have been deleted. You won’t miss them.

Don’t let things linger. Sort by ‘Read Progress’. Anything that’s been read should be archived or deleted. Use the note feature to save a particularly good paragraph if you like. Maybe save the article somewhere like Pinboard or Evernote, if you do that sort of thing. It shouldn’t be clogging up your Instapaper.

Remove irrelevancies. Sort by ‘Oldest Saved’. Is there anything that looks out of date and no longer worth reading? Get rid of it now.

Remove videos. Youtube and Vimeo have their own ‘save for later’ features. I’d recommend using those instead of Instapaper. I tend to use Instapaper for offline access, which doesn’t work with videos anyway.

Kill off the old and weak. Anything that you’ve already mostly read, or is very short, should be finished off when you’ve got an idle moment. Sorting is your friend.

Multi-task. Use the text to speech feature to listen to articles when you’re doing other things, like walking around, doing the washing up and that sort of thing.

Keep at it. You’ll get there. Really.

A couple of notes:

  • I’m finding that I’m still adding things to Instapaper as normal – I’m no more discerning than before, but I am keen to clear articles sooner.
  • I found that my threshold for ‘worthwhile reading’ went up as I went along. After a quick skim I was much more likely to delete something if I felt it wasn’t worth my time.
  • I’ve not set myself any targets and I’m not tracking my progress. I can see that number on the app icon getting smaller over time, and that’s good enough for me. If you want to go a different route then you should.
  • I saved some good stuff! I’ve found some really good articles from a couple of years ago that have been worth discovering. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d just deleted everything, so hooray for that.

Final thought: it’s a slow grind. It’s taken me a couple of months to get down to where I am now and shifting the last few hundred articles is going to take a while – there are some big ones in there. At least things look a bit friendlier now.

I hope this helps.

Things I’ve written elsewhere

Over the past few months I’ve been writing bits and pieces on all sorts of other websites. Seeing as I’ve not written so much here, I thought I should bring everything together.

I’ve been writing things about:

  • How digital distribution affects cultural orgs’ business models
  • The new digital metrics Arts Council England are asking their portfolio organisations to report on (spoiler alert: I didn’t like them)
  • A comparison of physical and digital organisations for venue-based organisations

So here we go…

Digital distribution and business models

I was asked to write a thing about the effect of digital distribution on the business models of cultural organisations. That was for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts that’s backed by Nesta, Arts Council England and the AHRC.

As it turns out, there was plenty I had to say on the subject and keeping to the word limit was a little tricky. I tried to make the piece a mixture of background/explainer and opinion, with the general crux being that:

As long as their current business models aren’t significantly under threat, it’s understandable if arts organisations are reluctant to radically overhaul their principal methods of delivering on their missions. We will continue to see digital distribution being used either to aid the delivery of existing forms of artistic activity (a website that sells tickets and provides directions to a theatre), or to offer small online manifestations of their usual activity (such as an online guide to playwriting).

It could be a while before those organisations feel any pressure to act differently. The concern is that, by the time that happens, it could be too late. New entrants that are better attuned to the evolving preferences of audiences may steal in.

The full article is part of a guide called Making Digital Work: Business Models. There are good contributions from other people in there, plus guides on other topics to explore too.

Read the piece here: Distribution? That is the Question (PDF, page 12)

New ACE digital metrics for portfolio organisations

You may remember that a little while back I had a moan about the digital metrics that Arts Council England ask their portfolio of organisations to report on. I kinda knew that some work was being done to overhaul them and it seems the fruits of that work have emerged.

I’ve broken things down over on CulturalDigital (the forum that I keep ticking along). Albeit in a slightly ranty, frustrated way. Picking a quote that mostly sums things up:

the reporting looks to be much more onerous than before (especially with E3/4) and even manages to be more bizarre. There are some improvements but they’re not all that great (you could get most of the info quickly enough in other ways) so I don’t think the changes really nudge the exercise far enough into useful territory to make up for that. Which is why I think it’s a step backwards.

Things might not have been finalised yet and, for what it’s worth, I’ve also emailed some folks at ACE explaining my views (in a slightly more professional way) and offering some free consultancy to improve things.

Read the thread here: Revised Arts Council digital metrics (possibly)

Comparing physical and digital audiences

As part of the work that I did for the Southbank Centre’s digital team last year, I did a rough comparison of digital and physical audience numbers for venue-based cultural organisations. Here’s the nub of it:

Our assumption is that, as the Southbank Centre starts to engage digital audiences more effectively through experiences and discussions (beyond getting those people to attend the venue) that audience will grow relative to the venue’s physical audience. But questions kept cropping up…

This was my attempt at testing the assumption and answering (or at least getting closer to answering), some of the related questions we had. Like:

  • How much might they grow their digital audience internationally?
  • What’s the situation at similar(ish) organisations?
  • What are the characteristics of cultural organisations with proportionally large digital audiences?

I had to use publicly available sources for the data, so there’s every chance some of the numbers are a way off. Still, I ended up with a bunch of findings and people have said nice things about the piece generally.

Read the piece here: Comparing numbers: physical visitors and digital visitors

A couple of thoughts on digital project lifespans

I’ve seen a couple of posts about project lifespans recently. The subject’s come up through work a few times too.

Avoiding abandonment

First up, Keir Winesmith blogged about SFMOMA’s three 18 three approach:

Put simply, when you are planning and budgeting a new digital initiative, don’t treat the launch date as the end date. The launch date is the beginning of three 18 three:

  • spend the 3 months after launch testing, iterating and updating the experience
  • at 18 months, plan to replace (or at least refresh) the content of the experience – this will take money and time
  • at 3 years it’s time to replace (or at least refresh) the hardware, the infrastructure or possibly the whole thing

I like the sound of that. Anything that gets people to think about longer-term repercussions while still in the planning stage is a good thing.

Could/does this rule out small, short-term, experimental projects? I dunno, maybe this isn’t meant to apply to that kind of thing.

The one thing I thought was missing from this was any mention of when and how a project might be wrapped up (before the three year point, anyway).

Flicking the ‘off’ switch

Which is when I came across a post by Christina Xu called Your Project Deserves a Good Death which contains this:

What does a Do Not Resuscitate look like for your organization? How can you help yourself remember the hard, important choices when things get complicated? Make an imaginary plan for what you would do if you had to shut everything down or step away tomorrow. Chances are, planning for the end will dislodge something important and true about your project’s life, as well.

Which pretty much summed up what I was thinking. She also does a nice breakdown of the various ways that projects can end up fading away. Check out the further reading links too.


It’s really rather simple:

Short-term project: the close-down is an important part of the project, so write up an exit plan when you’re in the planning stage.

Longer-term project: plan to spend time and money on further development throughout the project lifespan and have an exit plan (to be revised as necessary if the project evolves), with a way to recognise when that plan should be put into action.

Pretty obvious, right? I wonder how many projects would look different if this was done more often.