I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Instapaper’s (anti-)social network

Ben Brooks noticed and blogged about how Instapaper’s social features, introduced earlier this year, are minimal:

There’s just a list of articles that people you chose to follow decided that they liked. All without knowing who, or if, anybody will ever see that they liked that article.

It’s a fascinatingly private social system.

That was exactly the idea, and I’m very happy to see it perceived that way.

Social features are tricky. Social dynamics in real life are complex, so every social mechanic we construct or word choice we make will carry unintended baggage, connotations, and ambiguities. (“Like”. “Friend”. “Follower”.)

Social networks also need to address difficult issues with identity, privacy, harassment, spam, and information overload.

These systems require a lot of time and money to develop, maintain, and support. And when they’re ready, they need to compete with all of the other social networks for people’s time and attention.

With Instapaper’s following system, I wanted to deal with as little of the difficult baggage as possible, even if it meant omitting some of the “sticky” social dynamics that can significantly boost user counts and engagement. The result is a very small social feature-set that piggybacks on other established social networks: Twitter, Facebook, and email.

There are no public usernames, avatars, or profile pages. Nobody’s quitting Facebook for Instapaper. Companies aren’t rushing to establish an Instapaper following. No newly engaged couples have rushed to update their statuses on Instapaper.

To label each story in the interface with the person it came from, Instapaper just uses the label from however you found them. If you found me by searching people you follow on Twitter, I’ll be “marcoarment”. If you found me through Facebook, I’ll be “Marco Arment”. And if you found me by email address, I’ll be “”. Instapaper could cross-reference these, but it doesn’t.1

There are no notifications whatsoever for following and unfollowing. Nobody can tell who follows them, how many people do, or even if anyone does. In addition to removing the emotional rollercoaster of follower counts and unfollows, this may actually increase following activity: if people realize that others won’t know when they follow or unfollow, they may feel more comfortable doing so. (I sure do.)

In short, I want to leave the social features to the social networks. I want to use them to make Instapaper better, not try to make Instapaper replace them. They can deal with all of the baggage and reap all of the rewards. I’m not interested in that game.

Instapaper takes advantage of your social networks to let you easily share what you’re reading and give you recommendations when you want them (and only then), but remains a quiet escape from the social networks when you just want to read.

  1. Suppose you only knew my email address, but I had connected my Facebook account to my Instapaper account, so Instapaper knew my real name from Facebook. It could therefore show “Marco Arment” when you typed in “”, but it doesn’t.

    I’d view that as an inappropriate cross-contamination of your privacy. Instead, Instapaper only shows people the “name” for you that they already knew through whichever method they used to find you. ↩︎