Can Longform Close the Gap Between What People Share and What They Actually Read?

Over the past six years, Longform has become a low-key oasis for readers and writers, a place to escape the daily grind for a quality read handpicked from around the web. Co-founders and Wesleyan grads Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky thought up the site after running out of good articles to read on their iPhones while on vacation. Since then, they’ve established a loyal community of readers, built a mobile app, and complemented the rich archive by interviewing writers of all backgrounds for a weekly podcast.

With some design changes coming to Longform, I spoke to Lammer and Linsky to discuss their goals for the site, media ignorance in the age of social media, and why growth isn’t right for everyone.

You guys started Longform in 2010 and are now in the process of a redesign. Can you give a sense of what the media landscape looked like back then and how it’s changed?

Aaron Lammer: We’ve always tried to design around the users’ reading experience. We don’t really see the value of what we’re doing as the website we’re making, but more the experiences people have when they leave the website and go read an article. I don’t really think the articles have changed very much.

Great writers have always existed and will continue to exist. The format of the magazine story hasn’t really changed all that much, but the presentation has changed a lot. At the time we started Longform, I think it was very hard to find articles on a lot of websites.

People were doing awkward stuff where there would be a blog section and a print section. It was just difficult to find an article that you had seen in a print magazine that month. Additionally the reading experiences were just really bad on most publisher websites. Many people had iPhone experiences that were completely unreadable. When we started the site, we viewed the best reader experience as you come on the website, click a Instapaper button or a Pocket button, save articles, and read them later on your phone.

Some big article will drop, and within five minutes people are tweeting, “Incredible read!” That story is like a 45-minute read. There’s no way you’re done with it yet.

We really designed around that media landscape and pretty much every part of that user experience is completely different now. Mobile webpages are actually pretty excellent reading experiences now, in my opinion. More importantly, people are pulling in reading from everywhere. Facebook is a reading app. Twitter is a reading app. Apple News is a reading app. I think we’ve tried to embrace the multitude of experiences that are happening now and not really invest in a single one but make something that works across a lot of different experiences.

Our website is just one part of that. Our app is one part of that. We make sure to push everything into somewhere like Twitter. You can click directly into the article and never touch our website at all. That’s fine. That’s great. I think we’ve embraced our role in a shifting media landscape as continuing to do quality recommendations and letting people figure out how they want to access them.

I’ve heard you each have new individual projects in the works. How has that influenced the redesign? Was it a priority to make the site more self-sustainable?

Lammer: There were certain things that were one way in the app and another way on the website. I think we were trying to just start over again with a little bit of a cleaner code set. At one point, we had an app and we had a website, and they were different. We’re trying to unify everything we do.

We did some of that in the Popular [a list that ranks the site’s most popular stories]. The Popular is now in both places, so once we come out with an update for the app, it will not require individual management of each piece of the puzzle.

I’m curious about the new Popular list, specifically the algorithm. There are a lot of different metrics that go into it, I’m sure, but I read the one you’re favoring is eye-time on the article, as opposed to clicks. I’m curious what the shift has looked like. Any surprises?

Max Linsky: One thing that’s been really interesting, and some combination of revealing and dispiriting, is the gap between what people read and what people share.

We see often a story will come out, some big article will drop, and within five minutes people are tweeting, “Incredible read!” That story is like a 45-minute read. There’s no way you’re done with it yet.

What we’re trying to prioritize with the Popular algorithm is how you get away from the stuff that people like to brag about having read and deliver what people are actually reading. There’s a pretty big gap between those two. It gets at kind of a larger idea that I think we’ve honed in on and Aaron, to his credit, was in on it a lot earlier than I was, which is: We think of Longform as an entertainment product.

People read these articles at night and on the weekends. They read them the same time they watch movies. The idea behind Popular is to give people another access point toward what I think they’re really coming for, which is a break from the churn of the internet, something they can sink their teeth into, but something that’s going to be entertaining.

Lammer: We only make three or four picks a day, and there’s a huge amount of stuff being published every day. We make our picks, generally, along the axis of general interest. If it’s a sports story, it’s got to be a sports story that even someone who is not interested in sports would be interested in.

That means we ignore a huge amount of stuff that’s really good because it’s a little too niche. What we’ve done with Popular is allow people to drill in and get an idea of “What are the big stories in health this week? What are the big stories in music writing?” We might only have one music story a month picked on Longform otherwise.

To be able to even understand that algorithmically, we have to be able to see “Is this actually some kind of listicle bluff?” or “Is there something that’s click baiting people?” A lot of what I’m trying to do is actually figure out what to throw out, not what to keep.

If the algorithm can effectively throw a lot of stuff out, then it’s not hard to get a set of good stories just by what’s left over. We have filters in it that, like, ban Game of Thrones recaps—which are actually so popular that they would overpower it.

A lot of the work we’ve done in terms of people reading to the end is people generally tend to only actually read real articles in our app because it’s a dedicated app for that. Someone who reads an article to the end, in my view, is a very trustworthy source. We’re trying to find what the most trustworthy inputs are. Something like, “How many times does this appear on Facebook?” can be very untrustworthy because that’s the pool of all Facebook users. A pool of all Longform app users is someone I’m much more comfortable relying on.

How does a more hands-off approach affect your attitude toward growth? Are you still looking for new audiences or are you content with where the site is?

Lammer: There’s a tendency in the world to feel like where you are is a good place. If we were surging and had hockey-stick growth and were doubling our audience every two months, I think we would probably be like, “Growth is awesome.” We would be embracing that.

You do something long enough, it does slowly snowball. We at one point looked and saw if we could raise money to try to grow. We looked at our options there. We’ve looked at the things that really drive growth. What we’ve ultimately concluded is the site has a really healthy, sizable audience. The things that those people want is not for us to do nine other things or change everything to go for growth. People kind of want more of the same, slightly better, a slightly better design, etc.

We’re not going to chase every potential audience on every potential platform and build every incarnation of it.

Now we don’t necessarily have a huge drive to try to double our audience. We’d rather do a good job by the current audience. Then hopefully a byproduct of that is that we still will grow, but if we wanted to grow, I think we would be more aggressively marketing ourselves and we would be doing all the things that high-growth sites do.

Linsky: I also think that one thing that’s been pretty clear in the data and in the responses is that the simplest version of what we do, which is an idea that we oriented around from the very start, was keeping it really simple to what the majority of our people respond to.

I think it has something to do with the type of stories that we’re talking about. The reality is the best-case scenario, the best use case for Longform in whatever context you find it is that you’ve got a hankering to read a really good, in depth article, you’ve got 20 minutes or half an hour, you’ve got a train ride, you’re going to go up on a plane, and you want to sink your teeth into something great, and you know that, if you come to us, you’ll find it.

That’s a pretty simple idea. I think part of the idea around not explicitly targeting growth is you have to complicate what you’re doing. What we’ve found is that complicating what we’re doing hasn’t moved the needle very much, because the core idea is what people have responded to from the start.

We’ve improved that experience in a ton of different ways, but the thing that hasn’t improved it much is trying to add more. We have basically posted four articles a day to the website for six years. We’ve experimented with posting more stories, and it’s not like more people come. They come because they’re going to find one great thing to read.

Lammer: I think it’s also like, “Are you guys going to build a Windows 8 app?” and the answer is “No.” We’re not going to chase every potential audience on every potential platform and build every incarnation of it. We’ve been around for six years. If we can last 20 years and there are people who’ve been reading articles on Longform for 20 years, to me that’s a far greater victory than saying, like, “We competed with Facebook Instant Articles,” which probably won’t exist in two years and it will rapidly evolve. That’s sort of what scaling back has meant for us.

For our users, I think it’s going to mean a better experience. For us, it just means we’re not going to chase each new thing, because there’s too many of them now and there’s too many resources dedicated to them. We simply can’t compete with Apple News or Facebook Instant Articles. They have a massive engineering team.

The only level at which we compete with them is that our article recommendations make for a better reading experience. Overall, I consider it “If you want to read, come to Longform—don’t open your Facebook feed.” But that doesn’t mean we’re going to have an innovative article format that somehow trumps the Facebook one. We have to choose our battles.

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