Posted on Tue 18 March 2014

Reading links

I've noticed that my reading habits have changed a lot lately. In particular, what I choose to read and where I find it.

Thinking about this got me thinking about sharing content online generally, and how link-sharing has evolved. I'm sure there's a lot more involved in this evolution than I know about, but here are a few thoughts about what I've noticed in my own reading workflow.

Where am I going?

I find most of my online reading material from Twitter. Occasionally I'll take a peek at my Kippt feed, or drop into a content discovery app like Prismatic if I'm really desperate for something new to read, but Twitter fills my needs most of the time.

I use Tweetbot, so I can easily long-press or right-click to save a link to read later. When I long-press on a link in Tweetbot for iPhone, I see the URL I'm going to before I choose to open it.

This is the biggest behavioural change I've noticed: what links I'm willing to click on (or save), and which ones I avoid. In particular, I've been paying attention lately to what connotations come with each type of link, and why that might be.

Take short links, for example. There are two kinds that I see often in my own Twitter stream: those that come from an analytics service like bit.ly and those that promote the service you're using to share with, rather than the origin of the content, like prsm.tc from Prismatic (as opposed to a short link like wrd.cm or thetim.es that still makes it clear where the content is published).

Both of these kind of short links obscure the original URL, meaning I don't know where I'm being sent to if I click on it. So I need to decide whether to click through to an unknown destination based on what I know about the person who shared it, and whether the accompanying tweet peaks my curiosity enough.

My second issue with these kind of links is that they make me feel like a statistic, rather than a valued reader. For a short link like bit.ly, for instance, I know that it's being used so the author of the tweet can track how many clicks they get for that link. I can certainly see how useful this can be—in fact, Buffer has this very option built-in and it's incredibly useful for us to see which of our headlines works best for a particular blog post, or which topics are more popular on each social network. And for personal Twitter accounts I can see how useful it could be to test what content your followers like most and to provide more of that in the future.

As a reader, however, if I'm already on the fence about whether I want to click a link I see in my timeline, I'm more inclined not to click if I see that it's a link used for measuring clicks. I just can't shake that feeling of being a statistic.

Where I won't go

Then come the links that are clear about where they're sending me and who they're written by. Sometimes I purposely won't click these either.

This is usually because they come from a source I mistrust as a reader. A good example for me is Medium. To begin with, I believed Medium was going to be a platform for quality writing that was content-focussed: a service created for readers and writers alike. I quickly realised I was wrong.

I think Medium is a wonderful service for people who want a place to write on the web without managing their own blog, but I think this has come at the expense of readers. While the aesthetics of Medium certainly draw me in, the inconsistencies of what's published there let me down too often. I rarely click on Medium links now, even if they sound interesting to me, because I've been disappointed so often in the past by low-quality content there. This isn't to say that everything on Medium is low-quality—I've actually read some great stuff there—but the great content is hard to find and I don't care for sifting through everything else to get to it.

On the opposite side of this coin is Svbtle, where I've more often than not enjoyed the quality of the posts I've read there. If a Svbtle link I see on Twitter catches my interest, I don't hesitate to click-through or save it to my reading list because that branding has come to indicate quality writing to me.

The same works with particular authors, mostly in a positive sense. Anything I'm interested in that's written by Shawn Blanc, Brett Terpstra, Federico Viticci, David Spinks, Joel Gascoigne, Jeff Jarvis, Tom Stafford, Paul Graham or Austin Kleon, among others, will get a click from me. Over time, these authors have gained my trust and admiration by consistently producing quality content.

How I share

I recently tried a link-sharing experiment for a month, and one of my observations was that keeping my link sharing habits away from Twitter turned it back into the conversational platform I had missed. When I started sharing links on Twitter again after the experiment, I tried to make it a more personal process, including my thoughts on each article I shared, or a quote from it that I enjoyed.

As I've thought more about link sharing and how it's evolving, I've made a couple of other changes. I'm not scheduling many tweets any more. Although this means I sometimes share a few links within an hour or two as I work through my reading list, it also means I'm around to chat about them if people want to. I no longer have the guilty feeling of waking up to Twitter replies that came in while I was sleeping and my pre-scheduled tweets were sent out.

I haven't used link shortening for a long time, but I'm also wary of re-sharing something with a shortened link now. I'd much rather take the time to find and share the original link, if I can. This applies to links full of tracking codes, as well. Brendan from Wistia wrote a great post about cleaning up links on the web before sharing them, so we don't all end up counting as clicks from our friend John's email, even though five of us visited from a tweet or an IM he sent us.


I don't know where link sharing is going to go in the future. Perhaps marketers will push for even more link shortening and tracking, and that will become the norm. I'd hate to see that happen, though. We're already on the alert for dodgy practices around link sharing, so I'd be really pleased to see the obscuring of links start to drop away instead.

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