Writers I Read: Marco Arment

Editor’s Note: Marco Arment is probably best well-known as the founder and creator of Instapaper, but he also has an impressively popular podcast on the 5by5 network, as well as a weblog, where he writes about technology, coffee and more. Marco and his wife are expecting their first child later in the spring.

Stephen: Marco, thanks for taking some time to talk with me. Between Instapaper, your podcast and a little one on the way I’m sure you’re busy. Anything I’ve missed?

Marco: And my blog. But that’s about it. I guess it doesn’t sound like much. This is probably a good time to take on a few more projects, join a startup, and learn how to crochet.

Stephen: Haha, that sounds like a bunch of bad ideas. Before Instapaper, you were at Tumblr, correct? How’s that timeline go?

Marco: I was at Tumblr from its inception in late 2006 through September of 2010. In the middle, in late 2007, I started working on Instapaper.

Stephen: So, we’ve established that you are super, super busy. In all that noise, do you have a daily routine in place?

Marco: Slightly. We have a dog, so he keeps us on a somewhat regular schedule. And our upcoming baby will probably keep us on a crazy sleepless schedule for a while followed by many years of a much more rigid schedule than we have now.

But once I’m awake, there are things I care about and things I don’t. I’m willing to spend 15 minutes making breakfast and coffee in an elaborate routine every morning because I care about those, but it only takes me about 5 seconds to choose my outfit for the day because I don’t care about that.

Stephen: Care is a good word to discuss moving forward. With the products of yours that I have used, I can see care in them, from the big-picture items to the small details.

It’s worth noting that your projects all revolved around words. Why do you think people care to write and read what others have written?

Marco: Text is an amazingly versatile medium. Relative to other media, text has very low production costs, both in authorship and distribution. One person can produce a great essay or even a complete book. It’s much harder to be a one-person filmmaker. And since text as a medium does not have a fixed timescale like audio and video, it can be easily skimmed or read at any desired speed.

In the digital world, text becomes even more useful. It takes up almost no space by today’s standards, it can be easily indexed and analyzed, and tools like mine can edit, restructure, and reflow it to do all sorts of different things.

The ease of producing, distributing, and messing around with text has resulted in an effectively infinite supply of great expression, information, and entertainment being written and read in this wonderful medium. Whatever you want to read, there’s already more of it than you could read in a lifetime, and there’s probably more being produced right now.

Stephen: How does Instapaper fit into that view?

Marco: Those great characteristics of text make Instapaper possible, but also make it necessary.

Since text can flow around other page elements and can be infinitely messed with, publishers have crammed a lot of distracting elements into their text layouts, and have often laid things out in a way that isn’t comfortable for some (or many) people to read.

Since text is so easy to skim and is so often browsed while multitasking in a busy personal-computer environment, people have grown accustomed to skimming through web articles quickly, leading to high demand for (and therefore even higher supply of) shallow, skimmable content such as “listicles”.

Instapaper solves both of these problems: it dramatically increases legibility and reduces distractions when reading, and it makes it easier to attentively read long, detailed, or nuanced writing. And while it won’t change entire industries, Instapaper has succeeded, to at least a small degree, in increasing demand for (and therefore, slowly, increasing supply of) more of this sort of writing online.

Stephen: I know — as a long-time Instapaper customer — that the app definitely allows me to read more. However, I think there are those out there that view what you’re doing as a way for people to get out of seeing ads on publisher’s websites. (Of course, many of those publishers already offer full-length RSS entries.) How do you handle that sort of comment?

Marco: That’s a common question. I like to address it whenever anyone asks, because it’s an incomplete view of what Instapaper really does.

Because of how the bookmarklet works, the vast majority of pages saved to Instapaper correspond to complete pageviews, ads and all. I’ve carefully designed Instapaper to keep this ratio high, even when it’s a competitive disadvantage. (For a great example of this, see the implementation of the Friends and Editors sections in the iPhone/iPad app, which require you to view the recommended articles before you can save them.) If you compare Instapaper to any of its competitors, you’ll find that I’ve been much more sensitive to preserving and promoting full pageviews on publishers’ sites.

And in the bigger picture, my strategy has worked very well. Every major publisher I’ve spoken with loves Instapaper for what it brings them: increased reader engagement and a lot more people sharing links to their articles, without stealing their pageviews en masse, scripting around their paywalls, framing my shared links, or requiring them to make business deals with me. Instapaper helps publishers without them needing to do or change anything. I think this is why, despite there being a very easy method on the website to do so, no major publisher has opted out of being saved to Instapaper.

Stephen: I agree with you — I think Instapaper’s treatment of writers’ material is more than fair. I think you being a writer helps bring that balance to your product. How did you start out blogging?

Marco: I’ve always had opinions, I’ve always been a bit weird, and my relatively poor social skills have always let the opinions and weirdness out a bit too much. So I’ve always loved writing as a way to express myself.

Before blogging, I’d mostly only “write” on web forums. I was primarily a forum junkie (Something Awful’s are the best) until David Karp and I started Tumblr, at which point frequent blogging fell into my lap as a practical matter: I needed to test my work regularly.

Since then, blogging has become an addiction. I get intellectually restless if I don’t write for a while. It’s a very strong internal drive. I can’t fully explain it.

Stephen: I totally get it. In fact, many people I’ve interviewed for this series have said similar things. For you, it seems to scratch a creative itch that something like developing can’t. I think that’s great, honestly.

So, what’s the future hold for Marco?

Marco: When the baby comes, I’ll become one of those people who only talks about baby stuff and my blog will shift to reviewing only baby products for five years. After that, I’ll probably return to talking about the nuances of coffee brewers, headphones, shiny rectangles from Apple, and matte grayscale rectangles from Amazon.

What I do has evolved a lot in the last few years. Over time, I’m enjoying writing a lot more, and my efforts are shifting to reflect that. Two years ago, I was a web programmer with a little iPhone side business and a tiny blog for fun writing. Today, I’m a predominantly iPhone programmer with a minor web component, and I have my blog as a little side business. Maybe in the future, I’ll primarily be a writer with a small programming side business.

That sounds really great to me, actually.