Open Collective
Open Collective
Readup's 2022 in review
Published on December 21, 2022 by Thor Galle

Hello Readup follower, 

It’s Thor from Readup here. I’m writing to you today because I have to, but also because I really, really want to. 

My last Readup communication was in May, when we announced that Readup had become free and open-source, after having failed to become a sustainable business. As part of that change, we moved our administration into an “Open Collective”. 

Our collective is managed by a foundation (the OCF) that handles our finances, and one of their conditions for helping us is that we should write an end-of-year update answering the following questions: 
  1. What did you accomplish during 2022? How did you use money?
  2. What challenges did you face during 2022? What did your Collective learn? How did you change or grow?
  3. What are your plans for 2023? Anything exciting coming up?
I think the answers to these questions are relevant for anyone following Readup, so let’s dig in!

What did Readup accomplish during 2022?

Let’s start with Readup’s prime achievement: Readup has kept on providing a space for our community to read the web together, for yet another year. This is exactly what Readup has been doing since 2016, but that doesn’t make it less special! This means that during this year, we had 365 new Articles Of The Day, and many more comments and posts, and that enough people were around to share those articles and read them, and that our servers were paid for.

When I opened my mail today while en route to spend Christmas time with family abroad, I found a Readup Weekly Digest email. I was happy to drop the rest of my emails, and read about ChatGPT in English education in a The Atlantic article shared by interruptingstarfish. As soon as possible, I want to delve into the argumentation on whether buses should be free or not, posted by my favorite Norwegian, KapteinB. I’m not sure if I want to read about Trump as a child, as one of the articles promised to tell me about, but without our most prolific poster Pegeen, I am sure that the Readup homepage would have looked empty some days of the last year!

These three readers have been among the cornerstones of the community for several years, next to many others, and I want to thank all active readers for their continued belief and participation in the community. Readup really would not exist without them.

They are also the people that scout (find articles) and feed our database, so it can select an Article of the Day (AOTD) every day. And there have been a few stellar ones. My recent highlight is A Speck in the Sea, a story about a sailor that fell overboard, and somehow lived to tell the tale! I stayed up one night, not being able to stop reading.

Next to discovering interesting articles through my existing network of readers, and the AOTDs on the home page, what energizes me even more is new people discovering Readup, and sticking around. A while ago I saw the reader name coriander pop up, who entered the ranks of highly-active readers. They and another new reader, skydance, seem to have been interested in (the politics of) lawns recently. There's really something for everyone on Readup!
Yet sometimes, I see a name appear, and disappear a few days or weeks later. Which brings us to our main challenge: growing our community.

What challenges did you face during 2022?

In October I ran some napkin calculations based on rudimentary Readup usage statistics. In October 2022, about 75 hours worth of articles were read by about as many people.
This used to be much different. In October 2019, right before I learned about Readup myself, about 130 people had spent a whopping 700 hours reading articles. And the number continued growing after that! I remember this time as an exciting period of great articles and discussions, every day. These moments still happen this year, as I demonstrated above, but the frequency has dropped (for me, at least).
How can we explain this more-than tenfold decrease in activity?
Several factors are likely at play.
We should mention that around beginning of this year, the foundational energy source behind the Readup community and marketing efforts (and incidentally, also the former CEO of Readup), Bill, has chosen to live a mostly offline life in Taos NM, farming. That definitely had an effect, as he had pushed the community to its peak, and was so intertwined with Readup, that when he logged off, several other top scouts logged off too.

We should also point out that Readup is severely lagging behind on table-stakes features when it comes to reading apps. Readers have been asking for years for Android version, labels & lists, highlights in articles, font style options, a good article search function, an offline mode, AI article narration, an (RSS) feed reader, … basically, anything that the Readwise Reader Public Beta offers, as well as some other modern contenders like Matter. Maybe the readers missing these features just gave up, and went elsewhere. They would be justified if those features are what they needed, especially since we had been promising some of them for a long time (Android is somewhere halfway done, maybe). However, it's not impossible to use any of these apps alongside Readup!
While I think both reasons above contributed to the activity drain, my main hunch lies elsewhere: in 2021, we locked Readup up in several ways (with the best intentions), and both the app and community have never fully recovered from this.

Readup in shackles

Readup may be free again, and now also open-source since the beginning of this year, but that doesn’t make it an open, accessible experience. I think it’s a less open experience than it used to be in 2019 and 2020.

Readup used to be a social website, where you could share articles if you read them with our web extension or a mobile app. But then, in a bold effort to attack systemic issues in journalism, as well as build a sustainable business, we erected a subscriptions paywall that provided access to a reader-writer marketplace in May 2021. In quick succession, we launched desktop apps and disabled access the original web app & web extensions for the sake of a consistent app experience across all platforms a few months later.
I believe those changes did much to make Readup less accessible: you can’t just open a website and browse around, clicking on article links. On desktop, you first have to install a weird-looking app weighing tens of megabytes, and then create an account, to even have a chance of seeing what Readup is in practice. After that, it’s not obvious how you add articles to the app yourself. And even if the desktop was not our main channel for readers, it was our main channel for active article scouts that kept our community alive.
Since deciding to make Readup free again, we disabled most of the subscriptions remnants, but the web app and original extensions are still disabled.
Fixing that has been my main objective for 2022, because it’s something I can influence, which brings me back to what happened this year.

What did we do this year? How did you use money?

Readup’s team is now basically Jeff, the original CTO who oversees the tech infrastructure, and me, who does all other things. Both of us are only involved on a voluntary basis, next to other full-time occupations.
A few people have generously donated to us on our Open Collective. We used that money solely to pay for our server costs. We didn’t pay out any compensations for work, nor did we make any other expenses.
Here’s an overview overview of what we did this year:
  • In May, we stopped Readup subscriptions, open-sourced Readup, made it free again, and became an Open Collective organizationally.
  • In June, I containerized our development environment, so it’s theoretically easier for other developers to join in.
  • In August and September, I visited Jeff and Bill in the US. This was amazing on a personal level, because I saw them for the first time “IRL”, and I got to meet many previously anonymous readers!
  • In October, I got started on bringing Readup back to the web in earnest. This process is still ongoing and is close to completion - I’ll get back to that.
  • In November, Jeff optimized the resources we need for our servers, cutting our server expenses from about ~$150/month to $55/month! Donating any small amount on our Open Collective helps us cover the next bill!
  • Joker card: also in November, I demoed Readup to Ev Williams (founder of Medium, Blogger, involved in Twitter) while bumping into him at Slush 2022, after a talk he gave there. He seemed intrigued and wanted to know more, but I never got a follow-up on an email I sent afterwards. Oh well.

What did your Collective learn? How did you change or grow?

On a positive note, I learned that we can make Readup survive, and let it provide value to its small community by only being two volunteers. That wasn’t obvious in the early this year, with server costs running into the $200-300/month.
I also almost found a rhythm of working on Readup that is sustainable (in irregular sprints of about 5 hrs/week), and allowed me to make slow but steady progress.
On a constructive note, I had to temper my dreams for how much I would improve Readup this year. It’s not easy to hack on Readup while being the CTO of a cool slow travel startup in Belgium as my main job, where there is plenty of work all the time, and to still have a healthy life. Readup is a relatively big tech project, and I don't personally master all of the technologies or architectures involved in it: it remains a lengthy learning process, which is also partly what motivates me to work on it!
I also learned that contributors don’t come on their own when you simply open-source a decent development toolkit. They need to be motivated to fix issues in a project first, because they care about the project. Getting more readers and reading activity überhaupt is the main way in which we will thrive, and invite more developers and other contributors to come help, so that’s what I’m focusing on.

What are your plans for 2023? Anything exciting coming up?

Sure! My main focus is still bringing Readup back to the web. This is, I think, the surest way to get back to the level of community activity we had in 2019/2020, which is the gateway to all the other boons of the future. This should be done in early 2023. You can find a few teasers about on our Discord.

Bringing Readup back to the web is not just a reversal to how things used to be: it should work better than before. Eventually, I hope that people can also use most of Readup online without even having an account.
Next up is working on an Android app, the most-requested feature over the years, again to make Readup more accessible.
Beyond that, here’s an excerpt of the email I sent to Ev:
My dreams for Readup
- Developing reader profiles. I want to make reading lists of my favorite, evergreen articles in Readup by theme, and publish them easily. My reading profile.
- Developing writer & publication discovery, making use of all the data we have: I want to be able to find and follow writers, and read their best available articles. Current writer profile example: Haruki Murakami
- Spin-off a comment-section JS library/plug-in for bloggers to get Readup comments in their self-owned Wordpress/… blogs. Only people who complete articles can comment, and those reads/comments feed the Readup system
- Add table-stakes features & improve UX: people who come from Pocket, Matter, Instapaper shouldn’t feel like they’re missing out. Offline mode, font adjustments, tags/lists/collections, search.
- If we get there: give article monetization another shot [for writers], learning from our past mistakes.

I should also not forget to make time for something that very important as well: reading.

That's it, our 2022 update! A whole year in one post. I'm looking forward to continuing the Readup project with all of you. See you in the comments!