The Highlight Layer

Andrew Courter
Jul 19, 2016 · 6 min read

Is it worth your time to read this?

You make this choice — or it’s made for you — hundreds of times daily. The whole of the modern media apparatus is at auction literally bidding to keep your eyeballs pointed at this screen, say nothing of visiting the outside world. We’re constantly evaluating what’s worth our finite daily attention, and we get it wrong a lot.

We’re always filtering, and it’s exhausting.

The apps, bots and brands purporting to assist are happy to suggest something more to read, but we’re looking for less. Aggregators won’t help you subtract, so who can you trust to help you focus?

Your friends, of course. Your coworkers. Your people: those who are happier when you’re happier and whose lives are better when yours is, too.

This is the highlight layer:

  1. an attention filter for the internet,
  2. powered by your people.

Take back control of your attention, with a little help from your friends.

“… diverse disciplines, from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life, and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”

— Cal Newport, Deep Work

Two Tales of One Story

You’re an aging millennial, and it’s morning. You slide into your knockoff Eames chair, peel open your MacBook and type an f which autocompletes, and you’re greeted by a feed of friendly faces — your friends, your people. And lo, Cousin Mackenzie shared an article that catches your eye: “The End of the Thinkpiece”. The algorithm works: you’d love this story too. You click.

You’re on the story now, but your people have vanished. Your eyes dart to the scrollbar — it’s short, the page is long — then back to the text. It’s not clear why Mackenzie shared this, and although your eyes are on the screen, your mind’s already elsewhere. Your iPhone buzzes, a welcome distraction. As quickly as you entered the story, you exit, none the richer.

It’s a damn shame.

Mackenzie was inspired to share that story by a passage at its end. (You abandoned the piece before you got there.) Two other friends read the same piece this morning, and your favorite thinkfluencer Tweeted a screenshot of it late last night. Your coworker is reading the story now, and your boss just added it to her own reading list.

Lots of people you trust found the story valuable. But with no highlight layer, you know none of this. So you scroll, glaze, bounce.

We don’t need more social media; we need more social in our media.

The Highlighted Web

With the highlight layer, things are better. You don’t start at the top of the story, but with the top ideas for you, personally. You don’t leave your friends behind; friends’ POVs are painted right onto the stories — sometimes where you’d least expect them. Social context strengthens your connection to the story and to your people.

Your trusted network weaves you a trustworthy filter, and counterintuitively, your friends help you focus.

“As the writer of this story, I don’t want your time, I want your attention.”

Ev Williams, A Mile Wide, An Inch Deep

The highlight layer divorces the oft-conflated measures of time and impact. When I post, message or mail you a story, I want the ideas that moved me to nudge you, too. “I don’t want your time, I want your attention.” Starting with highlights delivers 80% of the story in 20% of the time, and social context makes each point twice as sticky. When we don’t fear the time-suck of jumping into any given story, we’re willing jump into more stories. We make, and feel, more impact.

We get the good stuff fast — like juicing an orange.

Two ways to spend two minutes with the same story.

No story by its nature demands to be read wholly or only skimmed. The attention we spend is instead a function of 1) the story itself, 2) our personal interests and experiences, and 3) social cues. Instead of the binary “read” and “unread,” we consume on a gradient spanning “went deep” and “got the gist.”

“… don’t feel the obligation to finish any book … do not treat it like a linear tome or treatise that has to be read in order, the way the author intended. Feel free to skip around, it’s your book. You can start at the back — there are books that I’ve literally started at the middle, I read near to the end and I put it down. It was a decent book, and I learned something, but I just didn’t feel like having to start it or finish it.”

Naval Ravikant on The Tim Ferriss Show (#94)

And yes, sometimes it’s better to read alone. Hide the highlight layer whenever you’d like.

A Wide New Band in the Sharing Spectrum

On normalweb, we consume a lot but share very little. Most stories don’t warrant the labor and social exposure of a posting a link, quote and comment. So we mostly do nothing. So our friends mostly don’t know what we loved, and we mostly leave the web no better than we found it.

On highlightweb, we share lightly, in line, all day, every day. It’s not data exhaust; it’s fairy dust.

Grab Your Marker

The highlight layer is here, today.

The tool — a free, unlimited web highlighter — enables a step change in how we read, save and share stories. It’s an easy, high signal:effort way to traffic ideas for influence, fun, analysis and so much more.

The network — the community of highlighters — enables another step up. Each highlight drawn onto the web adds compounding value for every future reader.

“Imagine if we had that highlights feature as standard issue over in the blogosphere? I mean, we had comments as standard issue … why not this? Lordy, how cool would that be? Knowing us, we’d turn it into currency driving a magical gift economy, the kind we had back when this all started.”

John Battelle, Wired, NewCo, Blogging Meet Medium, Please Procreate

We read to connect with ideas that we don’t already know. The more ideas we touch, the better we can engage our friends and our world.

Everything we do online sends a signal. Advertisers and platforms slice and dice and capitalize nicely on our data, yet we humble web serf(er)s have near-zero visibility into what’s happening beyond our screens. What if we did?

The social web is wonderful because it’s full of people we trust and their unique points of view. The story web is brilliant because more people than ever before are publishing important, amazing stories. The highlight layer is where the social and story webs overlap, bringing people together in the stories which were composed, after all, for them.

Highlighting is the killer app for sharing stories.

It’s natural, personal and efficient. I know this because I’ve been living on highlightweb for months now, with a few friends and a few thousand strangers, building Highly to bring the highlight layer to everybody. We’ve seen firsthand its utility, serendipity and occasional absurdity. We love it and think you will too.

The web is big and wonderful. Light it up.


Web highlighting isn’t a new idea, and we’re not the first or only folks working on it. We’re particularly inspired by Craig Mod’s studies, Kevin Marksfragmentions proposal, M.G. and Anil’s strong Tweetshot games, and of course the Medium team’s delicious, platform-wide implementation.

Now Open

Highly — the highlight layer — is now available to the public, with free apps for Chrome, Safari, iPhone and iPad. There will be kinks (it’s new), and there will be smiles (it’s neat). Holler at @HighlyTM to let us know what you think.

Happy Highlighting

Building Highly, the Internet’s Highlight Layer • The…

Andrew Courter

Written by

Soccer dad. Pro aesthete. Founder @HighlyTM, the internet’s highlight layer. Draft.

Happy Highlighting

Building Highly, the Internet’s Highlight Layer • The Highly Team Is Now Part of Twitter

Andrew Courter

Written by

Soccer dad. Pro aesthete. Founder @HighlyTM, the internet’s highlight layer. Draft.

Happy Highlighting

Building Highly, the Internet’s Highlight Layer • The Highly Team Is Now Part of Twitter

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