Getting to Pocket Inbox Zero

Pocket is a fiendishly addictive metagame for reading that helps you read more than you normally would. But the game makes it difficult to engage deeply with text, and distracts from Pocket’s potential to be a tool not only for consumption, but also for creation.

Earlier this week, Om Malik published a visualization of his read-it-later habits using data from his Pocket account. Malik was surprised to find that on average, he reads only a third of the articles he saves, to which Pocket founder and CEO Nate Weiner responded:

The key is to think of it like a Netflix queue. You are never overwhelmed or concerned about the number of items in your Netflix queue. You just keep putting things in there because you know that when you have the time to view something, you can guarantee you’ll have something great in there that you’ve been meaning to check out. If you view Pocket as a todo list then you better hope you have a LOT of free time :)

In a follow-up post, Pocket’s Editorial Director Mark Armstrong repeated the idea that a very long Pocket queue isn’t something to be bothered about.

As a Pocket addict, and a huge fan of the service, I must respectfully disagree. The frustration caused by a seemingly endless queue is real, and it’s a distraction from what Pocket could be.

Pocket as a “Metagame for Reading”

David Cole’s Metagames and Containers is a great essay about the game mechanics we invent around task-driven software, and the sense of empowerment that comes from consuming something in its entirety. He makes specific reference to read-it-later services, in his case, Instapaper:

It’s a metagame for reading. I frequently find myself reading more articles than I normally would, just to clear out my Instapa­per queue.

Co-signed. There’re few things more satisfying that checking off an article by punching that juicy “Archive” button. A digital interaction has no business being so … pleasurable. Conversely, it’s extremely frustrating when that gratification is delayed.

What is Pocket Inbox Zero?

Inbox Zero is term coined by Merlin Mann:

That “zero?” It’s not how many messages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be.

Likewise, Pocket Inbox Zero is the desire to have less of your brain inside your Pocket, obsessing over the interesting-sounding articles you saved months ago and haven’t read. Pocket Inbox Zero doesn’t mean wanting zero items in your queue. It means wanting a more confident understanding of the items in there and how they relate to each other.

Why is it so difficult to attain Pocket Inbox Zero?

Nate says to think of Pocket as something like a Netflix queue, but the problem with this idea is that it assumes that user behaviour within the app works something like this:

Instead, I propose that it looks more like this:

When I’m done watching a good TV show on Netflix, I quickly move on to the next one with minimal friction. Netflix puts me in pure consumption mode, a mental frame similar to what Andrew Rashbass (chief executive of The Economist Group) describes as lean back media consumption.

The end of a good article in Pocket, however, marks the beginning of a conversation. I might post a snippet to Tumblr, weave ideas from different articles together into a Medium post, or turn a mental image into an illustration. When using Pocket, I’m constantly flipping between consumption mode and production/understanding mode, and this slows down the rate at which I can get through my queue. When I lose control of my Pocket queue, it’s often because I’m stuck at the “Make/Understand” part of the cycle.

So my queue becomes littered with articles I’ve already read (which I leave in the queue so that they’re within arm’s reach while I dig into the ideas they present), as well as more recent articles I haven’t opened.

There’re weeks where I avoid my Pocket because it’s so overwhelming. I’m not blaming the Pocket team for this — this is mostly a problem of my own making — but I want to point out that despite Nate’s protestations that it shouldn’t be a source of frustration, I can’t help how I feel, and I suspect that I’m not alone.

Pocket — The Maximum, Beautiful Product.

What might it look like if Pocket developed tools that supported users in production/understanding mode? I suspect that it would be built around annotations.

Pocket currently allows you to organize articles in three ways — tags, favourite star, and archive. These methods treat the article as a solid, impenetrable thing, as if we only interact with articles on their surfaces. Deep engagement happens at the moment where an argument is forcefully and elegantly made, or where you disagree with an author.

Why doesn’t Pocket empower me to quickly mark up those moments when they happen?

Pocket is More Than Just a Read-It-Later Service — It’s a Compost Pit for Ideas.

Imagine a Pocket, where, at the moment of deep engagement, you can quickly highlight a section and leave a note to your future self explaining why that part is important? Or a Pocket that looked at how everyone across the platform interacted with the text and used this data to display a heatmap of highlighted sections? A Pocket that let you peek at what other readers have scribbled and published into their public digital margins?

Imagine a Pocket that fully embraced its role not only as a tool for consumption, but a platform for creating new knowledge?

Pocket, evolved, would be a garden where you could harvest ideas from different texts, bring them into tension with each other, and then graft them into your own original contribution to a debate.

And how would this help address the problem of the psychological burden of ever lengthening queues? Annotations would be a middle space between the consumption (reading) mode and the productive (learning) mode. It would allow you to readily archive a text, confident that you could go to your “Annotations” section to revisit your observations.

If this piece seems oddly impassioned, it’s because I genuinely believe that the Pocket team is doing important work in improving the way content on the web is distributed and consumed. In my mind, few people on the web love words and and writing more than the folks at Pocket (they’re rivaled by 37signals and, of course, Medium). I want them to succeed, for the selfish reason that it’ll benefit me as a reader and a learner.

There’re conversations happening inside Pocket, but we’re deaf to them because we’re distracted by the app’s game mechanics. Annotations would empower us to explore the ways in which Pocket can be turned into fertile ground for incubating knowledge.

Update: Nathan Griffith penned the following perfect summary:

Currently, Pocket is all about referencing and organizing content at the top-level. But this just captures the outer shell without helping us chew on the meatier bits. Annotations would enable us to keep track of “deep links” to specific parts of articles, and from those annotations we could create and share even richer content.

Want to continue talking about the ideas raised here? You can reach me via Twitter: @equartey, or email: equartey [at] gmail. Thanks!