Starting now, Readup doesn’t have “users.” We have Readers.
Words matter. They impact the way we think and feel.
It might be true that actions speak louder than words, but it’s also true that word choice is action. Expression involves decision-making. Ideas are animated, made real, with language. Thus, different words create different realities.
There’s nothing inherently evil about the words “use” and “user,” but they’ve been bugging me long enough that finally, over the weekend, I decided to do something about it. So that’s the purpose of this blog post. This is an attempt to use words to create a change in behavior which, in turn, will alter Readup’s DNA. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. We’ll see. At the very least, exercises like this help me to clarify — both to myself and to others — why we do what we do. And how.
“User” doesn’t feel humane. Robots “use” things. They gather inputs which, in turn, trigger actions. My truck is a machine that “uses” gasoline and oil, in very specific amounts and in very specific ways. But there’s no art involved in “using” something. Robots can’t read!
On the flip side, you don’t “use” a book. You read it. Imagine how weird it would be if your friend gave you a book and said, “I already used this one,” or “I used half the books on my shelf.” It makes no sense. The same goes for newspapers and magazines. We don’t use these things. We read them.
“Use” makes sense if there’s not already another great word that can be used, or if there’s some ambiguity about what the use entails. You don’t “use” a cup of coffee. You drink it. I don’t use my truck, I drive it. Then again, I sometimes use it to haul wood.
So, to be clear: Readup has several uses, but it has one primary use, reading, and that’s the one that we always want to stay focused on.
Some people use Readup to track and improve their online reading habits. Some people use Readup to find amazing articles and stories. Some people use Readup to connect with other readers — friends, strangers, or some combination of both. And many people use Readup for all of these reasons. But every single one of these “use cases” has a deeper, more important use case in common: reading.
Ultimately, if you’re not reading, you’re not actually using Readup. Without reading, you can’t comment. You can’t “vote with your attention” in the AOTD game. Your Profile and your Stats graph will remain blank and you won’t appear on any of the Leaderboards. But then, as soon as you start reading, Readup comes to life. And, as you read more and more, the experience keeps getting better and better. And we’re definitely not trying to take all of the credit. Reading is work, but it’s also inherently rewarding.
Our #1 core value has always been “Respect the users.” Now it’s “Respect the Readers.” This might sound like a superficial change. And maybe it is. But only for now. That’s because Jeff (Readup’s CTO) and I are the only two people working on Readup. We believe that if we live and work according to our values, others will experience the manifestation of those values in the product we’re building and the community we’re creating. And we spend hours on end talking about them. That’s ten-thousand times more important than a one word change.
But soon we’re going to start making money. And soon after that we’re going to start hiring. That’s when the actual language that we use to illustrate the spirit of our core values will start to really matter. Because we won’t have time to spend hours a day talking to every employee individually, we’ll need better documentation. This is one reason why I’ve been writing so much recently.
In organizations where the entire team plays by shared values, you encounter incredibly vibrant cultures in which employees feel appreciated and empowered to contribute. Research shows that values-driven organizations outperform their peers by wide margins. (Source: Corporate Culture and Performance, by John Kotter and James Heskett, professors at Harvard Business School. Also, more recent studies by Raj Sisodia, Jagh Sheth and David B. Wolf in Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose. Ironically, these studies have a narrow definition of success that revolves around profit and shareholder return. No matter; Readup has always been out front, operating without a playbook, innovating.)
Beyond that, we’re doing away with a whole bunch of Silicon Valley jargon in one fell swoop.
At Readup, user research is now Reader research. User focus groups are now Reader focus groups. God knows we need to hire some people with “UX” experience, but we’re going to call them Reader Experience (RX) designers instead. The “New User Experience” at Readup is now the “New Reader Experience.” And we don’t have Power Users or Super Users. We have Power Readers and Super Readers.
At some point soon, we’re going to re-work the Reader onboarding experience. When we do, usernames will become “Reader names.”
And even if a Reader hasn’t read anything on Readup, they’re still a Reader, they’re just not “activated” yet.
As we re-calibrate our metrics, we’re never going to talk about Daily Active Users (DAUs) or Monthly Active Users (MAUs). Instead, we’ll have Daily Active Readers and Monthly Active Readers - DARs and MARs.
I’m not planning to police this with an iron fist. But when I hear the term “user” (and as long as I’m not interrupting the flow of a conversation) I’m going to politely make the correction. So, for example, when prospective investors inevitably refer to Readers as users, it will give me a good opportunity to explain why and how we remember the humanity of each and every individual on our platform.
Finally, I take addiction very seriously. And I think that addiction to technology is one of the major issues facing humanity right now.
Readup is, proudly, a non-addictive technology. You’ll never find yourself using it against your will. If we’re successful, Readup might even help people to curb their technology addictions. Readup is also bridge back to print, to books. The day that I hear from Readers that they are getting addicted to Readup is the day that I jump ship. For real. I don’t want anything to do with building a product that “hooks users.” Reading on Readup should feel like eating vegetables or exercising. Not bingeing on candy or Netflix.
In fact, this is one of the reasons that I left Silicon Valley, where nobody seems to ask, “But is it good if people use this product for hours a day?” It’s the reason I spent five years with only a flip phone, and why I don’t (and can’t) use social media. I have faith that we can build something that enriches and inspires people for the same reason that I have faith in reading. Steve Jobs famously envisioned that computers could be like “bicycles for the mind.” Books already do precisely that. Readup is just connecting the dots.
Finally, to reiterate: there’s nothing inherently wrong with “use,” with calling people “users” of technology. And if every other tech company on the planet wants to use the same word to define their community, that’s up to them. But at Readup, we love a good reason to cut away from the pack. “Think different” is almost a platitude these days. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.
If this initiative doesn’t work, I’ll be sure to let you know. To be honest, I’m already struggling with it a little bit myself. Last night, in Slack, I referred to a “User interview” instead of a “Reader interview.” But, in catching myself, it felt like a productive little glitch in my head, an opportunity to remind myself: These are not users, they are Readers.
More importantly: They are people.
We are people. We are Readers.