What I liked about Reader was that not knowing what people liked gave you a peculiar kind of freedom. Maybe it’s better described as plausible deniability: You couldn’t be sure that your friends didn’t like your latest post, so your next post wasn’t constrained by what had previously done well or poorly in terms of a metric like Likes or Views. Your only guide was taste and a rather coarse model of your audience.
Newspapers and magazines used to have a rather coarse model of their audience. It used to be that they couldn’t be sure how many people read each of their articles; they couldn’t see on a dashboard how much social traction one piece got as against the others. They were more free to experiment, because it was never clear ex-ante what kind of article was likely to fail. This could, of course, lead to deeply indulgent work that no one would read; but it could also lead to unexpected magic.
Is it any coincidence that the race to the bottom in media—toward clickbait headlines, toward the vulgar and prurient and dumb, toward provocative but often exaggerated takes—has accelerated in lock-step with the development of new technologies for measuring engagement?