The internet we have today is the one we unknowingly asked for over the past decade and change: Since the introduction of the Facebook like in 2009, we’ve been inputting countless likes, retweets, views, and various other nudges to prompt algorithmically-driven platforms to give us more of what we want. Or, at least, what we think we want. Somehow, we’ve arrived at the current chaotic hellscape of online content, where there’s more of it than ever, but it’s just as difficult—if not more laborious—to sift through it all and find the good stuff. So it makes sense that Pocket, which launched as the humble bookmarking service we know today in 2012, has endured as a place for netizens to stow their favored links and discover new ones. What’s less obvious is how the platform has managed to do so while remaining remarkably…enjoyable?
It began, like so many Web 2.0 faves do, as a side project: In 2007, a young, self-taught coder named Nate Weiner designed a Firefox extension that could save articles, which he naturally dubbed Read It Later. Within four years, Weiner had turned down an offer from Evernote “in the low millions” to acquire the business it had grown into, choosing instead to raise enough venture capital to assemble a founding team and rebrand as Pocket by 2012. Since its launch, users have saved over 6.5 billion pieces of content on Pocket, or about 50 million links per month, according to the company.
These days, Pocket not only continues to serve as a reliable links repository—for reading later, yes, but also for shopping, meal-planning, and gift-giving later as well—but it’s also an underrated recommendation engine via its Discover and Collections features. Plus: Talk to a certain online media type, and they’ll likely gush about the traffic spike associated with landing a coveted spot on the “Pocket Hits” newsletter—which has 3 million monthly subscribers—before grumbling about how un-gameable Pocket readers are compared to their counterparts on Facebook or Twitter.
Around the once-humble bookmarklet’s 10th anniversary, I spoke with Matt Koidin, one of the founding team members and now vice president of Pocket at Mozilla (which acquired Pocket in 2017), to get a sense of the strategy behind the platform’s durable position in our current online ecosystem. Over Zoom from his office in San Francisco, Koidin talked up the value of the save over the click, the “algotorial” approach to mixing machine learning with personal taste, and—of utmost importance to any Pocket superuser—his latest end-of-year stats. Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Vanity Fair: Let’s start with your background. I know you studied computer science at Stanford in the late ‘90s, which must have been an exciting time and place for anyone coming up in tech. Is that where you got started?
Matt Koidin: I was your proverbial neighborhood computer kid. My first Atari 800—that was the first computer I had and loved. I think I always felt like computers were the way. You don’t always think of programming as a creative expression, but for me, it was.
I did some internships at Microsoft; there’s a world where I’m in Seattle right now and maybe we’re talking, maybe we’re not. But I took this Introduction to High Technology Entrepreneurship class with Professor Tom Byers in 1999, and it just changed my life. We did our final project actually with Jon Bruck, who would later be on the founding team at Pocket.
How did you end up at Pocket yourself?
I asked Jon, “Hey, I’m looking for a front-end developer to work with me on some stuff,” and he was like, “Oh I just saw this guy’s website. He looks pretty good.” It turns out that was Nate Weiner. And so Nate and I worked together at the startup I was working at before, called Team Rankings. He had a few other projects going on; one of them was Read It Later. We worked together for about a year, and then he was like, “You know what, this Read It Later thing is kind of interesting, I’m going to go see what I can do with it.” We’d get lunch every few months, and we were always like, oh we should work together again someday.
About this time 11 years ago, we had one of those lunches. It was at the American Grilled Cheese Company, right down in SoMa [South of Market, San Francisco]. Nate had started talking about maybe raising some money. I remembered I liked working with Nate, so the people part was there. The product was something I used. And then once he added in the vision, I went home and I told my wife, “I have to quit my job and go work with Nate. I’ll sleep on it but I gotta do this.”
What was so exciting to you about the vision?
From the beginning, we had this view that content consumption was broken in many ways. I think it’s changed a little bit since then, in terms of how it’s broken.
Yeah, it’s still pretty broken.
At the time, the product was kind of like, hey, there’s this time-shifting brokenness: I come across things that I’m interested in, but it’s not the right time for me to consume it. There’s so much out there, so how am I going to remember to come back to it? That was the initial iteration.
This is that 2011 to 2012 time period when Facebook and Twitter—all that liking and retweeting—starts to develop a lot more. That led into a brokenness of, “Wow, there’s all this crap that these platforms are pushing. How do I cut through the noise—endless feed after feed, headline after headline?” We were trying to be something a little bit different. How do we create a content environment where you feel like your time is well spent versus coming away from it feeling doom-scrolled or sad?