Or that’s what it promises in their press release this week. I was intrigued by the headline ‘Microtypography Tech Startup, Asymmetrica, Releases Free Browser Extension That Increases Reading Speed and Comprehension for Online Readers‘ so I was curious to check out the extension.
According to the press release and Asymmetrica website, asymmetrical spacing between words and chunking text together by phrases, is supposed to improve readability, especially for low literacy individuals. The company website is very text heavy, providing explanations of why it works, how it works, and why you need this – your elevator pitch by the bullets. With a product particularly inteded to reach low literacy individuals, they are probably missing their mark with over 400 words in paragraph format on the home page.
While I do not consider myself an individual with low literacy capability, I was still interested to see the free browser plugin in action. It immediately makes me think of those friends and family members that click and highlight as they go through a webpage, not that they’re low literacy but that they came up with some method to improve readability of long scrolling walls of text for themselves.
Forty-three percent of adult Americans with low literacy, while able to read, have difficulty with moderately challenging literacy activities.
Asym is one-half browser plugin that you can just install and receive the benefits and the other half service/API with target audiences of advertising, social media, online publishing, education, and direct mail/email.
The browser plugin is available for Chrome, Safari, or Firefox web browsers. I used version 1.2.9, released July 8th, 2015 in Google Chrome, which provides the add-on through the Chrome Webstore.
After you install the extension, you are provided with the manual (yay, more reading!). The manual covers the Asym extension icon including a legend for what the icon might indicate, creating an account and signing in, and some other notes.
I wasn’t a fan of having to create an account, but it was required to activate the service. I created an account using a spare email address. After I logged in and refreshed a webpage, I could see Asym at work. I created the gif below that shows the subtle difference the browser extension makes when reading a recent 404TS article:
As you can see, it spaces words apart a little more than the default. Some words, it even moves closer to its adjacent word. It’s very subtle that within these three paragraphs nothing wrapped around to the next line. Testing it out, I didn’t notice any improvement to the readability but I was consciously looking for it, obviously biasing the results.
Watching the results, I think it identifies phrases by common words such as ‘and’ or ‘of’ and possibly even verbs like ‘sends’, ‘remove’, and ‘Read’. I did not like how some of the word flow was changed. For example, I would think ‘Terms of Service’ would have been a phrase chunked together instead of ‘Terms’ being spaced from ‘of Service’.
In order to provide the best possible service and to allow us to make certain internal reports and make recommendations, we collect aggregate information about the use of the Service, including anonymized information available during use of the Asymmetrica Browser Extensions such as Internet protocol addresses, browser type, browser language, referring / exit pages and URLs, other browser history, platform type, number of clicks, size other startistics [sic] of documents, pages viewed and the order of those pages, the amount of time spent on particular pages, and the date and time (“Activity Information”).
This is a lot of information gathered as I shop online, bank online, and browse the web in general. The EFF has already shown with Panopticlick that this sort of information can uniquely identify you by fingerprinting your browser.
‘If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold’
— Asymmetrica Labs (@AsymmetricaLabs) July 17, 2015