Back to the RSS(R)

Chicken pecking

Very appropriately, I discovered this post by Bryan Alexander about returning to using an RSS reader in… my RSS reader! It’s been four years since Google Reader closed, but it seems a lot longer than that. In that time, we’ve seen the rise of algorithmic feed readers — something that, even before Brexit and Trump, I identified as an existential threat to western democracy.

Bryan’s using Digg Reader for his feed reading habits, whereas I’m using Feedly, which I switched to after the demise of Google Reader. I experimented with NewsBlur and self-hosting Tiny Tiny RSS but, like many people, I can be fussy about my reading experience. Feedly is great.

Helpfully, Bryan outlines exactly how he’s got his feed reader set up. For me, though, it’s the reasoning behind using it that makes me nod my head in agreement:

A big reason is that Facebook’s front page is so, so massively unreliable.  Despite having huge numbers of people that are my friends, clients, and contacts, it’s just not a good reading and writing service.  Facebook’s black box algorithm(s) may or may not present a given’s user’s post for reasons generally inscrutable.  I’ve missed friends’ news about new jobs, divorces, and deaths because the Zuckerbergmachine deems them unworthy of inclusion in my personalized river of news.  In turn, I have little sense of who will see my posts, so it’s hard to get responses and very hard to pitch my writing for an intended audience.  Together, this makes the FB experience sketchy at best.  To improve our use of it we have to turn to experiments and research that remind me of Cold War Kremlinology.

I’ve been off Facebook for a while now and, in fact, have become ever-more militant in my stand against it. I’ve stopped using Twitter for anything other than the occasional direct message, and to post links to my work. The use of technology, as Bryan points out, is never neutral:

There’s a politics here.  RSS reading is based on the open web, and I continue to fight for that, even in an age of rising silos and walled gardens.  Less clearly is a theme of conversation through connections, which is increasingly vital to me.  I love being able to arrange feeds across filter bubbles, and to see ideas move across boundaries.

As I get older and more certain of my politics and stance towards the world, I’m less inclined to compromise my values. There are no huge wars to fight on the technological front any more, no massively ideological battlegrounds where we can choose sides. Instead, the picture is multi-faceted, with millions of decisions being taken everyday that make the world what it is. The same is true in every sphere. The choice, as Bryan outlines here, is either to be steamrollered by well-funded companies, or decide to make a stand, however small it might be in the big scheme of things.

Don’t get me wrong, algorithmic news feeds can be useful, but they should be used as part of a wider, richer environemng that you control. It’s tempting to use the metaphor of healthy eating here: are we carelessly consuming whatever junk information is served up to us, or are we carefully ensuring we get a balanced information diet, including your five-a-day?

Photo by Jesse Schoff on Unsplash