In 2015, my love for learning grew. I integrated the mediums of RSS feeds, podcasts, and audiobooks into my daily habits more than ever before; and, as a mostly accidental byproduct, pushed more time-wasting content to the back-burner. As we continue the shift to an Internet-based economy with extensive knowledge at our fingertips, staying intentionally informed is more important than ever before.
I am the product, not the customer, of 99.99% of modern media. Advertisers track me, news outlets sell flashy headlines often at the cost of real investigative reporting, and social media behemoths build massive profiles on me to better target me with advertisements. When I choose to be merely a passive consumer of media, I allow my privacy to be invaded and waste precious time watching adverts and irrelevant content.
It makes sense. I think that the majority of us, while we are beginning to understand the scope of privacy invasion occurring, are still not willing to sacrifice the free ad-supported television and web experience. I hope and believe that we are on the verge of a transformational shift in journalism (ideally through something like blockchain-powered micro-payments, a topic for another day); but I want to take a step back, look at the present state, and leave us with a recommendation to sift through the noise.
I use Feedly for old-school RSS in conjunction with adblockers to curate sources and intentionally stay informed while maintaining privacy and reducing bias. A link to my feeds is at the bottom.
I usually come away feeling saddened and disappointed whenever I am in a waiting room or the home of a friend or family member showing traditional TV news. For example, one of the local news stations here in Memphis is always on at our dentist’s office. The uglified broadcast is split up, resembling picture-in-picture, leaving only about two-fifths of the television’s real estate for actual news content tucked in between gaudy ad banners. The most eye-popping stories, whether of actual importance or not, are reported at a 3-to–1 ratio of extreme negative-to-positive. Segments of some interest are constantly broken up by weather reports (we have smartphones, now), Powerball numbers, advertisements for new cars and mattresses, and sports updates (do they not get their batch of channels?).
I fully understand the underlying ad-supported business model of most media, but when it comes to how I consume it, I can lack discernment in my selections. Mainstream televised media can be informative, but I pay for it with the cost of my time (watching advertisements and uninteresting content) and money (spending more due to the subconscious influence of marketing). Lastly, when I rely on a single or even a few sources for information, I get a heavily biased view of reality. Just as a strong portfolio is heavily diversified, so also do I have a chance in 2016 to diversify my sources of information.
Social Medial and the Algorithm Monster
So, here is the thing with Facebook. While I do not have quantitative evidence to back this up, I would guess that most of my peers in the “Millennial” generation get the bulk of their news from Facebook. There are exceptions, and there are those (including myself frequently) that falsely deny this, but I think it is a somewhat valid assessment. The problem with Facebook, though, is that I am the product, not the customer. Their algorithms are tuned not to show me the most relevant or highest quality content (though that does occasionally happen), but to make the most profit from my attention and clicks. No matter how much I try to curate my feed by clicking “Hide All from Suzy Cucumber” or “Hide All from Buzzfeed app,” the timeline seems to be more and more cluttered with useless memes and Upworthy clickbait designed to boost ad revenue, not provide meaningful information. I cannot foresee giving up Facebook entirely, as it is the best way to keep tabs on the latest births, engagements, marriages, etc. But, I want to continue shifting excess time spent with Facebook to more significant content sources.
Other products attempt to provide algorithmically curated news. Examples of this are Flipboard, Apple News, Google News, etc. These are great stopgap solutions, and I hope that they continue to improve, but for the power user who likes to tweak the exact sources of information and get a full picture of content, they fall short. Twitter, on the other hand, could have a place as the ultimate RSS replacement. Despite the company’s internal turmoil as of late, their core product is arguably the best option for real-time news updates. How often is getting real-time news that useful? Only during crises directly impacting me do I care about up-to-the-minute information. For everything else, reading about it after the fact is just as good, if not better. Journalists also have this regular habit of repeating posts on Twitter multiple times to make sure you do not miss it, but I would rather work primarily off a de-duplicated queue than a fast-paced stream of repetition.
Tame the Inbox
If I receive any newsletter or promotional piece in my inbox, I am instantly discouraged. It is like finding a piece of unsolicited mail in our physical mailbox. If I want to read your writing or purchase your product or service, I will seek it out. Do not email me; I have a hard enough time keeping up with email as it is. I know that everyone does not hold this view, and I do ironically provide an email signup for this very blog. I keep email for bi-directional conversations rather than broadcast blasts so that I can keep my work, communication, and consumption more focused and segregated.
Reigning It in with RSS
I believe we will see a significant shift in journalism soon. The ad-supported big media, I hope, will not be sustained as more and more people take control of their data and privacy. Until then, however, my most-used mobile and browser app is Feedly. Most Internet publications publish RSS feeds as a way to subscribe to updates from their regular blog posts. After Google Reader, the primary tool for subscribing to such feeds died in 2013, many worried that it would kill off this remarkable web feature. Feedly has taken its place, however, and provides an excellent interface for subscribing to the late Aaron Swartz’s specification.
Feedly allows me to subscribe to and categorize all of the news and blogs that I want to read. By diversifying sources, I theoretically do not have to succumb to any one author’s bias. Nearly all web publications provide RSS, and for those few that do not, there is Page2RSS. Feedly’s minimal reading interface clears away distractions; and, when reading through the lens of adblockers, protects me from trackers trying to profile my habits.
Despite these efforts to use media consumption time and energy in the most efficient way possible, it is still necessary to develop self-control more than ever when using my gadgets. I want to strive to be a more informed and well-read citizen, while not succumbing to the FOMO (fear of missing out) plague that is prevalent in the Information Age.