At the Crafting {:} a Life unconference one of the things that came up in our conversations was how you take information in, while avoiding the endlessly scrolling timelines of FB and Twitter as well as FOMO. My description of how I read feeds ‘by social distance‘ was met with curiosity and ‘can you show us?’. I realised I have blogged about this, but always as part of a much wider discussion of reading and writing on the web, and never as something on its own and in detail. So let’s do that now.

My notions about information strategies and filtering
Let’s start with the underlying assumptions and principles I landed upon using over time:

  • There is no way you can take in all available information, there’s simply too much, it’s always been that way. Internet amped up the volume of course.
  • Because there’s always been too much information, although internet changed its volume and quality, there’s no such thing as information overload. There do exist failing information strategies, and failing filtering strategies.
  • It’s not useful to fear you might miss something in the ocean of information. If it is important it will come back tomorrow, through some other path.
  • Filtering, as mental activity I mean, not as rule based technological fix, needs attention, as it is the primary way to shape your information diet
  • Filtering also needs attention as it is a key part of what information you share and propagate yourself. Output is the result of processed input. Filtering, again as mental activity as verb, determines input, and thus impacts output.
  • My filtering is not a stand alone thing in isolation, it is part of a network of filters, yours, mine, and other people’s. My output is based on filtered input, and that output ends up in other people’s filtered input.I treat blogging as thinking out loud and extending/building on other’s blogposts as conversation. Conversations that are distributed over multiple websites and over time, distributed conversations.
  • If you are part of my input, and I am part of your input, then feedback loops get created. It is these feedback loops that lift signals above the sea of general background noise. This is the key bit that means you don’t need to fear missing something, as it will resurface through a feedback loop if it’s important.
  • This means that where I source information can’t be of the ‘news’ type, stuff that pretends it is neutral. Neutral isn’t useful in a filter. Commented, interpreted, augmented material is useful in a filter, as it adds context that help determine its information value. I source information from individuals as a result.
  • Who you are as a person is an essential piece of context in how to judge information. If you’re walking on the street and a random stranger asks to have a coffee, you interpret it very differently from when your partner walking next to you asks you the same thing. We are all walking information filters, our brains are very well used to doing that. So what I know socially about you helps me interpret what you share, as it will be coloured by who you are. Let’s call this social filtering.
  • I know many people, some very well, others less so, or I only know what you’ve shared on your site recently and we haven’t met at all. The social distance I perceive between me and you is part of the context of filtering. This is an otherwise unspecified mix of personal, professional, and other aspects that I am aware of with others.
  • When social distance and social filtering are key elements in filtering information, preventing echo chambers is a key concern. This translates into purposefully seeking out divergence and diversity in your network. All your favourite enemies need to be in your information filter as well. And you need to extend your network periodically, while monitoring its health in terms of variety. You then end-up half way between ‘subjective’ (me and my echo chamber), and ‘objective’ (journalism as per its ideal), at ‘multi-subjective’. That’s great because all of human complexity is at that intermediate level between ‘n=1’ / me, and statistics (probabilities across populations): networks of interdependent actors.

Over the years I’ve written a number of postings about the points above. I try to maintain an overview on my page about information strategies.

How I organise my feed reader
All the above serves as a long introduction to why I organise my feed reading the way I do:

  • I follow people, not sources. This means that I’m not subscribed to ‘The Local News’, but to blogs kept by individuals. It also means that if you’re Jenny Jensen who writes the blog Pangean Pontifications, I will have you as Jenny Jensen in my feed reader, not your masthead
  • I order the feeds I follow in folders roughly by social distance. From people closer to me, to total strangers through multiple levels in between. This isn’t an exactly determined ‘weight’. It is an intuitive arrangement of where I think our current connection/interaction is at. I move things around. E.g. a recent extended blog-based conversation may move you from total stranger to something closer. Meeting and having conversations at an event very likely will as well.

Above is a screenshot of the folder structure in my reader that implies social distance. A12 is the closest level. A I originally meant as my personal ‘A-listers’, and 12 as a number that roughly indicates a circle the size of immediate family and closest friends. The other folders have a similar meaning. B50, a slightly wider group of close professional and personal peers, C150 the connections with let’s say my Dunbar ‘horizon’ or close connections of my close connections, D500 people from various ‘Dunbar number‘ sized circles, communities, contexts I’m part of. E999 new connections, strangers. Most feeds will start in E999, as everything starts out as being miscellaneous. Over time (remember, feedback loops), some will stand out more for me and move to a deeper folder / layer of the onion. People I’ve met will mostly be in folders A12-D500. But I also have one person in my A12 folder I never met in person. Bryan Alexander and I have been in touch a very long time through our blogs, consistently and intensively, and that’s why he’s in the A12 folder. Invitations we made to people for our birthday unconferences will all come from at most the D500 ‘distance’. There is one other folder ‘Keeptrack’ which contains feeds of my own, my company’s or project related and group stuff. The comment feed for my blog for instance.

Within each folder are a number of feeds, which as I wrote are named after their author.
Who is where isn’t an assessment of the person, but of their relative position in my mental network map of every one I know (about). Within a folder there’s no deliberate structure.

 
 

You can see the current list of blogs I follow in the right hand sidebar, where you can download it as an OPML file. Most rss readers will allow you to import that and select the feeds you want to subscribe to. I regularly browse such lists when others publish them, to find new people for in my e999 folder.

I counted the feeds I currently have, and this is the distribution:

folder # of feeds
A12 10
B50 14
C150 14
D500 16
E999 129

This is not a huge amount of feeds, just under 200. There used to be many many more, but when I started blogging more intensively again at the end of 2017, I realised most of my old feeds had gone silent, and I started out with an empty reader. What stands out to me most from that table is that it’s about 50 people I know somehow (A through D), and 129 ‘strangers’ from the e999. That is a visible effect from starting out with ‘everything is miscellaneous‘ and populating e999, after which people will move into one of the other folders over time as patterns and depth of connection emerge. In my old set of subscriptions the ‘closer’ folders were more populated, along the lines of the numbers in the folder names. I expect to over time stabilise that way again (meaning some 500 feeds followed in the A through D folders). Adding, removing or moving feeds I treat as a form of gardening.

The numbers would likely become very different if I can more easily add feeds from other spaces where people I know actually do write and post (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram etc mostly). Hence my interest in IndieWeb protocols such as Microsub and tools like Granary as they can be used to pull stuff out of silos, and hence my interest in what Aaron Parecki calls the social reader, that allows direct interaction with material within my reader, responding and posting directly from it.

Daily reading routines
I currently use Readkit as feedreader, which allows folders, and allows me to rename feeds (so I can turn Pangean Pontification into Jenny Jensen). It also is an ‘offline first’ tool, which is my preferred mode of reading. I let it sync at the start of the day, and then at some point will go through it without needing an internet connection. It’s not in any way getting close to what would be my ideal feedreader (a posting that touches upon many of the points in this posting).

If I have only a little time to take in what others share, I will look only at the A12 folder, or if nothing got posted there at the B50 folder. More time means I will read more widely, moving to the C-D-E folders. That way I get a notion of what bloggers closest to me are writing about every day, and if I have time I will dive into the firehose of everything else. That’s an outside in approach: getting a feeling for what others are writing.

There’s also an inside-out approach where I use the search function to see if anyone has written about e.g. their impressions of Crafting {:} a Life which we visited in the past days, or the current political unrest in Moldova. Ideally I would also be able to tag feeds with aspects I know about its author (e.g. Berlin, coder, art, cycling, Drupal). Then I could ask ‘what are the German people I have in here that are into Drupal talking about this week?’

When I’m done reading for the day I hit ‘mark all as read’, or at least once every few days as I might forget to do it sometimes. ‘Mark all read’ is an important bit of functionality. I don’t really need to read everything, because if I overlooked something, and it’s important, I will come across it tomorrow or whenever the feedback loops bring it back again. Having your reader guilt-tripping you because you have ‘1276 unread items’ is not proper information-hygiene 😀

And you?
So how do you read? Do you publish a list of feeds you follow? I’d be interested to see your list. What would make your reading better, easier, a better routine? What seems useful to you from the above, and might be useful to me from your current set-up?

20 reactions on “Feed Reading By Social Distance

  1. ‘Constructing a body of hypertext over time—such as with blogs or wikis—with an emphasis on the strengths of linking (within and without the text) and rich formatting.’

  2. This is really useful Ton. I’ve tried various categorisations and filtering approaches but this one feels right. I particularly agree with the following people rather than their chosen brand or identity. Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do after all!

    I also like the idea of sharing your blogroll as an opml file rather than as a visible list.

Bookmarks

  • Eddie Hinkle

Reading

  • Andy
  • Chris Aldrich

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.