In reply to Better RSS Categories by Wouter Groeneveld

Thank you Wouter for sharing your experiences and describing your feed reading process. Always interesting to gain some insights in how other people work. I’d like to add that to me, the social distance as ordering principle does not create categories. They explicitly aren’t meant to separate or as you say sort by quality. I usually get more interesting stuff from further social distances. One usually knows what ones closest ties know, so not much surprisal there. Good stuff usually comes from weak ties, which by definition are more socially remote. The social distance measure however does two other things for me. Social distance is a measure of sorts of the intensity of conversation I have with people, which underpins both of them.

One is that what I know about the context of people helps in evaluating what they write. Context is a filter, more context clarifies slants, habitual approaches etc. Where I have much less context, I need to better look at statements, sources etc. to place or evaluate the information provided. All this to me is about placing things in contextual webs of (personal) meaning, Connectivism (PDF) style, it’s how I filter.

The second is that it’s a mental map of whom I see myself as being in conversation with and at what level of intensity. So the folders (a rather poor structure, I’d rather be able to tag feeds and use that as a way to create views on the feeds) by social distance are more like spaces or locations to me. The closest circle is more like a living room setting, the furthest the public agora. When I open up my feedreader I choose what my visit to those places will be like. Is it like a walkaround to inspect the genral lay of the land, I will scroll through all, starting with the closest circles. An interesting bit is when the same things pop up at different social distances, feedback propagating lifting signals above the noise. If I only have a bit of time, I’ll only look at the closest ties, to see what they’re up to, a social call of sorts. If I am open for more surprisal and have time to take the first processing step with what I read, I’ll start furthest out. If I am open to interacting with people about topics I’m interested in, I usually start in the middle layers, where there is a more balanced mix of known context and potential for surprisal.

The problem is that social distance categories are just as arbitrary as categorizing them by genre—which most people do and I did before (“games”, “programming”, …). There is no separation in quality. Some IRL/Online friends’ blogs I have in my reader are much more interesting to me than others’. Many sites from category 4 are more interesting than most stuff in category 1.

Wouter Groeneveld

In reply to a remark by Chris Aldrich

I think the point of an anti-library is not to read it all. In that sense it is not problematic that it grows faster than one can ever read. Adding something to a personal anti-library is not an expression of the intention to read it. It’s not a ‘list of books to read’. It is a preselection of things that might be interesting to read for future you. When future you is pondering a question, or exploring a topic, they can use that as filter to actually select a few books to read. Adding to the antilibrary is preselection, picking to read from it is the actual selection. For each of those 574 books you preselected Chris, do you write down why you think they’re interesting? Keeping the preselection arguments available to yourself cements its effect, aiding actual selection later. Since a year or two I jot down my motivation and associations with books as well as web articles I clip and save. It helps me a lot selecting things to read later on.

In looking at a target for how many books I’d like to read this year, I realize that I added 574 books to my list of book to read in 2021. At this rate, my anti-library is growing exponentially with respect to the books I’ve actually been able to read

Chris Aldrich

Harold Jarche rightly points to being able to judge and shape your information filters as a critical element in keeping yourself informed about emergent crises like Covid19. What Harold calls trusted filters is the primary reason I follow people not sources in my feeds, and all of those people are selected by myself, not by someone else’s algorithm. It is how I came across Harold’s post in the first place, because he’s been in my list of feeds for many years. Feedback across filters, so that what Harold shares might get commented here, which then gets shared back to my network which includes Harold, is how patterns emerge. This of course does mean you need to ensure your filter has enough variety and churn to avoid echo chambers. Which is why hand curating my list of people to follow is important, I know these people and what I know about them is an active part of the filtering I do. In my mind, the combination of my filtering and sharing, and Harold’s filtering and sharing as well as those of others I follow, constitute a LOFAR, which is able to spot small movements and emerging interests across my networks, and recognising which noises are actually signals to my interests and concerns. Keeping my LOFAR in good working order requires regular attention, and likely more than I already pay to it.

This doesn’t mean that institutional information isn’t valuable. It is actually invaluable. Institutions are the stock of info, the residue of years of knowledge, where my networks and filters are the flow, the reflection on, application, changing and emergence of knowledge. Such knowledge is critical for crap detection, also when it comes to the stuff my network shares with me. In times of emergent crises like Covid19, such institutional knowledge about how to deal with the specifics of e.g. a pandemic is crucial. So I keep an eye on the general statistics collected at John Hopkins, the advise and info of the RIVM (the Dutch national institute for health and environment, in charge of epidemic response) concerning the Netherlands specifically, and what e.g. the WHO says about pandemic response on a personal level and organisational level (e.g. business continuity). My LOFAR in turn allows me to sense what is going on across my networks in this context.

The LOFAR ‘superterp’ in Drenthe, which has hundreds of small antennas, combining with 47 other locations into a total of some 20.000 antennas for signal detection

During BarCamp Amsterdam, see previous posting, we talked about how I can use my tools to better suit my working needs. One of them being social filtering. In this posting I explore the thoughts on rearranging my feed reading habits this triggered for me. I’ll describe how I filter information now first, before exploring how I can adapt those routines.

How I filter information
For my information gathering I have two lenses. Back in September 2005, I wrote about my filtering, and created this illustration, that is still valid:

The first lens is the outside-in lens, on the left of the funnel. The second one is my inside-out lens, and is directed by specific questions and tasks I have at a certain point in time. My RSS reading serves both lenses. The outside-in in real time (what is going on now), the inside-out mostly through searching in the archives or full text search in the current items. All my RSS feeds are people-based. I e.g. subscribe to your blog feed, delicious feed, Flickr pics, and other feeds that contain your personal on-line traces. I rename all those feeds to start with your name. From it I construct an overview of what is happening in the circles and communities I am part of.

Current feedreader organization
In my feedreader, I have grouped all feeds in to only a few sections. One for ‘Dutch context’, one for ‘German context’, one for ‘ Keeping track’ which collects all internet traces I leave myself (self reflection as it were), one for clients, and one ‘all’ which contains the long list of people writing stuff I usually find worthwile. All in all I track maybe about 300-400 people, though it fluctuates over time.

My wiki may point the way
In the wiki I use on my laptop for personal note taking I also keep pages of people, where I write down some of the context we share. Where we met, the type of exchanges we’ve had in the past, and where they’re from. I have about 240 people in my wiki, largely different from the ones in my feed reader. The way I categorize them is what is of interest here. I put the people pages in my wiki in circles based on social distance. These circles are roughly based on Dunbars number and ‘natural’ group sizes. As you can see in the screenshot below I have circles / categories for 1 (meaning <12), 12 (<50), 50 (<150), 150 (<1000), and 999 (>1000) where the number in the category name is sort of the minimal social distance I ‘feel’. Remember: this is not exact science, it is just an approximation of my own intuitions. It means nothing more, but nothing less either.

If you were to draw these circles as a social networking graph, you would get what in SNA terms is called a network of spokes. Me in the centre with connections radiating out.

Tags or folders to add contexts
To be able to not only look at my social network (as an information filter) from the above perspective, i.e. me at the heart of several circles, I need to be able to add contexts. Single facet contexts like ‘my old fraternity’, ‘people working at client x’, ‘living in or around Berlin’, as well as multi-faceted contexts like ‘coders in Amsterdam’, ‘Drupal community members in Germany’, ‘coders in Ruby on Rails’, ‘start-ups around mobile applications’, ‘ stakeholders around client system x’. The former would form community ‘blobs’ on my circles above. The latter would add spider-networks to it.

Social distances with community and multi-faceted contexts plotted on them

Adding the single faceted contexts could be easily done by splitting feeds into folders, or rather allowing the same feed to be in multiple folders. The multi-faceted contexts can not be done with folders I’d say, but need some sort of tagging, where you can filter on combinations of tags to get the context you need. Like drupal+Germany, to give me people working on Drupal, based in Germany. Tags can of course also replace any folder structure completely.

Inside-out and Outside-in
As I said, all the usual feedreading is for outside-in information-filtering. To get a feeling what is happening in the world of people that mean something to me in one context or another. For finding answers to my own current questions, information pertaining to current tasks, or refinding links to things I want to point to in what I share on-line myself, I like to use an archive on my laptop. Insdie-out information filtering then amounts to full-text searches on that archive. Also because I spend a lot of my reading and writing time off-line e.g. in the train, I like my feedreader to store stuff off-line. Therefore on-line feedreaders are not a workable option for me.

Finding the right RSS reader
Now I can start out with arranging my feeds in my feedreader (currently using Vienna) according to the circles of social distance shown above, but tags and one feed being able to live in multiple folders is a different thing. Do you know about an off-line feedreading client that provides these functionalities (one feed in multiple folders and tagging, or at least tagging)?