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?

This is a quick exploration of my current and preferred feed reading patterns. As part of my activities, for Day 2, the hack day, of IndieWebCamp Utrecht.

I currently use a stand alone RSS reader, which only consumes RSS feeds. I also experiment with TinyTinyRSS which is a self-hosted feed-grabber and reader. I am attracted to TinyTiny RSS beacue 1) it has a database I can access, 2) it can create RSS from any selection I make, and it publishes a ‘live’ OPML file of feeds I track, which I use as blogroll in the side bar.

What I miss is being able to follow ‘any’ feed, for instance JSON feeds which would allow tracking anything that has an API. Tracking #topics on Twitter, or people’s tweets. Or adding newsletters, so I can keep them out of my mail client, and add them to my reader. And there are things that I think don’t have feeds, but I might be able to create them. E.g. URLs mentioned in Slack channels, or conversation notes I take (currently in Evernote).

Using IndieWeb building blocks: the attraction of IndieWeb here is that it makes a distinction between collecting / grabbing feeds and reading them. A Microsub server grabs and stores feeds. A Microsub client then is the actual reader.
Combined with Micropub, the ability to post to your own site from a different client, allows directly sharing or responding from a reader. In the background Webmention then works its magic of pulling all that together so that the full interaction can be shown on my blog.

The sharing buttons in a (microsub client) reader like Monocle are ‘liking’, ‘repost’ and ‘reply’. This list is too short to my taste. Bookmarking, ‘repost with short remarks’ and ‘turn into a draft for long form’ are obvious additions. But there’s another range of things to add about sharing into channels that aren’t my website or not a website at all, and channels that aren’t fully public.

To get things under my own control, first I want to run my own microsub server, so I have the collected feeds somewhere I can access. And so I can start experimenting with collecting types of feeds that aren’t RSS.

Hossein Derakhshan makes an important effort to find more precise language to describe misinformation (or rather mis- dis- and mal- information). In this Medium article, he takes a closer look at the different combinations of actors and targets, along the lines of state, non-state entities and the public.

Table by Hossein Derakhshan, from article DisInfo Wars

One of his conclusions is

…that from all the categories, those three where non-state organisations are targeted with dis-/malinfomation (i.e. SN, NN, and PN) are the most effective in enabling the agents to reach their malicious goals. Best example is still how US and UK state organisations duped independent and professional media outlets such as the New York Times into selling the war with Iraq to the public.
….
The model, thus, encourages to concentrate funds and efforts on non-state organisations to help them resist information warfare.

He goes on to say that public protection against public agents is too costly, or too complicated:

the public is easy to target but very hard (and expensive) to protect – mainly because of their vast numbers, their affective tendencies, and the uncertainty about the kind and degree of the impact of bad information on their minds

I feel that this is where our individual civic duty to do crap detection, and call it out when possible, or at least not spread it, comes into play as inoculation.

Bryan Alexander writes a thoughtful post about media literacy, specifically in the US context, and in relation to the role of education, in response to an ongoing conversation on it:

How should we best teach digital and media literacy?  How can such teaching respond to today’s politically and technologically polarized milieu? Last week a discussion brewed across Twitter…

Towards the end of his critical discussion he makes

One more point: I’m a bit surprised to not see more calls for the open web in this conversation. If we want to get away from platforms we see as multiply dangerous (Facebook in particular, it seems), then we could posit some better sites. I’m for RSS and the blogosphere. Others may plump for Mastodon.

I think this an important aspect. To me the open web is about agency, the power to do something, to act. In this case to critically engage with information flows and contributing your own perspectives on your own website.

Every centralised platform or web silo you use means an implicit vulnerability to being kicked off by the company behind it for arbitrary and not just valid reasons. Even when using it, it means hard borders are drawn about the way you can share, interact or connect to others, to protect the business behind it. Facebook forces you to share links outside your commentary, and doesn’t allow inline hyperlinking as is actually the web’s standard. Your Facebook account can’t directly interact with my Twitter account, not because of technological limitations but because of both their wishes to be silos monopolising your online conversations.

On the open web you acknowledge the existence of various platforms, silos and whatnot, but the interaction circles around your own online space. Your own platform-of-1 that monopolises your own interaction but puts that monopoly in your own hands and that makes no assumption whatsoever about what others do, other than expecting others to use core internet standards and protocols. Your platform-of-1, is your online presence, like this website, from which you alone determine what you share, post, link-to, in what way it is presented, and who can see what.

This includes pushing things into silos. For instance I post to Twitter, and respond to others on Twitter from my own website, and reactions on Twitter come back to me on my website. (Not Facebook, you’re no longer allowed to post / peek over their fence).

This is a source of agency. For me as an individual, as much as for a group. There’s a marked difference between a protest group coordinating themselves on a Facebook group, and e.g. Edgeryders, a network of changemakers building sustainable projects for the common good, which runs their own group platform to interact using Discourse. A direct difference in agency to be able to shape the way you interact versus having to follow predefined common denominator functionality, and an indirect difference in resilience against push-back from others (does someone else control your off-switch?).

In media literacy, as much as in other, complexity-induced, aspects of our connected lives, agency of both you and yours, a networked agency is a key ingredient. Not to build your own competing platforms or media outlets to the existing ones, a common misconceived and unvoiced underlying assumption I feel (“we’ll build the perfect news platform ourselves!”), but to be in control yourself of what comes at you and what flows out from you. You still very well may end up in a bubble of uncritical bias, yet it will be one of your own making, not the making of whichever company happens to run the most popular platform du jour. The open web is your toolkit in gaining and maintaining this agency.

Replied to The powers of digital literacies: responding to danah boyd and all (Bryan Alexander)

The ‘on this day in earlier years‘ plugin I recently installed on this blog is already proving to be useful in the way I hoped: creating somewhat coincidental feedback loops to my earlier blogposts, self serendipity.

Last week I had lunch with Lilia and Robert, and 15 years ago today another lunch with Lilia prompted a posting on lurking in social networks / blog networks. With seventeen comments, many of them pointing to other blogposts it’s a good example of the type of distributed conversations blogging can create. Or could, 15 years ago. Re-reading that posting now, it is still relevant to me. And a timely reminder. I think it would be worth some time to go through more of my postings about information strategies from back then, and see how they compare to now, and how they would translate to now.

I recognise what Ben Werdmüller says. About the withdrawal creating space to both read more long form, and to write more myself. Also the replacement dopamine cravings, by looking up your blog’s statistics when the Facebook likes fall away, I had. Indeed as Ben suggests, I also removed the statistics from my website (by disabling JetPack, I never used Google Analytics anyway). Different from him, I never stopped using Twitter or LinkedIn, just cut back Facebook which I felt was the real time sink (also as Twitter nor LinkedIn were on my phone to begin with, and because I use Twitter very differently from how I used Facebook.) Going completely ‘dark’ on social media is also about privilege I feel, so the crux is how conscious are we of our information strategies? How the tools we use support those information strategies or not, and most importantly in the case of social media as a time sink: in how much it’s the tools that shape our info diet, instead of the other way around.

Replied to Checking in on my social media fast by Ben WerdmüllerBen Werdmüller

Three weeks ago, I decided to go dark on social media. … It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
I thought I’d check in with a quick breakdown: what worked, and what didn’t. Here we go.
 
Wh…

Something that strikes me as odd in addressing fake news, is that it’s almost exclusively focused on the information production and distribution. Not on the skills and strategies of the entity taking information in. Partly this is understandable, as forcing transparency on how your information might have been influenced is helpful (especially to see if what you get presented with is something others / everyone else is presented with). But otherwise it’s as if those receiving information are treated as passive consumers, not as agents in their own right.

“Our best defense against hostile influence, whatever its vector, is to invest in critical thinking skills at all levels of the population so that outlandish claims are seen for what they truly are: emotional exploitation for political or monetary gain”, wrote Nina Jankowicz on how Finnish society instills critical thinking skills.

The question of course is whether governments truly want to inoculate society, or merely want to deflect disinformation and manipulation from specific sources. Then it’s easier to understand where the focus on technology oriented solutions, or ones that presume centralised efforts come from.

In networks smartness needs to be at the endpoints, not in the core. There’s a lack of attention for the information strategies, filtering and interpreting tactics of those receiving information. Crap detection skills need to be developed for instance, and societies have a duty to self-inoculate. I think the obligation to explain* applies here too, showing others what you do and how.

Here’s a list of postings about my information habits. They’re not fixed, and currently I’m in the process of describing them again, and taking a critical look at them. What are your information habits, have you ever put them into words?

*The obligation to explain is something I’ve adopted from my friend Peter Rukavina: “The benefits of a rich, open pool of knowledge are so great that those who have learned have an obligation to share what they’ve learned.

Just quickly jotting some thoughts down about bookmarking, as part of a more general effort of creating an accurate current overview of my information strategies.

Currently I store all my bookmarks in Evernote, by storing the full article or pdf (not just the url, removing the risk of it being unavailable later, or behind a paywall). I sometimes add a brief annotation at the start, and may add one or more tags.

I store bookmarks to Evernote from my browser on the laptop, but also frequently from my mobile, where I pick them out of various timelines.
There are several reasons I store bookmarks.

  • I store predictions people make, to be able to revisit them later, and check on whether they came true or not.
  • I store news paper articles to preserve how certain events were depicted at the time they happened (without the historic reinterpretation that usually follows later)
  • I store pages for later reading (replacing Instapaper)
  • I store bookmarks for sharing in (collated) blogposts, or on Twitter, or to send to a specific person (‘hey, this looks like what you were looking for last week’)
  • I store bookmarks around topics I am currently interested in, as resource for later or current desk research, or for a current project.
  • I store bookmarks as reminders (‘maybe this restaurant is a place to go to sometime when next in Berlin’, ‘possible family trip’, ‘possible interesting conference to attend’)

In the past, when I still used Delicious, when it had a social networking function, I also used bookmarking for discovery of other people. Because social tools work in triangles (as I said in 2006) I would check in Delicious who else had also bookmarked something, and with which tags they did so. The larger the difference in tags (e.g. I’d tag ‘knowledge management’ and they’d tag ‘medication’) or difference in jargon (me ‘complexity’, they ‘wicked_problem’, another ‘intractable’), the likelier someone would be part of different communities than me, but focusing on the same things. Then I’d seek out their blog etc, and start following their rss feeds. It was a good way to find people based on professional interests and extend my informal learning network. A way to diversify my inputs for various topics.

Visualization of my del.icio.us bookmarks
A visualisation of Kars Alfrink’s Delicious bookmarks, based on usage of tags, 2006, CC-BY

Looking at that list of uses, I notice that it is a mixture of things that can be public, things that can be public to some, and things that are just for my eyes. I also know that I don’t like publishing single bookmarks to my blog, unless I have an extended annotation to publish with it (more a reflection or response to a link, than just bookmarking that link). Single bookmarks posted to a blog I experience as cluttering up the timeline (but they could be on a different page perhaps).
The tagging is key as a filing mechanism, and annotation can be a helpful hint to my future self why I stored it, as much as a thought or an association.

When I think of ‘bringing bookmarking home’ in the sense of using only non-silo tools and owning the data myself, several aspects are important:

  • The elements I need to store: URL, date/time stored, full article/pdf, title, tags, notes. Having a full local copy of a page or PDF is a must-have for me, you can’t rely on something being there the next time you look at an URL.
  • The things I want to be able to do with it are mostly a filtering on tags I think (connecting it to one or more persons, interests, projects, channels etc.), and then having different actions/processes tied to that filtering.
  • I’d want to have the bookmarks available offline on my laptop, as well as available for sharing across devices.
  • It would be great if there was something that would allow the social networking type of bookmarking I described, or make it possible in decentralised fashion

When I look at some of the available open source bookmarking tools that I can self-host I notice that mostly the ability to save full pages/documents and the offline functionality are missing elements. So maybe I should try and glue together something from different building blocks found elsewhere.

What do you use for bookmarking? How do you use bookmarks?

An attempt to a) map my info strategies better and b) map them to indieweb protocols, so I can c) map them to tooling / processes

Blogpostings I wrote over the years.

Sebastiaan at IWC Nürnberg last weekend did some cool stuff with visualising feeds he follows, as well as find a way of surfacing stuff from outside his feeds because those in his feeds talk about it or like it. That is very exciting to me as it creates a peripheral view, and really puts your network to use as a filter. He follows up with a good posting on readers.

Towards the end of that posting there’s some discussion of how to combat ways of feed overwhelm.
That Sebastiaan, reminds me of what I wrote about my feedreading strategies in 2005 (take a look at the images there, they help in understanding the text that follows).

I think it is useful to think not just of what you yourself consume in terms of feeds, and how to optimise that, but also in terms of the feedback loops you need/want back to the authors of some of your feeds.

Your network is a filter, and a certain level of feedback is needed to be able to spot patterns that lift signals above the noise, the peripheral vision you described. Both individually and collectively. But too much feedback creates echo-chambers. So the overall quality of your network / network’s feeds and interaction is part of the equation in thinking about feed overwhelm. It introduces needs for alternating and deliberate phases of divergence and convergence, and being able to judge diversity and quality of your network.

It’s in that regard very important to realise that there’s a key factor not present in your feeds that is enormously useful for filtering: your own personal knowledge about the author of a feed. If you can tag feeds with what you know of their authors (coder, Berlin, Drupal, e.g.), and how you perceive the social distance between you and them (from significant other to total stranger), you can do even more visualising by asking questions like “what are the topics that European front-end developers I know are excited about this week”, or by visualising what communities are talking about. Social distance also is a factor in dealing with overwhelm: I for instance read a handful of people important to me every day when they have posted, and others I don’t read if I don’t have time, and I therefore group my feeds by social distance.

Finally, overwhelm is more likely if you approach feeds as drinking from a tap. But again, you know things that are not present in your feeds: current interests you have, questions you have, things you’re working on. A listener more likely hears those things better that are close to them. This points to less a river-of-news approach, and more to an active interrogation of feeds based on your personal ‘agenda’ at a time of your choosing.

Fear of missing out is not important, especially not when the feedback loops, that I mentioned above, between authors exist. If it is a signal of some sort, and not noise, it will bounce around your network-as-a-filter for a while, and is likely to be there in some form still, when you next take a look. If it is important and you overlooked it, it will come up again when you look another time.

Also see my posting about my ideal feedreader, from a few months ago.

Triggered by some of the previous postings on RSS, I started thinking about what my ideal set-up for RSS reading would be. Because maybe there’s a way to create that for myself.

A description of how I approach my feeds, and what I would ideally like to be able to do, I already penned a decade ago, and it hasn’t really changed much.

The basic outline is:

  • I think of feed subscriptions as subscribing to people. I don’t follow your blog, but I follow and interact with you. I used to have a blogroll that reflected that by showing the faces of people whose writing I read. Basically the web is my social network always, In my feed reader every feed title is the name of the author, not the blog’s title.
    my blogroll in 2005, people’s faces, not site names
  • The feeds I subscribe to, I group in folders by subjective social distance, roughly following Dunbar-style group sizes. The dozen closest to me, the 50, the 150, the 500 beyond that, and above that 999 for people I don’t have a direct connection with at all. So my wife’s blog feed is in folder a12, and if I’ve just come across your blog this week and we never met, your feed will be in e999. The Keep Track folder are my own content feeds from various platforms.
    the folders in my current feedreader by social distance
  • There are three reading styles I’d like my reader to support, of which it only does one.
    • I read to see what is going on with people I know, by browsing through their writing from closer to further away, so from the a12 folder towards the e999 folder. This my reader supports, by way of allowing a folder structure for it
    • I read outside-in, looking at the general patterns in all the new postings of a day: what topics come up, what are people working on, what do they care about. This is not supported yet, other than scrolling through the whole thing. A quick overview of topics versus social distance would be useful here.
    • I read inside-out, where I have specific questions, ideas or topics on my mind and want to see if some of the people in my reader have been wrting about it recently. This is not supported yet. A good way to search my feeds would be needed.
  • I would like to be able to tag feeds. So I can contextualise the author (coder, lives in Portugal, interested in privacy by design, works independently). This allows me to look at different groups of people across the social distance related folders. E.g. “what are the people I follow in Berlin up to this week, as I will be visiting in a few days?” “What are the current concerns in the IndieWeb community?” Ten years ago I visualised that as below
    Plotting contexts

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

  • I would like to be able to pull in tags of postings and have full content search functionality. This would support my inside-out reading. “What is being said today in my feeds about that conference I didn’t go to?” “Any postings today on privacy by design?”
  • I think I’d like visual representations of which communities are currently most active, and for topics, like heat maps. Alerts on when the level of activity for a feed or a community or subsets of people changes would be nice too.
  • From the reader follow actions, such as saving an article, creating a todo from it, bookmarking it, or sharing it in some channel. An ideal reader should support all those actions, or let me configure actions
  • [UPDATED OCTOBER 2018] From reading a posting by Peter Rukavina I realised I’d also like to have built-in machine translation.

From the whole IndieWeb exploration of late, I realized that while no feedreader does all the above, it might be possible to build something myself. TinyTiny RSS seems a good starting point. It’s an open source tool you can run as your own instance. It comes with features such as filtering and auto-tagging that might fit my needs. It can be hosted on my own domain, and it has a database I then have back-end access to, to build features it doesn’t have itself (such as visualisations and specific sharing actions). It can also produce RSS feeds. It seems with TinyTiny RSS I could do all kinds of things to the RSS feeds I pull in on my server, and push the results out again as RSS feeds themselves. Those I could load into my regular reader, or republish etc.

Now need to find a bit of time to set it up and to play with it.

It’s never been a secret that Facebook is a data hungry monster, and I have always acted in that knowledge. There are reasons why FB is valuable as a tool for me, there are a range of others why FB is all wrong. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, it is time to create a path for myself away from it. I am not leaving, at least not completely for reasons following towards the end of this post. I did however deactivate my account last night. This means my data is still available within FB but invisible, and logging in will reactivate it all.

In short, I am not going cold turkey on FB, but merely semifreddo, half cold.
I expect that removing myself from FB for now creates the space for me to figure out what to do and not do with FB.

My FB history
I joined FB in the first week of October 2006, shortly after it became available for non-US non-academic e-mail accounts in September. Until the winter of 2013 I posted virtually nothing, except automatic links to my blogposts. Only from November 2013, nudged by Gerrit Eicker, I started interacting with FB more, and from early 2014 the number of postings slowly grew. It turned into an addictive habit, that you really want to quit but don’t really seem to be able to. A tool I use to track my own software and web-usage has been brutally direct in showing me how much of a time sink FB became. I removed the FB app from my phone at some point in the last year, mostly to cut away the noise and disconnect from the here and now that doing a quick FB check during ‘empty’ moments creates.

The constructive effects of FB
FB has been both helpful, as well as damaging on a personal level. In the positive sense,

  • it allows me to stay in touch with a wide variety of people that I otherwise wouldn’t be in touch with. Because they are distant in terms of geography, because the context we once shared is a long time ago, the current overlap in context is small, or any combination thereof.
  • It makes keeping a sense of what’s going on in their lives pretty effortless, and even if actual interaction may be low, it serves as a low threshold channel to emphatise.
  • It allowed me to share things in a much less public place than my blog when in 2015 and 2016 personal events were dominant, without the need to reach out directly to anyone. This allowed others to respond as they see fit.
  • In some instances FB is the only way I can easily connect to people and groups I am professionally connected with, such as for instance colleagues in Central Asia, or the Serbian open data community.

There’s also a destructive side to FB
FB has had a huge impact over time on my regular information strategies. This was of course helped along by the demise of many other tools and platforms such as Google Reader, Dopplr, and the erosion of what makes the web work, such as Twitter doing away with RSS. For these tools lost behind the event horizon of the black hole that FB and other walled gardens are, me and many of my network used FB as a replacement. For instance, Dopplr was a good way to inform the traveling part of my professional network of upcoming trips and therefore potential opportunities to meet, should some of our travel coincide. Posting a travel update on FB has replaced it, albeit with loss of visibility and functional value. The large majority of RSS feeds I followed have dried up. The disappearance of RSS from many platforms which allowed me to aggregate information about my network myself, meant I had to go to a place where that aggregation was done for me, and FB is such a place with the most people in it. Again at a significant loss of functional value (influence, filtering, tagging, making on the fly cross-sections etc.)

Over time it became clear to me that the endless FB timeline has de facto replaced my carefully calibrated rss-based information diet. What were my intentional and purposeful acts of keeping in touch, learning and informing myself, got replaced by a steady stream of distraction and procrastination. Starting from a question, and then seeking out what might be relevant mostly disappeared, at best responsive but often passive consumption replacing it. There’s a distracting quality to FB as a gateway to material even when interacting with the same content: I follow some thinkers/authors in my FB network, but end up engaging with whatever they posted today, rather then diving deeply into their actual work available on their own sites. It’s almost as if I have to remind myself that doing online deskresearch or literature review isn’t checking out the FB timelines of the people in that field.

The nefarious asymmetry of FB
To large swathes of the global population FB serves as a facsimile of the internet, hiding the potent agency-inducing qualities the internet actually has, and merely presenting the passive and consumer side of the net. As long as you keep scrolling down your timeline you’re not taking action (even if changing your avatar to show sympathy with one plight or another gives you that feeling).
Although I’ve succeeded in preserving a certain variety in my FB network, so that regularly I get presented with viewpoints or articles which clash with my sense of what is common (not: common sense), FB has been busily building my own bubble around me. This is readily apparent whenever I venture into other places, darker places, following links on the profiles of friends of friends of friends further and further outside my ‘regular’ network. The resulting suggested articles and ads that fill my timeline for days afterwards are a shocking view on what others apparently get presented as their day to day diet.

At issue here is the enormous asymmetry. It is infinitely easier to automatically feed me dross, aim to manipulate my choices in a myriad of ways, then it is for me to purposefully individually and manually resist that (if at all psychologically possible). FB, or actually anyone paying them, can without effort suggest 100s of articles and ads, an individual will get fed up manually hitting ‘show me less of this’ after less than a dozen times. A second layer of asymmetry is that none of the pattern matching or categorising you and I are subject to are in any meaningful way available to us ourselves. This isn’t about the personal data we consciously share (e.g. dates of birth, phone numbers, postings), but about our actual behaviour on the platform, the things I and my connections hit like for, the links we click, the time we spend engaged with those links, the comments we typed in and ultimately decided not to post, the frequency with which we yet again open up the timeline to see if we get a little bit of endorphins from being ‘liked’, our responses to the A/B testing done on us unawares ,etc. etc.

On top of all that, similar to the tobacco industry, FB really likes to keep you hooked. Over the years I’ve deleted accounts from dozens if not hundreds of services. Some will say “we’re really sorry to see you go”, or ask you to reconsider, or make you type a confirmation manually (“DELETE”). FB however appeals to your emotions like no other, saying ‘oh but this or that person will miss you so much!’ and force you to provide a reason to leave, and even then ask for another confirmation after all that. That’s just for de-activating the account, leaving everything still there. Re-activating merely requires logging in, yet another designed asymmetry. I wonder what they will do when I actually would to delete the account.


Aldo will miss me, Jeroen will miss me, Baden will miss me, all 660 of my FB friends will miss me,……please stay! Yes, I’m sure.

So, what to do?

  • FB has to be removed as a time sink and obstacle to purposeful interaction.
  • In terms of information intake it means going through my network list (I downloaded my FB data), and find other ways to keep track.
  • In terms of sharing, my blog (which is fully public, so very different questions apply concerning what to post or not there) will need to have prevalence, likely augmented with some other tools. I can see running my own Diaspora-pod (or another distributed FB simile), and inviting selected groups into specific instances. This replaces the single humongous space that is used for all group interaction in FB, with more group and community specific ‘town squares’. Having the right spaces for interaction is an important aspect in community health, and FB is not designed like that.
  • In terms of interacting it means looking at my network list and more frequently purposefully reach out. Yes, that’s more time consuming, but more rewarding as well. Since my friend Peter left FB, the frequency of being in touch has risen I feel, and the quality and awareness of it has definitely increased. Although it won’t scale to all other connections.
  • Ensuring using FB more deliberately is another element. There are those I’m only connected with there. There are those I’m only professionally connected with there. So for them I will likely retain my account. For some Messenger is the only tool we share, and that too requires keeping the FB account. But like going to the pub, visiting FB will need to be a planned and time-boxed thing, and no longer the ‘filler’ of small periods of time. This is the ‘quitting smoking’ part of FB, all the ‘quick ciggies’ during the day. Any return to FB will be like a none-smoker entering a venue where smoking is allowed.
  • For that more purposeful and limited interaction, my entire FB history is of no importance, so deleting that is a logical step.

Abraham Lincoln famously said in the 1860’s “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.“, and he’s right of course. George Washington already warned us a century earlier that “the greatest thing about Facebook is that you can quote something and totally make up the source.” Add to it the filter bubbles that algorithms create around you on Facebook, fake news and the influencing that third parties try to do, and you can be certain that the trustworthiness of internet is now even worse than it was in the 19th or 18th century.

Sidewalk Stencil: Abraham Lincoln
“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”, Abraham Lincoln hit the nail on the head in 1864 already.

Dealing with crap on the internet however sometimes seems something only for professionals. Facebook should filter better, or be more transparent. Online forensic research like Bellingcat does is the only way to disprove online deception. The problem is that it absolves you and me way too easily of our own responsibility in detecting crap. If something seems too funny, coincidental or too conveniently fitting into your own believe framework, it should trigger us into taking a step back. To take time to determine for ourselves whether Lincoln really said that, whether a picture was really taken where and when it is claimed, and if a source really exists or can be determined as trustworthy.

To be able to detect crap on the internet, you need crap detection tools. My Brainstorms-friend Howard Rheingold and others have put together a useful list of crap detection tools (of which I very often use the reverse image search tools like Tineye, to verify the actual origin of a photo). The list is well maintained and growing. The listed tools help you quickly check-up on things before you share something and reinforce a vicious cycle making more and more social media platforms toxic.

Not spreading dubious material is a civic duty, just like cleaning up after yourself in a public space. This makes crap detection a critical digital information skill. Download or bookmark the list of crap detection tools, add some of the mentioned tools as plugins to your browser, and use it to your advantage.

fake-news-detail-2