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…