There are plenty of bad things to say about social media. I’m not going to run through all of them here because you already know them, and I have to assume that by this point you’ve either left or made your peace with it. I get it. I’m not going to preach. Much.
That said, I think social media, specifically Big Social Media, is destroying the foundational ethos of the internet. The internet was supposed to be about sharing and discovery. The fact that Facebook has coopted the word “sharing” and used it to brand their anemic, and incestuous behavior is sad in as much it demeans the word, and the practice that word was supposed to describe. I have always looked to the internet to show me new things, but social media no longer allows that.
The process used to be simple: Find an interesting website and go there to read it. While reading, you are offered links in the text to other things, on other websites that inform or inspire the article you are reading. Click on those links and you’re on another site where the same thing can happen again. Hyperlinking like this is as old as the web itself. It actually encourages the reader to get sidetracked. Blogs always included links to similar sites in their sidebars or footers as a means to spread the wealth of the attention economy. Blogrolls, and friends link-lists were like treasure maps to different ideas, lighted paths to new interests. And these branching paths were everywhere.
Blogrolls, and link lists still exist but you won’t see them on Facebook. These days social media megaliths abjure that purpose. In their Paleozoic periods they encouraged discovery, but that genealogy atrophied as the social media giants went public, locked down their walled gardens, and focused on engagement. It’s not in Facebook’s interest to have you wandering off to investigate something you might find interesting outside of the blue cage. Instagram wants to suggest other Instagram profiles, but not other places that might encourage you to leave and find something interesting elsewhere. Youtube is now purpose built to keep you watching videos it selects for you. It’s more profitable for social media to perpetuate the illusion of discovery without actually providing an opened door. That way you’ll stay within the confines of their tightly controlled panopticon. The best way to do that is to show you what you already know while harvesting your attention for profit. It’s a form of imprisonment. Facebook’s business model is built on narrowing your interests rather than expanding them. The net effect is stultifying.
I attribute a lot of our ubiquitous malaise to the intellectual stenosis created by social media’s attempt to kill off the hyperlink. The growth of politics as a spectator sport seems to parallel the growth of Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. Social media sites are the engines of outrage, and the vectors through which misinformation is deployed for various purposes. The well of sharing has been poisoned by social media and with it the joy of using the internet. Expecting unique voices, collegial sharing, and a breadth of intellectual stimulation on social media is like visiting a barbecue joint for the vegetarian options. You’re going to be disappointed.
Fortunately for me, old habits die hard. Social media may have swept those habits aside for a decade or so, but the muscle memory remained. Before Facebook and Twitter there was RSS. It was the way I used to follow things that interest me. In 2020 RSS is still there, still ticking along behind the monotone buzz of social media, still providing lit paths to the Isles of Blogging like the humming glow of an old radio dial. In 2020, I’m refurbishing my RSS habit.
I never left RSS completely. In fact I still have IFTTT recipes that use RSS to alert me when a site I like has posted something new. In the past, I managed this process with Google Reader until it shut down in 2013. After that I hung on to a few feeds using IFTTT, and over the years I’ve added a few more. The whole practice has a weirdly post-apocalyptic feel to it, like keeping an old radio working after the end of days so you can listen for signals in the static.
RSS readers are also still here though, and they are still the best way to sample wide swaths of the internet. They give me the power to collect, organize, and curate the bits I like into a playlist of feeds that bring me joy.
I’m trying not to preach here, but you should try it. In fact, I think you owe it to yourself to try it. It’s intellectual self-care. It’s also beneficial to the internet ecosystem as a whole, like planting a tree, or tending an organic garden.
Anyway, here’s how:
Step 1 is to pick yourself an RSS reader. Here are a few decent choices. These are services that include readers. There are stand-alone readers but that’s another conversation. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but for now one of these will give you what you need to get started.
- Feedbro is a free browser extension for Firefox and Chrome.
- Feedly is a freemium service. You’ll get ads and a feed limit until you pay.
- Inoreader is basically the same deal, freemium with limitations.
- NewsBlur is also freemium with limitations.
Lifehacker has a great rundown if you want some comparisons. If you’re like me you’ll spend too much time obsessing over the details here, but don’t. Use your metric of choice and pick one. I picked Feed Wrangler because I heard good things about it. I knew what I was looking for from past experience and that one ticked all the boxes, but all of the free options are fine and you won’t really know if it’s worth paying for something until you know what you’re buying.
Once you get yourself setup on a reader, go find something to read. This is the part is pretty simple: Go to your search engine of choice and search for a topic you are interested in followed by the word “blog” (for example, I just Googled “Bread-baking blog”). Click on some of the results until you find one you like. Look at the posting dates to make sure the blog you are reading is current and posts with some regularity. This isn’t a life commitment so you don’t have to be super picky, but for a good learning experience you’ll want a source that posts often. When you find a good prospect, add it to your RSS reader.
Now, do that again with another interest. If there are websites that you visit outside of social media sites, try adding them as well. If they have feed you can follow it. Once you do, you can open your RSS reader and read the most recent posts at your leisure.
One of the best parts is that this is an open-ended process. Most bloggers regularly link to other sources of content that interest or inspire them, and those places also have RSS feeds. Links are the strands that make up the web. When you follow one and find something interesting, add it to your reader. Before too long you’ll have a personally curated hub that constantly brings you wonderful things.
From that point on its a game of pruning. Add and delete as necessary to keep your garden clean. Big media sites have RSS feeds but I tend towards smaller operations. There’s nothing more interesting me than a fan site for an obscure topic built by a single author with an obsessive streak, or a small group blog with a unified theme written by a group of people with compulsive writing habits. That is literally the El Dorado of my RSS predilection. And let me tell you there are plenty out there. You haven’t experienced the real internet until you’ve spent some time on a niche site that is written and maintained by a small group of hardcore enthusiasts. And the web is literally crawling with them.
So try it. I’ll post a list of my current RSS garden at a later date, but the real joy is in cultivating your own.