Two years ago, I decided to get off social media.1 Twitter made me anxious, and Reddit and YouTube ate up all my time. Undoubtedly, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. The problems that pushed me off these platforms have only gotten worse.
However, I’m a profoundly online person. I still spend considerable time reading and watching things online. My entire livelihood is anchored on this blog that I started seventeen years ago. The prospect of spending all my downtime reading paper books by candlelight, while holding a certain romantic appeal, isn’t realistic.
The solution that works for me is to switch from letting an algorithm decide what content you consume to a curated newsfeed.
Why RSS Remains the Best Technology for Online Media
Setting up a curated newsfeed is easy:
- Get yourself an RSS Reader. I use Feedly.
- Add the blogs and websites that you want to follow. This includes social media accounts. RSS works for YouTube, Instagram, Twitter or old-fashioned blogs like this one.
- Read and enjoy!
Instead of an infinite stream of content designed to maximize your gut-level reactions to attention-hijacking thumbnails and rage-inducing headlines, you just read the stuff you’ve subscribed to.
Too much content? Mark it all as read and reset your feed. A seemingly interesting source turns out to be a dud? Unsubscribe. You can even create folders to separate your personal, work or other interests.
Curating is a Little More Work, But Far Saner Than the Status Quo
Why am I suggesting a return to 2005-era technology? Didn’t the market decide that RSS was a failed technology, with Google Reader discontinuing service and companies shifting to attention-consuming algorithmic content feeds?
As with fast food, our impulses are not always our friends when it comes to online content. The things that easily take root in our mental gardens are not generally what we intend to cultivate.
Content curation is only slightly more work than using an algorithm. It requires you to opt into new sources manually. It also requires regular pruning to avoid having too much content. New content is somewhat harder to find (although if you follow a few aggregator blogs, like Marginal Revolution, this isn’t so difficult.)
What’s difficult is weaning yourself off the algorithmic feeds. Modern feeds work perfectly as a Skinner box on a variable reinforcement schedule: the content is mostly junk, but the occasional gem keeps you pecking the button for more. But if you can navigate the transition, a curated feed is a much saner way to consume online content.