“It’s interesting that so much online publishing is moving into a small handful of massive, closed, proprietary networks after being so distributed and diverse during the big boom of blogs and RSS almost a decade ago.” — Marco Arment
When I started writing in the late 90’s blogging was new. Facebook hadn’t come out yet, Twitter hadn’t come out yet, and Google Reader had yet to appear for its brief moment before vanishing. Finding news was harder. If you wanted to read news you had a few bad options, mostly browsing dozens of sites in quick succession.
Today that’s changed. News is mostly pushed to me by Facebook and is customized to keep me engaged. But this also means that news is becoming so distracting that it’s hard to sit down and read meaningful content.
I use Facebook as an example because it has become the biggest distributor of news, but the same logic applies to any site that heavily optimizes it’s content to keep people engaged.
Here’s why I think that optimization can be bad:
- In the interests of keeping everything engaging and growing the network, Facebook is not designed to let you browse all of the content from one page or even one friend. News that Facebook thinks you won’t find interesting gets hidden so you won’t lose interest in the site and go somewhere else.
- Content that isn’t enticing doesn’t get likes and comments, so it doesn’t get distributed in News Feed, and so no one ends up seeing it. In this way, only the most enticing content gets consumed.
- To keep the network growing Facebook becomes more and more distracting. So much is going on that we don’t feel like we have the time to stop and read a New Yorker article during a Facebook session. So we tend to favor short, easy to consume content. Content that favors action does better than content that doesn’t, so excessively positive or excessively controversial content gets the most likes and comments and it wins more distribution. Deeper content loses. (I see this type of content produced more often now even among my friends.)
- It’s hard to dive deeply into any content on Facebook because the whole website is designed to keep us constantly engaged and clicking around. Compared to other websites Facebook has become an almost comical arrangement of scrolling tickers, blinking chat windows, and auto refreshing comments, like counts, and feeds. It’s a lot of work to turn that stuff off and just read.
- Facebook wants to grow their network and keep you on the site, and as a result there is no distraction free way to read Facebook content. There are no third party apps to access the site. While I can use an RSS reader to read any blog, nothing from from Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter is syndicated in RSS. These networks want you in their service, and only in their service, to consume and contribute to their network.
In this way Facebook — and to a lesser extent Instagram and Twitter — lock you into reading content from their website and their apps. Once you arrive for one reason you’re shepherded into finding other reasons to help the network grow: messaging, groups, comments and likes. It’s almost impossible to arrive and do only one thing.
What’s wrong with this? Nothing in itself. People are free to use any website that they want, and in theory they’re free to quit Facebook. But the bundling of news consumption within one service that’s also obsessed with growing itself is killing our attention spans. For me at least, Facebook makes it very hard to dedicate myself to news that matters.
None of this is a conspiracy and it’s not evil, it’s just an outcome of a system of incentives.
What can you do?
If you agree with me and you find it hard to read the news today there are things that you can do. First, you can install an RSS reader onto your own computer or phone. RSS readers are apps you generally pay money for, and in exchange they give you a beautiful low distraction interface for following your favorite websites and blogs all in one place.
I use Feedly1 to find and read all of the blogs I like. Feedly syncs what I’ve read and not read between Feedly Android app and Leaf on my Mac. Before get on a plane, like tomorrow’s flight to Japan, I can let these apps sync up and pull down hundreds of things I’d like to read. Then I can sift through the news and find what I find interesting — which is often not something that would get many likes or comments on Facebook.
If you don’t know what to subscribe to feel free to start with my reading list of blogs. That’s an XML file you can import directly into Feedly to read the same sites that I do.
Twitter has some of the same systemic problems as Facebook: it’s a private network owned and controlled by one corporation. Unlike Facebook, Twitter allows fantastic third party apps to serve as your interface to the network. I paid money for these apps because they were designed only to provide me with a great experience: they have no interest in helping the Twitter network grow or helping Twitter make money. As a result Twitter content seems to contain less bullshit.
I think that Twitter’s history of embracing third party apps is one of the reasons it has such better public content than Facebook. Facebook locks everyone into the same UI, and that UI can be so distracting that a lot of bloggers like John Gruber and Marco Arment refuse to use it. Read their Twitter accounts instead.
You should ask for RSS
A final thing you can do is to start asking for RSS feeds from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Much of the content on these networks is without privacy controls and there is no reason that it can’t go into RSS.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram would prefer that you to use their interface, not your own. It will be hard to get them to change, but you can put the squeeze on them. Start publishing more of your content to your own blog and only linking it back to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Let the social networks know that not allowing their users to decide where and how they get to consume content isn’t acceptable.
What good is this?
If you insist on RSS, and insist on having news available through RSS, no one can ever control the news you see. An algorithmic change some day won’t stop showing you something that you care about.
RSS gives you higher quality news.
Here are the the top headlines for me on Facebook: A deal of the day from Amazon, pictures of a party hosted by someone I don’t know, pictures of a guy I kind of know out with his kids for the day, a picture of a coffee shop in San Francisco with a one word description, a picture of someone I barely know on vacation, a hyper-lapse of a friend mountain biking (this was actually interesting), and a status announcing another friend’s arrival on vacation.
My top headlines on RSS: Malnutrition in Sudan, Jack the Ripper’s identity revealed, an article about patience and street photography, an article about Samsung’s new phone, and a review of the Rolliflex Hy6 camera.
I’d rather spend time with the RSS, and I’ve found that RSS lets me appreciate long content again. When I use my RSS reader I have no issue stopping to read a four page article. There are no messages, automatic refreshes, or blinking red icons coming up to distract me away from the content. I feel productive after spending a few hours in an RSS reader because it makes me think. I don’t at all after spending a few hours on Facebook.
Keep using Facebook to keep up with friends, but if you write something meaningful that you want to stick around for a long time put it on a blog. Leave it on the open web where it can live forever.
- Marco Arment wrote a good essay on owning your own identity.
- Blogs are Cool Again by Moustapha Hamoui.
- There’s also a hilarious open letter to Ben Horowitz about how much BuzzFeed sucks.
- You might argue that Feedly is another private corporation who I’m entrusting to provide me with news. That’s only partially true. I can quit Feedly at any time and export my RSS feeds into another reader. Feedly only centralizes a service that lets each device know which articles I’ve already read. They don’t control the content itself. In contrast I have almost no way to export my whole list of people I follow on Twitter, nor my Facebook friend’s list or my Instagram friends. [return]
- I think that Hover is the best domain registrar. I also get $2 if you use that link and buy a domain. Not a big deal. [return]
- Facebook doesn’t actually tell you how many people see your stories, but I know that my blog receives two to ten times as many unique readers each month as I have Facebook friends and subscribers combined. [return]