2011-08-06

Turning off feed reader

Today I have decided to stop using my feed reader. My use of it has diminished over a long period of time and I no longer think it's an optimal tool for the way I like to discover information.

In my view, feeds, whether they're from blogs, news sites or of any other origin, contain just too much noise. You need to go through all of items in your subscribed feeds yourself. It's information filtering on the client-side. Feed readers don't allow for fine grained filtering I would like to be able to do, and thus, they are blunt instruments for information discovery.

Reading feeds may also lack the serendipitous discovery. I'm rarely surprised when I read my feeds. On the other hand, on Twitter I get interesting pointers to various resources much more frequently due to the ways information spreads through the network of Twitter users before it finally reaches me (e.g., retweets).

Because of these shortcomings my primary platform for information acquisition is Twitter now. I don't read feeds, newspapers, magazines, watch TV news and the like. I have resigned from trying to achieve even near-complete coverage of the topics I'm interested and instead I sample and skim-read my Twitter stream.

Twitter provides me a manageable stream of highly relevant information resources that I'm usually able to process and digest. It offers me seredipitous discoveries I wouldn't have come across when using feed readers. Also, I like to sample from a wide range of resources on different topics and Twitter caters for that quite well.

I have changed my infomation consumption habits. In a sense, I have switched to a probabilistic information retrieval. I know that I can't get a complete coverage on the subject areas I'm interested in. I'm conscious that I miss something, but I'm fine with that. I believe that if the information is important enough, it will come back to me. If I don't catch something, I trust my network on Twitter to make me pay attention to it by mentioning it, re-tweeting it, and re-discovering it for me.

On Twitter my information filter is the network of the people I follow. The key difference is that while you're reading feeds you're using people as content creators, on Twitter you're using people as content curators. It's a filtering on a meta level: instead of filtering information yourself you filter the people that are filtering information for you. Your responsibility is to curate the list of Twitter users you follow. However, if you want to be an active member of the Twitter ecosystem you curate, share, and forward information for your followers.

On the Web there are many information channels and trying to follow all of them results in a fragmentation of one's attention. Reading lots of information resources is time consuming, content is often duplicated, and therefore demands strenuous filtering, and also, context switching between different media is expensive for one's cognitive abilities.

In an attention economy we decide how we spend our resources of attention. While marketing uses targetting to reach relevant audiences, we do reverse targetting when we expose ourselves as targets to media of our choice. Choosing a single, yet heterogeneous, information acquisition channel, such as Twitter, may lead to a defragmentation of our attention, and thus it may be a step towards more efficient allocation of one's attention.

The switch from feed readers may be a general trend. I think that information acquisition via feed readers was in part surpassed by the social media and the ubiquitous sharing of content on the Web (tweets, likes, plus ones, recommendations, etc.). One of the questions asked by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan in his tetrad of media effects was What does the medium make obsolete?. If we ask what Twitter makes obsolete, the answer may well be feed readers.

That said, I still think feeds are indispensable when it comes to information acquisition for machines, such as web applications and the like. Feeds are well suited for machines to exchange information. Unlike in humans, attention isn't a scarce resource for machines. Machines can read all items in feeds. But people needs more human ways for discovering new information as they have limited resources of attention. I think Twitter delivers on that.

4 comments :