long . lines and ripples

The Ways Around Internet Platforms

Can a person use only the good parts of the internet, leaving the bad parts behind? Up until maybe the early 2010s, the answer would have been a more obvious “yes.” Just read the news articles you want, shop from the e-commerce sites of your choice, write a few emails–and get on with your life. But now the picture is complicated by a pervasive internet. There is still a lot of disagreement about how much the various technologies of the immersive model–smartphones, “Internet of Things” devices, social media–meet the definition of addiction. But many of them aspire to be addictive: to be everywhere, to compete for our attention, and to use persuasive design and dark patterns to exert influence over when and where our attention is directed. And usually, attention is supposed to go back to the devices themselves, and to the software running on the device.

What defines the pervasive internet is the design principle that how we pay attention ought to be algorithmically directed. For the purposes of this discussion, an “algorithm” is any automated, software-implemented piece of logic that is easily changed, uncertain and ultimately unknowable to the end user. Facebook may have decided to prioritize friends and family, but its users did not make this decision, and they do not ultimately control it. Under this model, you are only in partial control of what you pay attention to on the screen, and you usually do not even see the most important levers.

So in this technological moment, one might reformulate the question “can I use the good parts of the internet” as “can I use the major functions of the internet according to my own intentions and purposes,” which in turn will (often) mean “can I use the internet in ways that its gatekeepers do not intend?” The point here isn’t to, say, break Twitter’s algorithmic curation of your tweets for kicks. No, the point is to step back from a given platform, figure out whether it offers you enough to be valuable, discern the general principles of “how it works,” and then poke around in a technologically literate and self-aware way, to see if there isn’t a better way to get what you want out of the platform, without most of the bad stuff that sends you down rabbit holes that you don’t need. In some cases, that may mean abstaining entirely. For example, I found that I just didn’t get enough out of Facebook to make it worthwhile, so I deleted my account and found a substitute technology. In others, like that of Twitter, I used it, but in a manner contrary to Twitter’s typical user flow.

In most cases, the value of a platform comes down to network effects: that “so many X” are on it (so many people, so many products, so many sources of information, etc.). So what we want is to get those things–whatever X is–without being subject to whatever else the platform wants to do to us.

Example 1: The Amazon Cart

A simple example is Amazon’s shopping cart. People use Amazon because you can find almost anything on there. Even if you don’t intend to buy a product, you can examine pictures of it, compare it with others, read reviews, etc. The act of buying is just the final effect of how convenient Amazon makes it to find and evaluate products. But Amazon doesn’t make you buy their stuff. If you have a book, or a mop, or a deck of cards, or a pair of headphones you want to buy, you can put that stuff in your cart and leave it there. Leave it there for while, let it cool off, decide if you actually need it, then find it somewhere else. I do this all the time with books, because I care about buying books at bookstores. But even if all you care about is paying the cheapest price wherever, it has been shown that Amazon, in some cases, is far from the cheapest. And in many cases it will be hard to know if it is the cheapest, because they have hired an army of economists and data scientists to implement a variable, algorithmic pricing system. Amazon just offers the most convenient option to spend whatever their going price is. Use them for their information gathering excellence, put the item in your cart, but proceed on your own terms after that.

The pattern here is (1) figure out what a platform does well (2) figure out what a platform does that is in its best interest (3) figure out what a platform does that is in your best interest and (4) try to take action that separates #2 from #3.

Example 2: Facebook and RSS

I said a moment ago that I stopped using Facebook. Let me apply the above steps to this platform.

  1. One thing that Facebook does well is give you suggestions about what to read. Even if I do not like all of those suggestions, there is no question that Facebook lays some of the internet out on a platter for me, and gives me a sense of what some of my Facebook “friends” are reading.
  2. But Facebook optimizes for “engagement,” roughly, how much time you spend on the site (mostly, the newsfeed), and the links that you click on (some will be ads, on which Facebook makes money every time you click).
  3. In theory, I like the idea of getting a menu of what there is to read out there, but I don’t like Facebook’s criteria. It does not care about the quality of the sources it sends my way (Facebook would deny this), and gives me a very selective slice to pick from based on what Facebook thinks will maximize my engagement. And a lot of the people I trust to recommend sources to me are not necessarily my “friends” on Facebook, so my Facebook network is a bad predictor of what will interest me. Conclusion: Is there a way for me to get a “menu” of what’s on the internet, like what Facebook provides, but without Facebook’s curation?
  4. The best version of an internet “menu” that I have found is an RSS feed. This technology is a lesser-known feature that many websites, from personal blogs to major media organizations, still offer. Used right, it can be a substitute for Facebook’s news feed, allowing you to aggregate all of the articles published by a site over time into one list, and then select the items that you want to read. There are a lot of great articles explaining what RSS is, how to use it, and the history of the technology, but the idea of RSS as a replacement for an algorithmic newsfeed can be condensed to this:
    • Rather than allowing a single, centralized platform to hold responsibility for aggregating and selecting what to read, create a very simple, open-source technology that allows any site, no matter how small, to broadcast a single-page list of anything new on the site.
    • This list, called an RSS feed, can be picked up by other aggregator sites, like Apple News, and put in a directory that you can search. But the original website still retains control over the existence of its feed, and the content of its feed. The menu you get is straight from the source, unmodified in any substantive way.
    • Apps allow you to further collect the RSS feeds into your own personal newspaper, from many feeds (sites) that might interest you, organize and search them, and generally comb through anything new quickly. This helps mitigate the main downside of an RSS feed when compared to an algorithmic feed: many feeds quickly add up to a lot of items to comb through. The lack of curation means that information comes to you in bulk, and you have to decide what is worth reading. For me, that is kind of the point. The RSS feed represents a different balance than the algorithmic feed. It is still quite selective, because you choose every source included, but you do not choose what in those sources is worth reading; that is part of the fun.

Example 3: Twitter and Lists

Finally, we come to Twitter, a social network that I do (on occasion) use. Twitter, as of writing, offers a chronological timeline for tweets. But you have to opt in. And within search and other functions, Twitter still defines the “top tweets” that are visible to the rest of the internet according to algorithms that it controls and modifies. And Twitter’s notion of what constitutes “engagement” privileges the most awful stuff; usually, this is what gets retweeted and liked the most, ensuring that your feed is stuffed with viral content of the most trivial and inflammatory sort.

But Twitter, within its own app, offers an out from the newfeed. They have a feature called “lists,” which is just a feed of Twitter users separate from one’s followers. For instance, I could create a Twitter list about model trains, figure out the best accounts on model train Twitter, put them on a list, and follow all those accounts without having them ever show up as “followers” on my account (I don’t actually care about model trains). And a list can be made public or private, meaning I can share it with others if it’s useful, but I don’t have to.

If you use Twitter mostly (or entirely) through the List feature, Twitter looks more like an RSS feed than a news feed. If I have 500 people I follow on Twitter, broken up over 20 to 30 lists by topic, each list becomes quite manageable (because it averages 20-30 accounts), and I have some context of what types of messages I will see on any given list. Compare this to 500 people in one feed, where the number of contexts is so great that there is effectively no context at all. The list-based approach is a huge improvement, allowing me to break off little “pieces” of my Twitter feed at a time to scan. For example, if there is a political debate, let me look at a list of politicos who might have something to say (or not). Or similar for any other topic that interests me.

What unites all of these approaches is the idea that a platform-driven internet has to be heavily navigated by means of individual strategies, as opposed to accepted for its intrinsic design features. Whether this is a good direction for the internet as a whole is another question worth asking.