Let me dictate my own realm

May 2, 2023 – @hawkticehurst

At the end of last year, Robin Sloan published a newsletter declaring “the platforms of the last decade are done” and made a call for new thinking, projects, hopes, and dreams about what the next era of platforms and social media may look like.

Below is one of my hopes.

I’m old enough to just barely remember a time before the internet became a horizon-swallowing monolith.

By the time I was ready to surf the web, Facebook poke wars, FarmVille, and Truth Is posts were my generation’s starter pack for communicating on the web. It means, by and large, I have never known an internet that isn’t trying to extract every bit of attention and value it can from me.

It also means I missed many of the early days of internet culture and communication. So, after leaving Twitter last fall, I gave RSS feeds a try for the first time in my life.

It has been a striking experience.

During the last decade, I have been conditioned to constantly think about “curating” my algorithm across various platforms. What I like, dislike, comment on, share, save, watch (and for how long) are, at this point, well-worn tools in my algorithmic toolbelt for crafting and steering the content that gets served on each of my feeds.

With RSS, however, there is none of this –– just a dead simple subscribed or not subscribed. What I read (or don’t read) has no consequence on seeing future content from an author, and I will never be served content from a feed I am not subscribed to.

Curating an algorithm can produce delightful results when done right, but it can also be exhausting to engage in –– especially when trying to avoid the death spirals of doom scrolling, FOMO/isolation, division, and on and on… I know this. You know this. We all know this.

What has been shocking to me, however, is how insidious this habit/proclivity towards curation can be.

While using RSS, I have found myself regularly getting anxious that if I don’t finish reading a post in one sitting it will disappear into the digital abyss, or if I skip out on a post that doesn’t particularly interest me I’ll start seeing less from that author. I have to regularly remind myself that isn’t how RSS works.

I’ve always known on some level that content algorithms can play a role in how I act and feel, but it has been striking to see, with such clarity, how much of my thoughts and behavior have conformed to how algorithms of the last decade work.

On the topic of algorithms, Robin Sloan says in his newsletter:

I suspect the best answers are grounded in good old-fashioned human recommendations, but who knows? Maybe TikTok has it right; maybe everybody deserves one (1) audition with the capricious god-algorithm of the realm. Maybe there’s something to be isolated and improved there.

I think I land somewhere in the middle.

My hope is a future internet where at any time and for any reason I can let an AI delight me with something new or take a breather and tune into the simplicity/reliability of an RSS-like algorithm.

My hope is that the platforms of the next era will let me choose the algorithms that dictate my realm.