Stop spending so much time being trolled by billionaire corporations!

As a kid, my parents would open the television set, and we would get to watch whatever the state television decided we would watch. It was a push model. Some experts pick the content you need and they deliver it to you. You have little say in the matter. There was one newspaper in my town. We had two or three TV channels. Traditional schools also operate on a push model: the teacher decides whatever you get to learn.

So I got to watch hours and hours of incredibly boring TV shows because there was nothing good on. I was very interested in computers and science, but there was almost nothing relevant in the major news sources. When personal computers became popular, I quickly learned more about them than any journalist had.

In the early days of the Internet, people wrote on posting boards. Some started blogs. To this day, I get much of my online news by an RSS aggregator which collects information from various blogs and news sites. An RSS aggregator simply picks up all of the news items from various sites, and it lays it out sequentially. You do not like a news source? You unsubscribe. Mailing lists work similarly: you get emails whenever someone has new content.

This model has been described as “pull” oriented. You pick your sources. You sidestep the experts. For someone like myself, it was incredibly liberating. As the pull model grew, many people feared that old-school journalism would die. It also challenged conventional education.

Within this emerging framework, Silicon Valley invented Twitter, Facebook and other networks. At first they worked much like posting boards and blogs. You launched Twitter and you got the tweets of the people you followed. You did not like someone’s tweets? You just unfollowed them. Google even co-opted the RSS reader by creating a fantastic tool called Google Reader, which put you in control.

However, mostly, the industry moved in a different direction. They took control of what you see and read. Brilliant engineers are hard at work making sure that you remain glued to your screen. So they find content that you may like and push it to you. Google closed Google Reader, decimating the RSS reader community. Whereas you could count on the Google search engine delivering the documents containing the keywords you are search, you are increasingly facing a curated list of links.

We are back at a push model which is not unlike how things were when I was a kid. The likes of Twitter, Facebook and Google feel like they get to decide what I see.

Richard Startin describes my feeling in a couple of tweets:

As the user, you are no longer in control. The corporation is wrestling back full control of what you get to watch and read.

TikTok is one such tool where you just open the application and watch whatever they want you to watch. You become some kind of automaton.

Of course, deciding what people watch and read is valuable. It is a great way to make money. But it also becomes a politically valuable power. And so, it now seems unavoidable that multiple countries in the world will regulate these sites to make sure that you watch the right “things”.

Maybe Richard Startin wants to read about what programmers have to say, but what if some corporation or some government feels that he needs to be made aware of some important bit of information, what then ?

Thankfully some tools are still leaving you in control:

    1. Blogs are still out there. I had 50,000 visitors last month. You can still use RSS readers. You can subscribe to blogs like mine by email.
    2. I have recently discovered the fantastic substack community.
    3. Telegram is pretty decent as a secured news aggregator. My blog has a telegram channel. Nobody needs to know what you are reading.
    4. Twitter has a hidden feature (twitter list) which lets you subscribe to specific individuals and only see content from these individuals.
    5. DuckDuckGo is a fantastic search engine which mostly gives me what I am looking for instead of what it thinks I should find.
    6. Do not underestimate books. Contrary to what you may have heard, you can still order paper books. The great thing about a paper book is that nobody needs to know what you are reading and when. If you like books and programming, you can grab Performance Analysis and Tuning on Modern CPUs for example. I have many recommendations on the sidebar of my blog.
    7. There are fantastic podcasts out there. Spotify has some great stuff, but you can find many others on other platforms. If you like programming, you might want to check corecursive. Joe Rogan is also fantastic. There are many others.

Being in control takes work. It also requires you to sometimes pay real money. But do you really want to have your attention is sold and manipulated?

I am not advocating that anyone leaves Twitter, Facebook or tiktok, but we should all diversify our information sources. Be conscious that Twitter, Facebook, Google and others are in the business of manipulating your attention for their interest and the interests of their clients.

Be smarter!

Related: The Social Dilemma.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

22 thoughts on “Stop spending so much time being trolled by billionaire corporations!”

  1. I can hardly imagine reading every tweet posted by people I follow. So thanks to the algorithmic feed I read only the popular ones. This has upsides and downsides, but I can’t imagine going back to reading complete RSS feeds. I think it’s not feasible. For good services, I would pay to not see ads. For example, I pay to youtube, but not to Twitter (and it’s not possible). I wish the payment option was more widely available, but automatic content curation, I’m afraid is unavoidable.

    1. automatic content curation, I’m afraid is unavoidable.

      I am sure that 30 years ago people believed that television could not be stopped. I have unplugged my television about 10 years ago. Maybe earlier.

      The Twitter and Google business models are literally to sell off your attention. Let us be clear on this. I do not think that the engineers that work for Facebook are evil. I do think however that they are there to nudge you and to control your intention.

      I avoid content curation (as practiced by the likes of Twitter or TikTok). I am not telling others to avoid it, but I am urging them to look at alternatives.

      My bet is that many people would feel a lot better if they avoided it too. We can reasonably disagree about it, of course.

      Do I think that the Twitter-like content curation will go away soon? No. I think it might stay for a long time. I do not think it means that it is unavoidable. I know people who never used Twitter and Facebook (and they are not so old).

      1. Daniel, don’t forget that even without Twitter and Google you don’t consume raw information. You read newspaper digests, survey articles, etc… These people who summarize information they can manipulate other people. And they will do so. Moreover, before radio and TV, writers used to write long novels in part to get as much reader’s attention as possible. Textbooks are freaking manipulating you. They have errors, biases, and they are often politically motivated.

        You see, the problem isn’t new. Automatic content aggregation admittedly has more problems, but I personally am ok with it. In fact, my Twitter is nearly 100% professional. And certainly I cannot operate without Google. I cannot review most papers, find necessary information, etc… So what you propose is to reduce my productivity possibly 10x for the joy of not using Google or automatic Twitter feed. This is not a viable option.

        1. I do not need twitter or facebook to do my work and I have hardly used Google (the search engine) in at least two years.

          There is s whole degree of difference between the nudging that Google does and what the author of a book can do.

          I am not telling you to stop using twitter btw.

      2. PS: some people are
        1. work in a very narrow domain
        2. go to conferences
        3. have a vast network of professional contacts
        4. are privileged in other ways

        that they don’t use Twitter and LinkedIn doesn’t say much. I am pretty sure they still use Google and who doesn’t?

  2. I personally would be a lot more okay with the ‘push’ type of social media if we, as “consumers”[0], are able to identify how/why the media that is being recommended to us were more transparent. I can deal with an agenda being pushed, and I can deal with sometimes being purposefully misled. I’d rather have that being earmarked from the get-go so I know what I’m getting myself into rather than infer from previews/titles/intuition/etc…

    I don’t think any of the most popular social medias truly operate in this fashion. Everything is a giant black box where even the people who built the system don’t even know how it truly works. Sure, “Recommended because you subscribed to Channel/Person” is visible in some instances, but we all know that is just scratching the surface.

    If we had that, I feel we would be more equipped to deal with the media we consume. We won’t absolutely need to be beholden to black box recommendation systems, and we can work on the parts where we are personally responsible for the media that we do actively consume.

    Control is also interesting to think about. I do fall into the habit of ‘watching autoplay’ in the interest of being led to a video that might be related to something I have high interest in learning about or even just mindless entertainment, but I rarely feel satisfied with what I do get in practice. I do get some diamonds occasionally and I think it ends up being at least worth the time spent wading through crap, and I wish there was something better.

    Unfortunately, many of the things I am/would be interested in seldom appear. If I could game recommendations in a reliable manner so I get these more frequently, I would be a happy man. I don’t think being an active consumer would help me in this regard as I don’t think I would have found these new interesting topics without being led by an algorithm(s). Which is where I think RSS fails personally, discoverability is all on the user for the topic, but you’re only getting things that you know interest you and rarely others. So giving up control in some regard does give me a direct benefit.

    [0] Some might say we are the product.

  3. Spotify is heavily investing in podcasts, with the goal of taking a huge part of the industry. If they succeed, they can exploit their very strong push models. IMHO Spotify should be on the be-aware list, not on the recommendation list.

  4. Great post, thanks. Can anyone recommend a good RSS aggregator? (That doesn’t track people?) Also possibly self-hosted. I’ve been using Feedly since Google Reder shut down but there’s now too many restrictions on the free version.

  5. Jan-Erik, I’ve been using tt-rss as a self-hosted RSS aggregator ever since Google Reader shut down. It’s free (though the reader app requires a small one-off payment, well worth it).

  6. The question is not whether the information we read is curated. It is who is doing the curation, and in who’s interest.

    The old model has some experts in fast information gathering and presentation get together and decide what they think is newsworthy, and present it to the nation at at large. These people (we can call them journalists and editors) are normal, flawed people that can make mistakes, but they are (largely) guided by what they hear and see, and then filtered by what their editors feet is in the public interest.

    They are professionals, and are held to a standard of integrity by the law and by the boards and committees that oversee their products and outlets. They make mistakes, and there is a process for correcting those mistakes. They have biases, and one can select product based on your preference.

    The “new model” is one where random individuals say whatever they want and their words are carried to the entire world effortlessly. There is no standard of integrity. There are no laws. There is no committee or editor. The public gets to consume whichever of these random individuals they want, with no simple way of tracing back to the source of the story – no accountability.

    Because the average person (evidently) does not care as much about veracity as they do about agreement (theirs, with the story), there is a decline in consumption of “mainstream media”, and most professional news-gathering organisations are shedding journalists at an alarming rate, while faceboook and google make mountains of advertising dollars that used to go to newspapers and the like while hosting outrageous tales peddled by charlatans seeking popularity and money. Worse yet, this dissemination of outrage is accelerated by the algorithms the host companies use, designed to feed into the human ego-cycle in a self perpetuating vicious circle. There is no law for this. There is no accountability for this.

    This model can only work if we assume that ordinary people are discerning and rational. Making this assumption is itself not rational. It is the reason we can’t have nice things.

  7. Another thought, perhaps more useful than the last.

    Every person I know who has a beef with mainstream media can point to some event, or subject matter with which they are intimately acquainted, and demonstrate that the news coverage for that thing was either woefully inadequate, or outright misleading.

    This should come as no surprise, and is not actually indicative of much. I too can point to events and subject matters in which I hold the press laughably inadequate. That said, they still report some hard, verifiable facts – regardless of the interpretation put around them, or the other essential facts that were omitted (more often out of ignorance than malice).

    However, I think I prefer a system that is riddled with inadequacies, but has checks and balances and accountability. It is all well and good that the Internet can bring me any interesting fact in seconds – but it can equally bring me a falsehood, and I would most likely believe whatever I already felt to be true.

  8. A good article, Daniel, although I’ll personally pass on Joe Rogan.

    As for your general thesis, I’d go even farther: I think it would be healthier to avoid using social media platforms at all. I got rid of my social media accounts years ago, and haven’t watched television for over a decade; the sky hasn’t fallen. And I’m a millennial!

    But then perhaps it was easier for me to do because I grew up in the so-called Third World where access to (news-, entertainment, or educational) media as recently as the ’90s and early 2000s rivalled what you might have got in 1960s England. That is, there wasn’t much, so one spent more time outside.

    Social media can have benefits, and I don’t deny them—but I do wonder if its benefits outweigh its costs. In my experience, social media consumption neuroticises its consumers, ruining their mental health by compelling them to compare themselves to the curated versions of other social media consumers. It also redirects their time and energy into maintaining ego-driven, idealistic, phantasy ‘personas’ that transcend the limitations of their real, everyday selves. Likely that’s what the other person’s doing, too. Who’s to know?

    I’m considerably more productive without the distractions of ‘always-on’ social media bombardment. It gives me more space to think.

  9. Telegram is pretty decent as a secured news aggregator.

    You might want to know that Telegram does not use end-to-end encryption by default: it is possible to create “private” one-on-one conversations, albeit with terrible UX (though it is redefined away as being “features”)

    Moreover, Telegram’s “Secret Chats” are based on MTProto, a homegrown cryptographic protocol that fails to uphold standard security properties and relies on constructions that either obscure and obsolete (like the IGE block cipher mode) or are again homegrown (like their Key Derivation Function)

    I’m sad to say that Telegram is only a secure messaging application, in the sense that Telegram’s marketing is centered around security and privacy claims, rather than actual security of the protocol, its implementations, and overall design of the system.

  10. Another essential thing in the toolkit here is to make use of the twitter muted words function. Whenever anything comes up that I no longer want to hear about in an unthinking way I add everything about it to the ban list (this includes whatever is in the US elections every 4 years but many other things). Along with this, if there are accounts that you never want to hear from then mute them. Doesn’t catch everything but definitely improves my experience.

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