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:
- 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.
- I have recently discovered the fantastic substack community.
- Telegram is pretty decent as a secured news aggregator. My blog has a telegram channel. Nobody needs to know what you are reading.
- Twitter has a hidden feature (twitter list) which lets you subscribe to specific individuals and only see content from these individuals.
- DuckDuckGo is a fantastic search engine which mostly gives me what I am looking for instead of what it thinks I should find.
- 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.
- 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.
Related: The Social Dilemma.