We Need to Talk About Feeds

There is a probably familiar quote that floats around the internet, attributed to ancient Chinese mystic Lau Tzu in the Tao Te Ching.  It goes, “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; Watch your words, they become your actions; Watch your actions, they become habits; Watch your habits, they become your character; Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” It’s not actually in the Tao Te Ching, but unlike most internet wisdom, it’s not trite or inane.

Thoughts, ideas and concepts flow through us like waves through water,  imposing themselves upon us and possessing us. Some ideas are bad, and we inhibit them with various defence mechanisms. Some ideas are “toxic”, and others simply come in or out of fashion depending upon the zeitgeist of the time. And since human beings are communal animals, the ideas we harbour and express can be signals to others about our alignment and allegiance to various groups.

We may be the pilots of our minds, but we cannot wish away thoughts we encounter any more than a pilot can wish away the clouds. We can only avoid bad ideas by diverting our attention, as the pilot diverts the plane, which in the real world means taking control of the sources of our information: our news feeds.

Long gone are the innocent days of chronological feeds, free from third-party manipulation. Today our news feeds are highly sophisticated learning machines. They respond to our impulses in order to provide to us the thoughts, ideas and stimuli that evoke high arousal emotions, to maintain our attention and nurture habitual behaviour.

In our daily lives, passively scrolling through news feeds, looking at our friends’ faces or engaging in debates, we are given the impression that we are using our applications. We “use” them to connect with friends and talk politics, to stay informed or express ourselves. But when the medium has an interest in gaining an ever greater amount of our attention we can lose control of our own thoughts, and therefore our natural defence mechanisms against bad ideas. The quality of an idea is irrelevant to the machine whose objective is to increase “time on device“, a concept adapted by social media companies from the science of slot machines.

Returning to that memetic internet wisdom, you could say:

Watch your feeds, they become your thoughts;

Watch your thoughts, they become your words;
watch your words, they become your actions;
watch your actions, they become your habits;
watch your habits, they become your character;
watch your character, it becomes your destiny.Some wise person on the internet

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News Feeds as News Services

At Plug we wanted to rethink news feeds, and break away from the dominant paradigm of nurturing behavioural addiction, of strip-mining our time and attention to fuel the machine. But what does it mean for a news feed to serve users? We started by reifying the concept of ‘service’.

Clearly social media companies believe that the evidence is in, the mere fact that people use their apps the most out of any app category demonstrates that they are servicing users the best, right? Give the people what they want, of course! This is based upon a concept in economics called ‘revealed preference‘, which proposes that a person’s behaviour – what they do – is the best indicator of their actual preferences.

It’s a kind of naive empiricism that hand waves away the idea that we regret many of the things that we do and that this regret is meaningful and useful in developing an integrated self across time. ‘You at 20’ have to somehow negotiate with ‘you at 30’, and ‘you at 80’. You on a Friday night have to negotiate with you on Saturday morning. It is you-in-the-future who will suffer most from the consequences of the decisions made by you-in-the-past, so we cannot lean on revealed preferences to service an actual person in the real world. We might be ‘feeding’ them, but feeding a person junk is not a service unless you know they won’t regret it.

So what is a service? And, how do you know what a person wants to receive as news if not by tracking their behaviour? A quick win would be to bring back chronological feeds.

Chronological Feeds

If a system is servicing the user it should not adjust the order of notifications to suit itself. It is true that a system cannot know what is of highest priority to a user at any given moment, but in the absence of a good way to order notifications, chronological order is a very good proxy – like a queue that forms organically in a supermarket. In a supermarket, nobody complains that the first person to queue is the first person served is unfair, and if a supermarket were to re-order their checkout queues – taking a leaf out of the book of social media companies – to maximise their own returns customers would obviously revolt.

Of course there are ways to prioritise without changing the order, such as colour coding, or grouping notifications about the same subject to reduce duplication, similar to the ‘10 items of less’ queue, but a mostly chronological feed is a very good way to order notifications that works for the vast majority of people.

If the order of a news feed is not chronological then the question must be asked, who is it serving- the system or the individual? Or are there other ways to order a feed, in service of a community, for example?

Context Switching and Context Collapse

When you last read the newspaper, you may have noticed that they group articles into sections like News, Sports, Lifestyle, Opinion. This made it easier to consume, because on any given page you knew roughly what kind of thing you would be reading next. Moving from a film review to politics or dieting tips is an uncomfortable context switch.

Frequent context shifts throughout the day can be extremely distracting and impair your ability to concentrate. Worse, over time they can seriously deplete your brain’s ability to concentrate and make decisions. Ever wondered why, no matter how much you slept the night before, you can’t focus on anything by 4 p.m.? And Now for Something Completely Different: Context Shifting

This is related to another concept called context collapse, which reduces expression to the lowest common denominator of what a person’s entire audience will accept.

Here’s how context collapse plays out online. When you have Facebook friends numbering in the thousands, your audience becomes a little difficult to speak to all at once. What’s Context Collapse’? Understanding it Can Mean a More Fulfilling Online Life

With existing social media platforms users are forced to resort to three sub-optimal solutions:

  • Tailoring content to the lowest common denominator, the cliche, the superficial, the vulgar, the inane
  • Moving to private groups and chats
  • Moving to ephemeral content mediums that disappear after viewing

Plug tackles the problem head on, with humane design and architecture. By categorizing news items it makes it possible to consume a news service dedicated to a specific context before moving on to the next, or up the chain to a broader context, making news more energising, and less cognitively draining. At Plug we group by interests and geographic locales allowing the user to easily digest information and make real world decisions, rather than being reduced to superficial reactions.

For this to work at Plug we invented a concept called ‘contextual following’, whereby a user must follow another person for a specific interest, using user personas, rather than a generic follow where you see all of their posts. Since every piece of content on Plug is about a set of interests, it is then possible to filter so that news is not mixed into the same list.

Priority versus Non-Priority

Most modern apps take advantage of your priority notifications by using them to pull you back into the application, always tapping your impulse to check by inserting unimportant notifications into your important list in order to nurture the habitual behaviour of checking regularly.

At Plug, we clearly distinguish priority from other news with colour coding, and we don’t mix in useless information, so you can trust that notifications are appropriate and not used to needlessly pull you back into the application.

The End is the End

Returning to the analogy of the newspaper, it was possible to reach the end and to have read all of the news that day, or at least all of the important news. Modern social media apps tap into the unconscious assumption called the ‘curse of knowledge’, which suggests that what we can see, others have seen or may see. This means that we have a compulsion to ‘reach the end’ and form a response to what others in our peer groups may have seen and responded to. But when our news feeds selectively present us with an unlimited number of notifications with infinite scroll the result is a hamster wheel of ‘catching up’, an ever receding horizon padded by whatever clickbait will keep us scrolling. That is not natural or healthy.

At Plug users are fully in control of their feeds and we don’t insert anything that they are not interested in. When you reach the end you reach the end, or you can mark all as read without scrolling if you just want to start fresh.

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At Plug we aim to serve you, the user, by providing you with the tools to fully control your news feed, allowing you to stay up to date with your communities without collapsing or switching context and algorithmic manipulation; providing chronological news that you have intentionally opted into and not inserting extraneous, unsolicited material.

At Plug this is our goal: To serve you in such a way that the chain between your feed, thoughts, actions, habits, character and destiny leads to an integrated and fulfilled self that is happy in real life, not just on social media.