Taking a bit of inspiration from a Vlogbrothers video, I’ve been thinking a lot about “The Feed”. It’s reductive, but I can’t think of a technology that has done more to subvert the potential of the internet. Though we should be fair - feeds have been around a long time without causing us much harm. What we’re really talking about is the AI-Curated Feed we get with things like Facebook and Twitter.
Traditional feeds go back to the days of RSS. Deciding “hey, I wanna check a while bunch of websites at once” is a convenient idea - one we mostly use for podcasts now. We may opt to listen to some items, gloss over others. But importantly, we had full control of what we were opting into. These were feeds of our own design.
Two Problems with AI-Curated Feeds
There are two main issues with the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc feeds. One has to do with the context, and the other with content.
The Slot Machine
Here, I built you a slot machine:
Addicted yet? Probably not. But you’re more than likely addicted to your feeds (I am). The reward-seeking behavior encourages us to pull-to-refresh, unsure of whether the next items will be boring or fun.
But the dopamine loop relies on more than a mere random number generator. It needs the colors and the bright notification badge, and the rewards. Your feed exists in an environment designed by people paid to make you get caught in that dopamine loop (if it’s any consolation, some of them at least feel bad about it).
If you want a quick hack to help with this, try turning your phone monochrome. But this problem is just a contextual one. The next problem is more insidious.
The Cookie Rule
Having just watched season four, it’s time to make a Black Mirror reference - specifically to the Christmas Special.
For those who haven’t seen it - imagine if your Google Home/Amazon Echo/Siri/whatever had a little clone of you inside. This little AI-you knows your wants and needs perfectly. After all, AI-you is you! In Black Mirror, they refer to this little AI as a “cookie”
So let’s posit The Cookie Rule: an algorithm that interacts with a user of optimal quality when a clone of the user, devoting their full time to the task, would offer up the same result.
Wordy? Yeah, sorry. But here’s the idea: imagine that your full-time job is to create a Facebook feed specifically targeted for you to read. It’d probably have heartwarming stories, maybe some important news items, take into consideration your mood (maybe you’ve just gone through a breakup, so we’ll avoid your friend’s engagement announcement until tomorrow), etc.
A perfect version of the Facebook feed would give you exactly that: a feed you would have picked out yourself.
In reality, AI-Curated Feeds don’t do this. That isn’t their job. They need to maximize your time on-site, in order to deliver your juicy eyeballs to the advertisers. This is contra-cookie rule.
So, remove the social media then? Maybe. That’s hard though. Personally, I’m just looking to lay off the dopamine a bit in 2018.
I want to be able to share things. But there are two traps here:
- I might look at the shiny feed when visiting to share my thoughts
- I might get obsessed with figuring out what to say, and get caught in a loop that way
Easy fix here: use something like Buffer. Set up a bunch of tweets in advance, and schedule them to go out later. Break the addiction of seeing the responses by making things less immediate, and avoid opening up The Feed entirely.
(As an aside, I’d rather roll my own tools for sharing content out, but that takes time, and I should be careful with time)
missing out on what other people share is harder to deal with. One day, I’d love to build a tool that pulls in @-replies and direct messages, and throws them into some sort of universal inbox. Until I have the time for that though, I’ll just have to deal with the fear of missing out.