With the arrival of the digital age, we were promised unparalleled access to information and knowledge. Now that we are solidly three decades into the world wide experiment that is the internet, it’s as good a time as any to interrogate how we get access to information, what kind of risks exist in our current media landscape, and how we can take control to critically examine the information that we consume.
An Endless Content Buffet
We are in an unprecedented age of content consumption. For the more visually-inclined, there’s a host of short- and long-form video platforms that host an impossibly immense library of clips and movies and everything in between. The auditorially-inclined might turn towards music streaming platforms, e.g. Spotify or Apple Music, or through (somehow still mostly independent) podcasts. For written works, you might find short-form news and discussion through Twitter X or Reddit, or long-form from news website, Medium blogs, or Substack newsletters. If you’re a relic of a bygone age, maybe you’ll still get your news from physical papers, broadcast television, or radio.
To exacerbate the issue, we are also entering a new era with the rise of synthetic text and synthetic image / video generators. In an age where we are already increasingly inundated with propaganda and disinformation1, synthetic content generators like GPT-3/4 and DALL-E present a new risk to the content2 we consume3, by creating plausible content without any guarantee (and really impossible to guarantee) on truth or accuracy. In what is already an unimaginably vast ocean of content, we now have to contend with media created devoid of any intentionality.
Large platforms act as the major gateways to consuming media, hosting the vast amounts of data needed for people to enjoy the aforementioned forms of media. However, there’s a very important distinction here with respect to a platform and to a creator. The platform doesn’t create the content. The platform is the mediator between the creator and us, the consumer. A platform provides a very real service in that it handles infrastructure, from storage and content delivery, to content organisation and content discovery. However, this is a Faustian bargain, where we willingly cede control of our online experience for the sake of ease and convenience. It wasn’t always this way.
The Platform, The Middle Man, The Algorithmic Feed
The internet as we experience it now is quite different from how it used to be 20 years ago. As mainstream adoption has accelerated, the desire for easy-to-use interfaces has led to significant centralisation through social media platforms like Meta’s Facebook, Instagram, and Threads, or through search engine aggregators like Google or Microsoft’s Bing. Nowadays, specialist internet forums, independent enthusiast websites, and personal (non-tech) blogs are anachronistic relics compared to today’s uniform and modernised web.
Why bother setting up your own forum when you can create a subreddit? Why maintain an enthusiast fan page over a Fandom-hosted wiki? Why host your own blog when you could write on Medium or Substack? The convenience and the reach of these platforms is likely higher than struggling desperately to gain any traction in the world of search-engine optimisation and even the general hesitance to trust websites outside the walled garden of social media. By controlling the means of consumption the platform has become this middle man that extracts as much value from both sides of equation: the creators and the consumers. They control the ad revenue and ad structure, the recommendation systems, and ultimately who gets to see what and who gets to say what.
So here we are, at the whims of the platform, subordinate to whatever algorithmic feed they’ve employed to keep us scrolling or engaged. There is a push for the non-controversial, the mundane, and the kind material that distracts more than it informs. Controversial viewpoints may be suppressed at the bequest of governments or of powerful lobbies (e.g. Palestinian voices in the West, feminist voices in China4 or critisicms of the Hindu Nationalist Government in India5). This kind of control is concerning, if not down-right terrifying. By centralising power in these platforms, we also centralise this risk of muzzling the fourth estate and of grassroot community-grown perspectives if they don’t serve a more powerful interest.
Really Simple Syndication (RSS)
So how can you wrest back control of your internet experience? RDF (Resource Description Framework) Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication is a web feed standard first established in 1999. Back during the growth of the internet, RSS presented a way to subscribe to content you wanted to follow, a very user-orientated idea of content consumption. At one point, tools like Google Reader were commonplace and spoke of an era of an interoperable and open internet. The discontinuation of Google Reader is likely “one of the defining moments in the shift from a more distributed, independent web to one that is controlled by a few large companies.”
However, RSS is very much alive. Essentially every news website still maintains an RSS feed and plenty of other sites like webcomics, podcasts, or timelines also maintain RSS feeds. With FOSS apps like Feeder (or NetNewsWire for iOS), it’s that easy to subscribe and start reading content that you have specifically and intentionally decided to engage with. If you want to subscribe on Desktop, consider using Fluent Reader. And if that’s not easy enough, I’ll provide you with my starting feed, primarily focused on Canadian media and the impacts of technology. If you’re so inclined, you can subscribe to it here.
I love RSS and the ability to personally curate the media I engage with. There’s an intentionality to subscribing to a news outlet or podcast because it’s content you find valuable or thought-provoking. I think the current culture of subscribing based on entertainment consequently down values this type of more “serious” content—drowning it out. With RSS, you know what you’re getting; it’s exactly what you’ve chosen for yourself.
For a More Open Internet
The internet has been a transformative piece of technology, as have the many gateways we use to access it and the broader interconnected world. I remember a time when I was younger and first on the internet; there were more independent forums, more enthusiast websites, and even more big players in the game (competition is good!). There are obvious benefits to centralisation with lower barriers of entry. There’s also dangers of having our real lives so intertwined with our digital ones, especially if our entry points all exist in the narrow confines of trillion dollar companies. A more open internet with more options and more control is ultimately an internet that empowers us, the digital citizens, who make it up. Let’s value the content we consume, and be intentional and critical of where it comes from and why we see it. And, if you’re so inclined, I invite you to try and wrest back some control over what you see, what you hear, and what you know. Here’s to the continuation of a diverse, independent, and open internet. 🥂
Karen Hao. “Troll farms reached 140 million Americans a month on Facebook before 2020 election, internal report shows,” MIT Technology Review, 2021. ↩︎
Maggie Harrison. “Sports Illustrated Published Articles by Fake, AI-Generated Writers,” Futurism, 2023. ↩︎
Wanqing Zhang, “Heavily persecuted, highly influential: China’s online feminist revolution”, Rest of World, 2023. ↩︎
Karishma Mehrotra and Joseph Menn. “How India tamed Twitter and set a global standard for online censorship,” The Washington Post, 2023. ↩︎