A while ago, I came across an article titled “How Technology Disrupted the Truth” by Katharine Viner at The Guardian, which I found to be an important analysis of digital algorithms and their detrimental effects being felt around the world.
Only two years removed from my graduation with a degree in journalism, I can hardly stand to watch any TV news outlet. Print subscriptions bring clutter (and aren’t terribly eco-friendly), and it’s becoming easier and easier to access not only articles, but entire magazines and radio/podcasts online. While a wealth of digital sources may be available to us, it’s easy to be overwhelmed… and when you’re already mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, it’s tempting to feel like you’ve read all the opinions you can possibly handle!
The problem with this is that “the version of the world we encounter every day in our own personal stream has been invisibly curated to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs,” Viner says. “Publications curated by editors have in many cases been replaced by a stream of information chosen by friends, contacts and family, processed by secret algorithms.”
Viner’s article is written as an appeal to journalists and their employers, but I believe that some responsibility lies with us! Like it or not, targeted advertising and internet algorithms are here to stay, so it’s important to stay on top of your internet presence. Here are some ways to take control and ensure you have the tools and headspace to form your own opinions at the end of the day:
One word: unsubscribe
One of the most obvious things you can do to ensure you’re able to view content that’s important to you is to remove content that’s not important to you.
Opening an email, scrolling to the bottom and clicking “unsubscribe” is really not that difficult, but for some reason, I just keep on deleting the recurring sales emails over and over again. Treat yourself like the important person you are, and save yourself that valuable time! Start by being honest with yourself about what’s important enough to be coming into your inbox each day. Personally, I limit myself to about 5 brands and 3 newsletters. Does your favorite blog have a newsletter but it’s the same content you’re already reading via their RSS feed? Unsubscribe. Do you love a store but their discount emails aren’t ever enough to make you want to click through? Unsubscribe. Remember: you can always subscribe again if you really start to miss their emails. But, trust me, you won’t!
Curate, curate & curate again
Have you ever looked at your Twitter feed and realized that none of the tweets you’re reading feel particularly compelling? It’s so easy to go overboard with follows on social networks, so be sure to regularly sift through your lists to keep things relevant to you. Like with emails, treat your time as the scarce resource it is and be honest with yourself about what is worth your attention. If a blogger is merely sharing posts that you’re already reading, unfollow! If you love a brand, but their tweets aren’t engaging or feel overly sales-focused, it’s ok to let them go. Or, if someone is being repeatedly negative or catty, it’s ok to prioritize your own well-being and clear that out of your feed.
This also applies to Facebook, which has evolved drastically from the time that many of us began using it. I just went through my liked pages today and found 50+ pages that I had (embarrassingly) liked in high school but are not interesting to me at all now. All of these likes have a bearing on the kind of content that Facebook selects for me. They way I look at it, if I’m going to have to endure targeted ads, they might as well be interesting! Luckily, Facebook has a tool that makes “unliking” pages simple. Click here to go to your pages (you must be logged in) and select “Review Liked Pages” in the upper right tile.
To avoid the “filter bubble” that Viner discusses in her article, try to make sure that you also follow users that you don’t always agree with, or who you can tell aren’t just writing for clicks. Dan Rather has a great Facebook presence, and I’ve always enjoyed conservative writer Kathleen Parker. Finding people to follow who you respect but can also disagree with is an art form, and I’m still working on it! I’ve found that seeking people outside of your particular location or cultural group is a good place to start. Or try following a news source from someplace you’ve travelled (or want to travel to) internationally!
Be sure to go through this process every few months or so, just to recheck in with your interests and new follows.
Now, broaden your horizons and find stuff that is engaging!
Whenever I view content on the web, I’m always taking mental notes about how well-written or produced it is. If I come across something particularly engaging, I might check out the author’s Twitter. If their first few tweets have enough variety and interest, I’ll give them a follow, but (and this is a good thing!) often I will pass.
Something I love is finding a really good newsletter. I’m sure you’ve heard of it by now, but theSkimm is great for a quick, light-hearted morning digest of the latest events. My current favorite is the Quartz Daily Brief. They also cover major news events, but include more economic implications than I’ve found elsewhere. They also include some offbeat and fun news at the end, so this one is a must-read for me! One that’s new to me (via Lexi Mainland at A Cup of Jo) is the Next Draft newsletter by Dave Pell.
As I mentioned before, I limit myself to about 3 daily newsletters. If one looks interesting or is recommended to me, I’ll try it out for a few weeks, but then unsubscribe if it doesn’t offer more valuable content than what I’ve already been reading.
I whole-heartedly agree with Viner here: “My belief is that what distinguishes good journalism from poor journalism is labour: the journalism that people value the most is that for which they can tell someone has put in a lot of work – where they can feel the effort that has been expended on their behalf, over tasks big or small, important or entertaining.”
No matter how many hours you “work” per week, there’s no doubt that most of us wish there were more hours in the day. These are some ways that I’ve been able to spend less time in my inbox and have more say in the kind of content I want to encounter on the internet, but I’m always open to new ideas! What newsletters are you loving? Who are your favorite accounts to follow? Let me know!