Last week, during another sad desk lunch, I found myself mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed and suddenly feeling boxed-in by the same content I’ve seen over and over again. I don’t know when it happened but day-old memes from Twitter, irrelevant quiz results, and the same one or two major stories that get shared by everyone, seemed to have permanently taken over my entire newsfeed.
It wasn’t always this way. As someone who used to read a wide variety of news sources for content to support producing a weekly radio show, I needed to go beyond social media to find interesting news. Back in those days I relied upon my browser bookmarks to read news from outlets across a variety of different fields throughout the web. Today, the practice of visiting different homepages seems eccentric and antiquated. For most people, scrolling through bookmarked pages is something that’s been replaced by looking up and down a feed from your phone.
I found myself being in the same mindless newsfeed loop day after day and it awoke a sentiment that has long been dormant, but still very much palpable: I need to reclaim my newsfeed.
Step 1: Realize that your newsfeed has failed you
Facebook’s biggest criticism after the election was that it was responsible for creating the infrastructure that allowed fake news to spread so easily. Though that’s a concerning threat to the nation’s democratic process, the truth is that even before fake news got on the media’s radar, Facebook’s newsfeed was already a mess.
When the average person scrolls through their feed, if they aren’t bombarded with hyper-targeted ads designed to make them buy things they don’t need, their attention is immediately swarmed with frivolous content that isn’t useful. This isn’t a knock against the updates from close friends and family, but compared to the number of advertisements, political rants from random high school contacts, and annoying auto-play videos, there isn’t as much value found on your newsfeed as there used to be.
Since most online news outlets have migrated from their own websites and onto social media to distribute content, there is still a good wealth of news still being broadcast on Facebook and Twitter, but it requires you to seek it out. Of course you can view the news that your contacts share, but that’s exactly how fake news became a problem in the first place, since most people only follow news sources aligned with their belief systems and oftentimes get fooled into following pages that aren’t reputable sources.
Earlier this year it was reported that for the first time in the web’s history, more websites were viewed on mobile than on desktops. A year before that, the New York Times revealed to its employees that homepage visits were dramatically dropping each year and have come to rely on social media to distribute news. These two developments further illustrate the reality that most people are using social media feeds as their main portals to the rest of the web.
Maybe it’s a natural evolution of the internet, but what’s unfortunate about this is that if social newsfeeds are going to be the main gateway to information, those very same feeds are overwhelmingly cluttered with digital junk that distracts us from valuable content. Though Facebook and Twitter give a media platform to millions of new voices, finding useful content has become harder since it gets lost in the shuffle.
Chances are you are looking at your feed during commutes, lunch breaks, and waiting on lines. What this all adds up to is the fact that your newsfeed is failing you each time you passively scroll through it and move on, under the impression you’ve been updated for the day. If you are relying on social newsfeeds to be updated, you are shutting yourself out from a wealth of information that can make you more objectively informed, smarter, and productive. Worse though, is that the more time you spend on your feed, the more behavioral data you are creating for advertisers to assault you with, while locking yourself into a self-perpetuating feedback loop, cut off from new information.
Step 2: Utilize the right websites & apps needed for a cleaner internet
You may not realize it, but the promise of a cleaner and crisper internet is already here, you just need the rights apps for it. As for me, there are just two simple websites that have totally transformed how I consume web content: Feedly and Medium.
Do you remember RSS? Not that many people took advantage of RSS feeds in early 2000s but it was a precursor to what we now think of as social media newsfeeds. RSS was a great way to organize the collection of websites you had an interest in reading each day, but now, with social media, its popularity has declined.
This is where Feedly comes in: it’s an expertly designed content aggregator that gives RSS a modern day makeover.
With Feedly, you are able to curate your own web browsing experience in way that is visually pleasant and designed to make you a more productive content consumer. The way I have used Feedly over the past month was to first create a few dozen content categories that span across my vast arrays of interests such as world news, art, history, culture, design, and philosophy. For each topic, I stuffed them with a plethora of websites I frequently visited. Now, when I want to browse the web or catch up on different topics instead of visiting different websites, I just go to Feedly.
The other platform I use that has made me more productive is Medium.com. As a writer, Medium’s sleek publishing interface was what drew me into the platform, but it’s been the wealth of content that has made me embrace the platform and convince me to keep coming back. Medium has made it a mission to champion great writing, and though the site has had its struggles financially, it’s one of the few places on the web you can read informative and entertaining articles without clickbait.
On Medium, once I saved my account’s topic settings, I was surprised by how many publications and writers matched my eclectic interests. At first it was a bit addictive reading all of the articles that populated each topic, but after awhile I found that spacing out topics through the week and reading the most interesting ones later was a better way to use the site.
I underestimated how engaging the content on a social publishing platform could be, but it makes sense given how attractive Medium is to good writers. For curious minds, the writing found on Medium far outweighs the average content being shared on your social media feeds. Not being bombarded with ads while reading material that is mentally stimulating almost feels like you are cheating the Internet somehow, but it’s not—it’s the user experience Medium set out to create when it was launched back in 2012.
With Feedly and Medium, I’ve replaced the time spent mindlessly scanning my social news feeds and haven’t looked back. Facebook and Twitter still serve a purpose, but I’ve made a conscious effort not to use them as my main sources for news.
Step 3: Get in the habit of purposeful web browsing
Social media has dramatically transformed how the average person browses the web. Today if you are reading an article online, chances are that the way you got there was either through Facebook or Twitter.
Of course social media has helped expose people to all sorts of different articles from nontraditional outlets, but what’s been lost is the concept of purposeful browsing. By that I mean having real interests in a subject and actively searching for information on it. Instead, many people rely on the pages they’ve “liked” or “followed” to provide them with content. This creates a scenario where instead of visiting different news websites with purpose; you are depending on whatever floats up in your feed to engage you.
Personally, I have interests in a wide variety of subjects but because I’ve become so accustomed to scrolling through my Facebook feed during lunch breaks, many of those interests sink away into the background since they aren’t showing up on my daily feed. It may seem like the answer would be to simply just “like” and “follow” more pages, but because Facebook’s algorithm promotes popular updates from your network, many stories end up going unnoticed; especially those from outlets that don’t have an active social media presence.
Instead of letting Facebook dictate what articles you should read, be mindful of the topics you are really interested in and set time to immerse yourself in them throughout the week. For me, using Feedly and Medium have created the infrastructure that allows me to do so but of course you can find your own way. The point is to not let your unique interests get overshadowed by the content other people poor onto your newsfeed.
Throughout the year, most people probably spend an ungodly amount of time scanning their newsfeeds—time they won’t get back. The reality is that only you can force yourself to break out of the habit of mindless and wasteful social media scrolling. Find the time, or create a buffer or between you and your social newsfeeds so that you have space for your real interests to breathe.
Step 4: Balance your news sources, especially if you don’t agree with some of them
Since the 2016 US presidential election, the way people receive their political news has been under more scrutiny than it ever has before. Regardless of your political views, it became apparent that Facebook played a significant role in the formation of millions of peoples’ opinions. The concept of fake news, or being trapped in a conservative or liberal political bubble left many wondering how to diversify their news sources. It’s not as hard as it seems.
Politics might seem as ugly as it’s ever been, but it’s becoming more important to take in viewpoints different than yours. According to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal, America’s political divisions have become so pronounced that they’re extending beyond politics and into society and culture. It’s almost as if the country is being ripped apart into just two loud sides, and rarely do they ever meet to exchange ideas.
I won’t go as far an equate this to a coming civil war, but this isn’t a good trend and it’s something that could erode the country’s civics. When people that don’t think like you are reduced to being an antagonist, you dehumanize them into being something different and negate their human value. People that think differently than you might be the same ones that could save your life by pulling you out of a fiery car, protecting your children from a neighborhood criminal, or supporting your family in times of need through charitable acts. In each of those instances the last thing you’ll be concerned with is their political beliefs.
It’s important to realize that the viewpoints of others were born out of reasoning that played out in the circumstances of their personal lives. Obviously, not every viewpoint needs to be respected, especially if it contains naked racism, unfettered greed, or blatant lies. However, if you want to make your opinions stronger and more nuanced, the first thing you need to do is understand the other side.
For me, both Feedly and Medium have made this easier by giving me the ability to clearly select sources from different political angles. You can do this just as effectively on social media if you follow opposing political outlets. The other part of this though is actually reading them with an open mind, which admittedly isn’t easy.
I’ve done this over the past two or three years and it’s given me a much deeper perspective on national news. However, it should be noted that nothing beats meeting and talking with new people from different walks of life; but since not everyone has the ability to travel around the country like Mark Zuckerberg, broadening your political outlets on social media might the next best option.
Following these steps won’t just make you more productive, they will also make you more mindful of how social media can monopolize your free time and divert you away from things you care about. I don’t want to come across as someone complaining about modern technology, I am a millennial after all, but there is no denying that unchecked social media newsfeeds can be damaging. By reclaiming your newsfeed, you are making an effort to assert your interests over those chosen for you.
Breaking out of the social media newsfeed hole is something many productivity authors and blogs advocate for, but it doesn’t come easy. I’ve know for months that my Facebook feed was eating away at my time and not providing much value in return, but I couldn’t seem to escape it. I’ve always been a curious person though and if you’ve read this far, there’s no doubt that you are too, so allow that curiosity to thrive and find your own way reclaim your feed.
In the words of Dorothy Parker: The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.