Nov 25, 2022

Information as a disaggregated buffet instead of firehose or a trough

Following information sources on the internet has long been compared to "drinking from a firehose", and trying to "keep up" with that is how I think people end up with hundreds of tabs in some kind of backlog, overflowing inboxes, feeds, podcast queues, and feeling overwhelmed in general.

Main problem for me with that (I think) was aggregation - I've used web-based feed reader in the past, aggregated feeds from slashdot/reddit/hn/lobsters (at different times), and followed "influencers" on twitter to get personally-curated feeds from there in one bundle - and none of it really worked well.

For example, even when following podcast feeds, you end up with a backlog (of things to listen to) that is hard to catch-up with - natually - but it also adds increasingly more tracking and balancing issues, as simply picking things in order will prioritize high-volume stuff, and sometimes you'll want to skip the queue and now track "exceptions", while "no-brainer" pick pulls increasingly-old and irrelevant items first.

Same thing tends to happen with any bundle of feeds that you try to "follow", which always ends up being overcrowded in my experience, and while you can "declare bankrupcy" resetting the follow-cursor to "now", skipping backlog, that doesn't solve fundamental issue with this "following" model - you'll just fall behind again, likely almost immediately - the approach itself is wrong/broken/misguided.

Obvious "fix" might be to curate feeds better so that you can catch-up, but if your interests are broad enough and changing, that's rarely an option, as sources tend to have their own "take it or leave it" flow rate, and narrowing scope to only a selection that you can fully follow is silly and unrepresentative for those interests, esp. if some of them are inconsistent or drown out others, even while being generally low-noise.

Easy workable approach, that seem to avoid all issues that I know of, and worked for me so far, goes something like this:

  • Bookmark all sources you find interesting individually.
  • When you want some podcast to listen-to, catch-up on news in some area, or just an interesting thing to read idly - remember it - as in "oh, would be nice to read/know-about/listen-to this right now".
  • Then pull-out a bookmark, and pick whatever is interesting and most relevant there, not necessarily latest or "next" item in any way.

This removes the mental burden of tracking and curating these sources, balancing high-traffic with more rarefied ones, re-weighting stuff according to your current interests, etc - and you don't loose on anything either!

I.e. with something relevant to my current interests I'll remember to go back to it for every update, but stuff that is getting noisy or falling off from that sphere, or just no longer entertaining or memorable, will naturally slip my mind more and more often, and eventually bookmark itself can be dropped as unused.

Things that I was kinda afraid-of with such model before - and what various RSS apps or twitter follows "help" to track:

  • I'll forget where/how to find important info sources.
  • Forget to return to them.
  • Miss out on some stuff there.
  • Work/overhead of re-checking for updates is significant.

None of these seem to be an issue in practice, as most interesting and relevant stuff will natually be the first thing that will pop-up in memory to check/grab/read, you always "miss out" on something when time is more limited than amount of interesting goodies (i.e. it's a problem of what to miss-out on, not whether you do or don't), and time spent checking couple bookmarks is a rounding error compared to processing the actual information (there's always a lot of new stuff, and for something you check obsessively, you'd know the rate well).

This kind of "disaggregated buffet" way of zero-effort "controlling" information intake is surprisingly simple, pretty much automatic (happens on its own), very liberating (no backlog anywhere), and can be easily applied to different content types:

  • Don't get podcast rss-tracking app, bookmark individual sites/feeds instead.

    I store RSS/Atom feed URLs under one bookmarks-dir in Waterfox, and when wanting for something to listen on a walk or while doing something monotonous, remember and pull out an URL via quickbar (bookmarks can be searched via * <query> there iirc, I just have completion/suggestions enabled for bookmarks only), run rss-get script on the link, pick specific items/ranges/links to download via its aria2c or yt-dlp (with its built-in SponsorBlock), play that.

  • Don't "follow" people/feeds/projects on twitter or fediverse/mastodon and then read through composite timeline, just bookmark all individual feeds (on whatever home instances, or via nitter) instead.

    This has a great added advantage of maintaining context in these platforms which are notoriously bad for that, i.e. you read through things as they're posted in order, not interleaved with all other stuff, or split over time.

    Also this doesn't require an account, running a fediverse instance, giving away your list of follows (aka social graph), or having your [current] interests being tracked anywhere (even if "only" for bamboozling you with ads on the subject to death).

    With many accounts to follow and during some temporary twitter/fediverse duplication, I've also found it useful (so far) to have a simple ff-cli script to "open N bookmarks matching /@", when really bored, and quickly catch-up on something random, yet interesting enough to end up being bookmarked.

  • Don't get locked into subscribing or following "news" media that is kinda shit.

    Simply not having that crap bundled with other things in same reader/timeline/stream/etc will quickly make brain filter-out and "forget" sources that become full of ads, <emotion>bait, political propaganda and various other garbage, and brain will do such filtering all in the background on its own, without wasting any time or conscious cycles.

    There's usually nothing of importance to miss with such sources really, as it's more like taking a read on the current weather, only occasionally interesting/useful, and only for current/recent stuff.

It's obviously not a guide to something "objectively best", and maybe only works well for me this way, but as I've kinda-explained it (poorly) in chats before, thought to write it down here too - hopefully somewhat more coherently - and maybe just link to later from somewhere.