Rejecting the algorithm

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I often see eating used as a metaphor for reading. We “consume” content and “digest” what we learned.

I like the analogy. Just as eating feeds the body, reading feeds the mind.

Bad media (divisive news media, trashy content, etc) is like junk food. It’s probably ok in moderation but it’s addictive. We reach for it to cope with the stresses of life and we can’t stop scrolling. Over time, the costs accumulate but instead of bloating our bodies, it poisons our minds.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The internet provides an “all-you-can-eat” buffet and what we eat is up to us. If we are selective, we can assemble a diverse, healthy, and nutritious diet. But it’s not easy—the paradox of choice is real. It’s no wonder that we end up on social media, where we can outsource the decision-making to the algorithm.

All algorithms are optimized for something and in the case of social media, that something is engagement. The result is an addictive combination of clickbait headlines, natural disasters, anger, division and negativity. It’s no wonder that the rising generation is battling a mental health epidemic.

So what do we do? We reject the algorithm and curate manually, and we do it with an RSS feed reader.

Why RSS / feed readers

“Life is the sum total of what we pay attention to. Who is in control of that attention, and how we can wrest it back, is a central question of our age.”

—Ezra Klein (source)

We’re living at a time where many people are reconsidering their social media usage and I am convinced that embracing RSS is a better decision than trying a new social network (like Threads / Bluesky) or a federated social network like Mastodon. Here are some of my reasons why:

  • RSS has no algorithm. You subscribe to the authors you like and you read only what they write. Moving from one algorithmic social media site to another improves nothing because it fails to address the root of the problem (that there’s somebody else deciding what you read and their incentives aren’t aligned with yours).
  • RSS has no agenda. It’s decentralized so there’s no single company trying to lock you in, create brand loyalty, or push an ideological viewpoint.
  • RSS encourages long-form reading. While RSS can deliver tweet-sized content, I find that most feeds contain longer posts. Maybe it’s because RSS traces its roots back to blogging. Regardless, reading from my feed reader is more like having a meal than constantly snacking and I think that’s a good thing.
  • RSS has minimal advertising and tracking. Authors can’t embed JavaScript in their RSS feeds, which means they can’t embed trackers, heavy analytics tools, or 3rd-party ads. It’s a much better user experience and you feel less icky after reading.
  • RSS is slower than social media. There’s no back-and-forth commenting, no dunking, and no status games based on follower counts. It doesn’t support push-notifications so it’s not ideal for breaking news (a good thing!). It’s not trying to get your attention—it’s just there when you’re ready for it.

The main challenge with RSS is the effort it takes to find and curate your feeds. But honestly, I think this effort is a good thing. It forces you to ask, “who do I want to be around? Who are my people?” If you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, then why would you want to leave it to chance?

In a recent podcast episode titled “Is there a sane way to use the internet?,” PJ Vogt said, “‘How you think’ will be shaped by the platforms you use, even when you’re not using them.”

We can choose to soak our minds in the brine of popular culture, allowing our thoughts to be consumed by social media drama, clickbait news, and advertising. Or we can take control of our environments and design them to serve us.

This post is part of a series about online media and RSS: