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The Greatest Propaganda Machine in History

The biggest publishers on the earth are distorting the truth.

If you haven’t yet seen Sacha Baron Cohen’s remarks to the Anti-Defamation League’s summit on antisemitism and hate in New York – which has been covered extensively in the media – here’s your chance. Well worth watching the full thing.

There’s a couple of things that stood out to me: that Facebook, Youtube, Google et al are effectively the biggest publishers on earth, and that with that, and the way they police their platforms, they become the largest and most effective propaganda machines ever created. He singles out Facebook as being the worst offender – especially Zuckerburg’s assertion that they continue to allow politicians to serve targeted lies because accountability trumps censure.

The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged – stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth … As one headline put it, just think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook.

Sacha Baron Cohen

A few years ago a friend of mine, one of the most compassionate, fair and reasonable people that I know, shared a post on Facebook created by Britain First (a fascist pseudo political organisation) which in turn ended up on my feed. My friend had no idea who the author was and the post wasn’t actually offensive – it was cleverly designed to amass likes so that their other content would show higher on peoples feeds – but I was offended that my friend had been manipulated into sharing it. That was the day that I permanently closed my Facebook account.

Large social networks are certainly the worst thing to happen to the internet, and probably one of the worst things to happen to our societies.


RSS makes the web tolerable again

Back in the halcyon days of the early web the large internet portals, like Netscape, Yahoo and AOL, were starting to think about how their customers would access the ever-growing amount of content being produced on the internet. The answer they came up with was ‘syndication’. From the user perspective this was as simple as adding a BBC News or Wired widget on your homepage. If you are as old as me you might even remember doing it. Behind the scenes these content transactions were powered by a syndication protocol called RSS (which stands for ‘Really Simple Syndication’ or ‘Rich Site Summary’, depending on who you ask). Theoretically this was good for everyone: content providers were able to to reach people they would never have reached before, users had control over how and where they receive content, and the portals kept customers on their sites for longer by offering personalised experiences, like this:

For a while RSS was ubiquitous, but it faltered when the larger social networks became the main vehicle of syndicated content – and it didn’t help that it has never been particularly user-friendly. Most people now get their news from social media but recent years have shown that this can be problematic: social media platforms are not neutral content providers. They manipulate how, when and what content is delivered to end users for their own ends and you have to sift through all the ads, outrage and general horror of social media to get to the content you want to see.

It’s not all bad news. In fact there is very good news: RSS never actually went away. Most websites, whether they advertise it or not, still provide an RSS feed and you can use it right now to take control of how content is delivered to you.

Here’s a screenshot of my RSS aggregator this morning:

Readkit for macOS

I subscribe to nearly two hundred feeds. That sounds overwhelming but while some sites publish multiple times per day, some only put out a handful a year. I can scan through the headlines of all of these sites in a few minutes. It would be very difficult to keep track of that content without RSS.

I use RSS to keep track of:

  • Blogs
  • Twitter accounts & hashtags
  • Instagram accounts
  • Reddit subreddits
  • Newspapers

My feed reader can do clever stuff like filtering out certain key words or phrases. I can, for example, make Boing Boing tolerable by filtering out posts about Trump or those authored by Cory Doctorow. I can organise my feeds into folders – so if I want to avoid the news one day I can just skip that folder, or mark the whole thing read and pretend nothing happened that day. One of the biggest benefits for me is that I’m less likely to open my browser and get lost down the rabbit hole.

Getting started:

It’s easy to get started with RSS:

Step 1:

Sign up for an account with one of the many feed aggregators. Some of the more popular ones are:

All of these have mobile applications – some have desktop companions too. I use Readkit on OSX and Fiery Feeds on iOS. Many people like Reeder. There are options for other operating systems too and the web applications don’t care what OS you use.

Step 2:

Subscribe to some feeds. Most readers will automatically find the feed if you put in the address of the homepage. If you’re short of inspiration you could take a look at my blogroll.

Step 3:

Marvel at your technical wizardry, the amount of time you save and your new found freedom from algorithmic content delivery.


End of The Listserv

I opened my email today and found a message from The Listserve, announcing the end of the long running project.

The Listserv was an email based community with a simple premise. Each weekday a member of the community is randomly selected and asked to craft a message for distribution to all list members. This was known as ‘Winning the Lottery’ and was something that only a small proportion of members would experience. Some of the emails were sad, but an equal amount were optimistic; brimming with compassion, humour & joy. Each was a privilege to read and I will miss it.

I never did win the lottery though.

The first email is still my favourite.


The tools I use

One of my favourite features of Lifehacker is their ‘How I Work’ series of interviews, where they ask people to explain the tools and strategies they use to get shit done.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the software that I use and how I use it – definitely more time than is productive, and I find it hard to settle on a system without falling into the productivity porn trap – but nevertheless I’ve managed to put together a list of the software and services that seem to stick around on my devices. All of this stuff works really well, so I’ve got no good reason to spend any more hours looking for a better text editor.

Here it is:

Hardware / OS

  • Microsoft Surface 3 / Ubuntu
  • BlackBerry KeyOne
  • iPad Mini 4

Server Stack

  • Mailcow provides the family with email, calendars, tasks and contact sync across devices. It works brilliantly.
  • Nextcloud provides secure file synchronization between devices.
  • Gogs is a self hosted GIT server, similar to Github. I use it to keep track of bits of code, and even bits of prose.
  • A Mastodon instance provides my social media fix.

All of the above are hosted on Hetzner servers and cost less than a tenner a month to run.

Internet & Communication Tools

  • Browser: Firefox
  • Instant Messenger: Matrix
  • Email: Evolution (desktop) / Mail (iOS)
  • IRC: Hexchat
  • Text Editor: Sublime Text

Applications of Note

  • I use YNAB to manage my daily finances. Four years of use has transformed my understanding of my spending habits, even though I haven’t fully bought in to all of the principles.
  • NewsBlur helps me to keep up to date with the latest posts from sites that I’m interested in. RSS is most definitely, and defiantly, NOT dead.
  • I manage all of my passwords with Bitwarden.
  • Audible and Pocket Casts make my commutes tolerable.
  • Calibre makes managing my ebook collection a breeze.

That’s my list. What’s yours?


Delete Facebook

Facebook is a monster of our own creation. We carried on feeding it our deepest secrets until it became one of the most powerful and valuable companies in the world, headed by a guy that once called his users ‘dumb fucks’.

The latest revelations are shocking, but I doubt they will cause it any long term damage, people have short memories, most people just don’t care, and no one will leave until all the other people they know do too. Still, this is the first time that I can recall people seriously talking about the end of Facebook. Some have asked what should replace Facebook if it does fall, as if fleeing the platform would leave some gaping hole in our lives that must be filled or that a new platform would solve the problems of the old. The truth is that there is no hole, because Facebook solves a problem that doesn’t exist. The Internet worked just fine before it arrived, and it will work just fine when it dies.

If you really must have a platform, choose one that’s federated. Federated networks use open protocols to communicate with distributed nodes. Admittedly this sounds ridiculously complicated (and that’s also a barrier to adaption), but this network structure means that no single entity has control of all the data. Projects like Mastodon are doing great work in getting federated social networks to a state ready for wider use.

Facebook has promised that it will safeguard the information that it holds and that nothing like this will ever happen again, but none of their lip flapping solves the basic problem: their sole purpose is to maximise the profit that they can make from the information that we give it. The only way to fix Facebook is to tell them to do one. Start working on a blog. Dust off your email. Call a friend or send them a text. The world without Facebook really isn’t that bad.


Replacing Goodreads

Goodreads is a social book cataloging site. At its most basic level it allows users to maintain a virtual library of the books they read. Users can rate and review books & participate in discussion groups. It was founded in 2007 and has around fifty million users.

I’ve been using Goodreads over the past seven years to keep a record of the books that I read. Over the past year I have been trying to reduce my Internet footprint; closing my accounts on all of the major social networks and in general just trying to keep as much of my data under my control as possible. Goodreads has been selected as the latest one to be led to the guillotine. I thought about this one a lot; it’s pretty harmless, doesn’t suck up mountains of time and I’ve had the account for years. It was a bigger wrench than closing my Facebook or Twitter accounts.

I do value the data that I’ve given to Goodreads, and I want to carry on maintaining it once the account is closed. Jamie Todd Rubin has created some crazy clever python scripts to parse and present data from a list of books held in a markdown file. I exported my data from Goodreads, bodged it into markdown format and used my very limited python knowledge to adjust his scripts so that I can track progress towards my annual goal.

The scripts are available from Jamie’s github repository. Take a look.

Here’s some sample output:

Year                                                    Books Pages
2017 ###############################+#+########           42  19732
2016 #####@#@#@########@####+#@####@#######@@#####        45  20584
2015 ##################################                   34  14494
2014 ##########################################           42  18537
Total                                                    163  73347

Statistical Summary
===================

Reading goal for 2017: 50
Years: 4
Books: 163

- Paper (+): 3
- Ebook (#): 152
- Audio (@): 8

Avg books/year: 40
Avg pages/year: 18336
Avg pages/book: 449

So, one more social network scrubbed off my list, I managed to export my data, and I’ve got a nerdy way to keep it up to date going forward. I’ll chalk that one up as a win.