I’m reflecting on my information strategy and how to improve it at the moment. Here’s the intro post to that, giving a bit of context.

In this particular post I’m going to chat specifically about discovery, AKA using the Intertubes to find out about interesting things. I can’t help but call my strategy for this my discostrat, apologies for that. I’ll talk a bit about how I’ve had it set up for a while, and some recent tweaks I’ve made to it, and maybe some ways I want to improve it more.

Photo by Vale Zmeykov on Unsplash

What’s in a discovery strategy?

I’m no expert, just brainstorming really, but I guess it breaks down into: the content of the information that I’m pulling in, the sources I get it from, and how I organise those sources logically (like how do I group it together somewhere I can read it).Β  Additionally, there are the more mechanical and physical concerns, so to speak – basically what tools do I use to do the pulling and the grouping of the info.

The content

So for discovery sources I’ve been using a mish-mash of Fediverse and IndieWeb for a while. I’ve definitely been finding out about plenty of interesting things from them both, but I think it’s fair to say it’s on a fairly niche set of topics.

Niche topics

Via the Fediverse I get a good dose of info and thoughts on free software, free culture, lefty political theorising, amongst other things. IndieWeb still feels fairly ‘inside baseball’, so to speak, in that the early adopters are predominantly web developers, so there’s lots of webdev and adjacent stuff. Which I like, but I do want more than that. It’s breaking out of that though for sure, and I probably also just need to widen the circle of people that I follow a bit.

General topics

One example of something I’ve been missing a little from both is insights into general current affairs. General as in, the kind of stuff that makes it onto the 6 o’clock news. I like to try and keep up on my local and global political happenings, but quite a lot of people don’t want that on the Fediverse (I think because it can become toxic quite quickly), so it’s usually content-warning’ed, and just seems less prevalent in general. From the IndieWeb, it might just be my follow list, but I also see very little politics on there. I find this is one spot where institutional feeds come in handy – usually medium-to-longform articles with a bit of editorial overview can be less despair-inducing than a barrage of microblogged hot takes thrown over a parapet. I do also occassionally pop over to the Guardian and the BBC to scan the headlines and see what the world is in a fuss about today.

Human stuff

This is purely anecdotal, but I feel that from people’s personal blogs I see a bit more posting about hobbies and individual passions. People on blogs feel slightly less performative than people on big social networks. That’s just a hunch though – maybe there’s a rich seam of that stuff elsewhere too and I just don’t tap into it. But anyway, I love people’s hobbies and the human stuff, so that’s really important. I don’t want a pallid world of professional thoughts and LinkedIn profiles.

For individual people’s thoughts on the less esoteric topics, or for more geographically local stuff, I seem more likely to find people who talk about that on Twitter. I guess just because it has got more critical mass right now. Like I’m more likely to find out about something cool happening in the local town at the weekend from someone on Twitter than elsewhere, right now.

So yeah, I guess the type of info I want is a combo of niche topics, non-mainstream and mainstream views on general current affairs, local happenings, and the minutiae of people’s lives. And that comes from a variety of sources.

Getting it and organising it

As Ton says:

I think of feed subscriptions as subscribing to people. I don’t follow your blog, but I follow and interact with you

I like this. And something I like about the IndieWeb reader approach is that its fairly platform-agnostic – I can pull in feeds (and therefore people) from all over the place, as long as the medium in question provides one or can be shoehorned into one by a bridge such as brid.gy. That said, not everything I subscribe to is the output of a single person.

Tool-wise, for Fediverse I’ve been tending to use the default Mastodon interface (i.e. multiple timelines, pings!, scrolly scrolly, infinite), and for IndieWeb and standard site feeds I’m using an indie reader setup (like an old school RSS reader; but more social and yet less haranguing than other social readers).

Sad to say that with Mastodon out-of-the-box, I found myself often ending up on the scroll treadmill. As a technology Mastodon has no vested interest in unstoppably grabbing your attention (noone’s profiting from it, at least), so I think it’s partly just a problem with the medium. A constant stream of short nuggets of info, some of which contain gold… it’s easy to spend too much time scrolling through. Partly too it’s a PEBKAC issue – I think I just get a bit compulsive about it sometimes.

Either way, I want an alternative to that.

In general, I find the indie reader style works better for my brain. Couple that with the fact that I can pull in feeds from various places and it’s a double win. Anywhere where a person posts their stuff is a valid home on the web if it works for them.

So I’m trying to transition to just using the indie reader. (Aaron’s post An IndieWeb reader: My new home on the internet is a good intro to indie readers.)

If you’re a Fediphile then there’s undoubtedly a Fediverse solution to these challenges too. I just happen to be a bit more indieweb oriented at the moment I think. I used Brutaldon for a while (‘a brutalist interface for Mastodon’) and it’s really good, worth giving it a go if you’re perusing the Fediverse via a browser. There’s no infinite scroll, no bleeps and bloops letting you know something has just happened that you really should look at, etc.

Worth noting too that if you just wanted to be discovering posts, you could achieve most of this in a normal RSS feed reader I’m sure. I’m using the social reader style of things so that I can interact with posts in the reader too, like you would do in Twitter or Mastodon for example. (Hmm, I think I want interaction within the reader to be part of my information strategy, though I’ll admit I haven’t given that that much thought, I just kind of accepted it as a net positive… to be revisited.)

Tweaking my discovery tools

I’ve done a few things to make my reader get me a bit more into the zone of ‘time well spent’.

The structure

First up is using a simple version of Ton’s way of organising feeds. (Please do read Ton’s posts on this, as he’s been thinking about his infostrat and refining it for a long time – I’m an infostrat toddler right now!)

Prior to doing so, I had my channels set up as ‘topics’ – for example an IndieWeb channel, a Tech channel, Environment, Politics, Fixing, etc. In those I would put all feeds related to the given topic – these could be feeds from people’s (indie)web sites, Mastodon profiles, RSS feeds of articles from big organisations, or Twitter feeds. Doing things this way I usually ended up with just a big load of unread counts, and the stuff from the people I care about just lost in the flood somewhere. Personally right now I want to get deeper knowledge about less things, rather than shallower knowledge about more things, and the firehose approach definitely pushes you towards the latter.

So I’ve changed it now to be more priority-based (Ton uses the term social distance), rather than topic-based. Certain people (or orgs) that I read or interact with a lot and don’t want to miss their postings, I put in a place where I will look first and most frequently.

I made two new channels. For reasons not yet entirely clear, even to myself, I’ve currently called them DiscoBall A and DiscoBall B. But naming things is hard, and disco balls are fun, so there we go. The channel known as DiscoBall A, is to hold a small number of people I know well (either from in person or online, for some loosely defined definition of ‘know’). The other channel, DiscoBall B, is people I know a bit more loosely but find what they post interesting and like to keep abreast of. For these two new A and B channels, I moved the relevant feeds out of my existing general ‘topic’ channels and into these new ones.

Everything else I’ve just left as it was for now. So the ‘topic’ channels still exist as they were before, I just don’t intend to feel compelled to check inside of them so frequently.Β  Aperture has a nice feature where you can, per channel, turn off ‘unread’ notifications, so I’ve turned them off for these extra channels. I’ll have a peep into them from time to time, but generally the idea is to just read the A and B channels and dip into the rest if time permits or I’m feeling lucky. In principle though I think I prefer to use that ‘extra time’ to read through one of the articles I’ve already discovered previously and saved somewhere for later, e.g. with Wallabag. I have a huge backlogs of those.

The mechanics

So as I said the feeds come from websites, Mastodon, and Twitter. I’m using Aperture as my Microsub server, combined with Together as a web client to read the feeds and Indigenous as a mobile client. These are ‘social readers’, in that I can also interact with the posts (like, reply, repost, etc) directly in my reader. Aperture does the heavy lifting of pulling in content, and leaves the display and interaction to the clients. (If you just wanted to view posts, you could achieve most of this in a normal RSS feed reader).

To subscribe to an IndieWeb feed is simple – just point Aperture to the person’s homepage and pick out their feed (whether its microformats or RSS or Atom). To get a Mastodon feed, you can either grab it as Microformats by plugging in the person’s URL from their home instance, e.g.

https://social.coop/@neil/

or using that same URL with .rss or .atom appended to the URL, e.g.

https://social.coop/@neil.atom

I’m using the Atom feeds at the moment, something seemed a bit funky about the Microformats feed, but I haven’t tested it thoroughly yet.

To get a Twitter feed is a bit more work, as they don’t provide feeds anymore like they used to. I use granary.io to get Twitter feeds (more info on that in a previous post). It would be possible to subscribe to each person individually and put them into the A and B channels that way – but that’s more taxing on granary and Aperture (both awesome and freely provided hosted services). So for my A and B lists I’ve created Twitter lists and put people into those lists there, then just add those two feeds to the channels via granary.

(As a side note, even though you don’t need to technically speaking, I think it’s probably good etiquette to ‘follow’ the person in the Fediverse or Twitter if you’re adding their feed to your reader. How people post might be affected by who is following them, so probably good to make it explicit.)

The cons

So – one downside so far with this set up, is I feel like I’m probably reenforcing my filter bubble somewhat, if I’m reading a smaller group of people that I know I already like the cut of their gibs. Dipping into the wider group from time might ameliorate that, or maybe I should throw in a couple of wildcards into each channel that challenge my views regularly? Not sure about that yet.

Summary

Using social readers organised by priority / social distance, I’m still discovering plenty of interesting things, but I’m not getting caught in infinite scrolling and doing less zombie mode. It’s helped with information overload. Still some ways to go but I’m feelin’ good discostrat vibes so far.

Photo by Rogier Schutte on Unsplash

The next thing to talk about is the reflection part of my infostrat. What do I do with this information once I’ve discovered it?

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