A few years ago Johannes Kreidler commented on the previously unimaginable luxury of having easy access to a wide range of experimental works on the web:
So nowadays you can see it on the social networks or on on blogs and the every morning I am reading through the half of the internet, every morning I have my own Arts Festival…
—Johannes Kreidler, New Technology and the Music it Creates
He goes on to remark on how the widespread distribution of art through the internet has also made it more important for works to somehow lend themselves to documentation, referring to the philosopher Harry Lehmann’s notion that they need to be ‘virtugenic’ in the same way that a face might be photogenic. We can take also take note of how the camera, that primary tool of documentation, itself is increasingly tied to the ‘network’:
…we see cameras transitioning into what they were bound to become: networked lenses. Susan Sontag once said, “While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important.”
—Craig Mod, Goodbye, Cameras
Setting the question of what it is that can and can’t be documented aside for exploration in another blog post, I’d like to take a look at how the form of my own daily festival has been changing over the past few years. For a while a Facebook seemed the ideal venue for this daily arts roundup and indeed this was somehow how it functioned for me. It was (and still is) a fantastic way to keep up with friends and colleagues’ activities and make sure that one doesn’t miss their concerts/events. For quite some time however I’ve been finding myself increasingly disenchanted with Zuckerberg’s platform despite its polish and undeniable practicality. My unease and search for an exit strategy probably has mostly to do with the general creepiness of Facebook when it comes to privacy and the use of user data. (It’s the same reason I’ve begun to use Google in as limited a fashion as possible and no longer include Google Analytics on my site.) There are of course ways to deal with these ‘ad machines’ and still use them to one’s advantage, but they’re simply no longer places I like to hang out. What started with irritation over the fact that I now have to pay to promote posts1 should I want to reach more than a small percentage of the people following me as well as having more and more ads2 shoved in my face has tipped over and left me looking for alternatives – which there fortunately are.
Flipboard at first seemed to provide something of a solution. It got some of the ads out of the way and provided an alternative means of keeping up with what friends were up to without having to interact with Facebook directly. I preferred the interface and found that it was also a great way of keeping up with both general news and my Twitter feeds. The only downside was/is that due to its user interface the format is completely tied to mobile devices – there’s no possibility of a laptop/desktop version.
Ironically it was the flourish of discussion and activity that followed the demise of Google’s RSS subscription service Google Reader, that got me interested in pursuing RSS as a means of keeping track of the numerous websites and blogs I had begun to follow. (For those not familiar with what exactly RSS is, here’s a succinct explanation.)
RSS takes however a little more setting up than Flipboard. It requires both a subscription service to collect the feeds in question and an app to read them3. I started out with Feedly as a service (it was/is free) and ReadKit as RSS reader on my Mac along with Reeder on my iPhone and iPad. ReadKit has the further advantage of being able to display my Instapaper and Pinboard accounts, handily collecting all my links and reading material in one place.
It turned out however that there was some funny business with the way Feedly was handling links and so I decided to switch to Feedwrangler the beginning of 2014 as part of a general new year’s resolution to rather pay for services than make use of ‘free’ alternatives that almost always involve 3rd party use of of your data. Feedwrangler also has the added advantage of handling the increasing number of podcasts I’m listening to.
On the reader side I’ve since switched to Mr Reader (with the Another Reader theme) on my iPad and and the wonderful Unread on my iPhone. Unread is an example of the leaps and bounds being made with RSS reader apps and truly makes the stripped down RSS feeds a pleasure to read and interact with – it has quickly become my favourite and I’m looking forward to the iPad version.
An (independent) arts festival every morning. It’s working out pretty well.
The various feeds I subscribe to at this point in time can be found at feedshare which doubles as a nice discovery tool.
Otherwise when I feel the need to step out of the bubble of my selected interests I can always fire up Flipboard, browse the ‘browse’ section of Instapaper or check out the popular links on Pinboard. Or walk down the street.
RSS is of course not a social media network in the way that Facebook or Twitter are and the ‘arts festival’ path described above doesn’t involve the direct back and forth of likes, comments and status updates. But then that’s also what makes it attractive – as Jared Sinclair points out in his introduction to Unread:
I made Unread because I wanted to get back to a more deliberate style of reading. I designed it for times of quiet focus. With warm typography and a sparse interface, it invites me to return to the way I used to read before I fell into the bad habit of skimming and forgetting…
Perhaps what is needed is not so much a better Facebook – there are after all (ad free) freemium alternatives such as App.net that cover similar ground and more – but simply channels for people to share their thoughts and creations. And it turns out those channels already exist. Comments and responses can find their way back to the author via email or twitter. Or further blog posts or articles, perhaps linked via webmentions or similar indie web technologies. The web can function perfectly well in an open and re-decentralized form and independent arts can enjoy independent distribution.
So while I might have to make a little more effort to make sure that I don’t miss your next concert/event, and keeping in mind that this need not only apply to the written word, I’ll give the last word to Jared:
It’s the best way for thoughtful, independent writers to be read widely and carefully… Let Twitter or App.net be the place for loud, busy feeds. Let RSS be the place where great independent writing thrives.
Johannes Kreidler has written a blog post singing the praises of RSS and will be publishing an article in the next edition of Positionen on the tools he uses to collect and read feeds. Johannes uses The Old Reader who happen to have recently published a fine blog post4 summing up all that’s great about RSS:
There are millions of feeds out there, continually connecting users to their favorite content. Just about everything online except Facebook and Twitter is available via RSS.
Apple uses it to syndicate computer updates. Your podcast subscriptions rely on RSS. Every Wordpress blog is RSS enabled and every major news site is broadcasting via RSS. They’re all syndicated. They all have an RSS feed. It’s the background hum of the Internet.
They also point out that RSS isn’t tied to any particular platform, provider or app:
What makes RSS truly powerful is that users still have the control. The beauty of the system is it that no one can force you to be tracked and no one can force you to watch ads. There are no security issues I am aware of and no one ever has to know what feeds you subscribe to. This may be the last area of the Internet that you can still say things like this.
- March 30, 2014 ↩
It is of course possible to filter out Facebook ads (and other parts one isn’t interested in) with a custom CSS style sheet in one’s browser, but that doesn’t solve the privacy issues. ↩
There are quite a few RSS reader apps that can do the collecting for you as well, if you’re content to give up syncing and only interact with your feeds on a single device. (RSS is no longer a built in feature of the major browsers but there are extensions available for adding this functionality.)
Alternatively you can go with a subscription service alone and use their web interface to read your feeds (across multiple devices).
I have however found the combination of a subscription service and dedicated reader app(s) to clearly be the best solution – one in which the beauty, simplicity and effectiveness of RSS truly shines. ↩
If you have any comments, questions, or responses, you can find me on Twitter – or send me an email.