On Feeds

Tuesday February 1, 2022 — Taipei, Taiwan

I’ve been thinking about feeds, recently. They’ve become ubiquitous in the past few decades, essentially seen as the default and “natural” way that the internet is organized, despite being, in actuality, incredibly strange and at odds with the way most people’s brains process information.

The traditional Feed is simply an aggregation of items from multiple different channels, sorted chronologically. Typically, you follow some set of users, and then those user’s posts get aggregated into your feed.

This comes with a few obvious drawbacks, all generally relating to decontextualization — a Feed is fundamentally a tool for decontextualization,Or recontextualization, but that’s rare to see. removing posts from their original context, and dropping them into a discordant river of Content.Perhaps it’s strange, though, to even think of posts as having an “original context,” these days. While blog posts in a RSS reader have a clear home that they’ve been plucked from, do tweets, for instance? I think that they still do, for the moment — the profile page is the natural context for posts on social media. Instagram grids are one example, and “LRT,” still occasionally seen in the wild on Twitter, is another. The Feed, though, has been slowly eroding the idea that posts can or should have context.

This decontextualization means that it’s frequent to see individual posts without the context their author intended them to have — either because something was retweeted/etc, or simply because that context was drowned out by the din of other posts. This drowning out is another classic problem with the Feed — you might like nearly everything someone posts, but still not want to follow them, because if you do, you’ll end up missing things from quieter friends.

As a response to these problems, which hamper User Engagement, the traditional Feed has slowly started to be displaced by the Algorithmic Feed. This was pioneered by Facebook in 2011, but it took being refined and sharpened by TikTok to become so clearly The Future.

This solves the problem of good posts being downed out by turning up the decontextualization dial as far as it needs to go.

That tradeoff is has proven to be excellent for for User Engagement, having made TikTok around $58 billion USD in revenue last year, but I think it’s bad for the world, bad for people’s brains, and bad for art. I’m not the only one who thinks this — it’s common to see people these days wishing for the good old days of the chronological Feed. It’s worth remembering, though, that the chronological Feed had serious problems of its own — just because those problems are obvious and scrutable, doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

So what do we do?

The solution that I’ve seen that is the simplest drop-in replacement for a feed is a “recently updated” list. Instead of a list of posts, have a list of users who have posted recently. This neatly solves both the problem of prolific posters drowning out quiet ones and the problem of decontextualization, while being simple and easy to understand.

There are many more novel approaches as well, which I hope to play with an explore in the future, but for now, I’ll leave it at this. Feeds are not the default. They are something we built, and they have largely been a mistake. We can replace them with better forms.