On July 1, 2013, Google Reader went offline. Despite the app’s “loyal following,” according to the company, usage was declining and it was no longer suited to the “new kind of computing environment.” Gone was the web’s friendliest tool for browsing and reading RSS feeds, and since then other platforms have followed Google’s lead and withdrawn their support for RSS. In the process, we have begun to lose a helpful aid for flexing virtuous habits of mind—habits especially useful in times like this of peak divisiveness.
The capitalized letters stand for “Real Simple Syndication,” which may not really explain much; for our purposes, RSS feeds are public lists of recent content that many websites generate automatically. Rather than having to visit the websites one by one, or fire up their respective apps on a phone, a feed reader lets users choose which feeds they want to read and browse them all at once. What does the news look like when articles from Breitbart appear alongside clips from Democracy Now?
One can imagine the liabilities of this model for the “new kind of computing environment” Google would like to foster. Downloading a feed provides platforms with a lot less monetizable data about us than having users interact through websites or dedicated apps. The function that RSS feed readers served is now largely the purview of social media feeds—particularly that of Facebook, which has become many people’s primary news source. Rather than discovering news that might challenge our assumptions and those of the people we run with, we encounter the news that lots of our “friends” “like.” This produces, for some, a “filter bubble” of comforting familiarity, and for others, a torture chamber of obnoxious notions shared by the people with whom they happen to have relationships. For the platform companies, this environment produces lots and lots of personal, valuable data.
John Conley, S.J., wrote in these pages recently about the uptick of interest among professional philosophers in the intellectual virtue of curiosity. Perhaps this interest arises from an attention economy whose anxiety-instilling excess inclines many of us to protectionism. Father Conley summarized the trend thusly:
Responsible thinking cannot remain limited to the mastery of one discipline or to engagement with one narrow vector of human experience. An ardent curiosity about languages one does not speak, countries one has never visited and the new neighbors down the block is now a trait of the excellence in thinking that virtue-epistemologists have labored to sketch.
I’ve started using RSS again lately, especially late at night. I’m experimenting with various open-source readers (some of which are quite good). Late at night I find I have a taste for a particularly masochistic brew of publications whose perspectives I’ve been socialized to detest, alongside the kind of soothing “explainer” outlets that have become for me close to narcotic. The contrast between the two types, their headlines piled together in my reader as if they were from an especially schizophrenic media mogul, makes me question each all the more sharply, makes me want to learn and explore more. It provokes me into that good kind of curiosity.
Of course, with RSS the choice is yours. You can subscribe to only what you’ll likely agree with, or the opposite, or you can subscribe to feeds of gibberish scientific data if that’s what you’re into. It’s a simple, open, versatile format. (RIP Aaron Swartz, who while still a kid helped develop it.) But if you want to cultivate virtues like curiosity online, RSS feeds are a formidable tool.
For the Googles and Facebooks of the world, whose revenues derive from advertising, the flexibility, paucity and messiness of RSS isn’t a winning strategy. Advertisers want to be seen alongside content that makes users feel good. Google Reader couldn’t guarantee them that.
Is it possible to create a business model based on more virtuous, adventuresome news-reading?
Imagine, for instance, a new platform called The Chaff. (TheChaff.com is owned by a blogger on “a personal journey from consumerism to minimalism,” but everyone has their price; it hasn’t been updated since 2014.) The Chaff’s mission is to expose users to ideas that challenge them. While RSS feeds require us to actively search out our news sources, The Chaff automates the process; based on some data of user preferences—maybe through Facebook and Twitter integration—it curates a feed of news and option designed to both inform and provoke, drawing from news sources that users and their existing social networks would be unlikely to come across otherwise.
Who would subject themselves to this? Who would pay for it? Maybe there’s a segment of the advertising market that would be willing to reach such open-minded souls. Maybe enough of those souls would pay for the privilege of daily provocation. But the masochists already have Reddit for free. As the present shape of the online information economy indicates, the big money is not in cultivating virtues.