Our Facebook newsfeeds can be better than RSS readers ever were

Like many others, I used to get up in the morning and check my RSS feeds. It didn’t matter where these feeds were. I always had them on call.

Now I get up in the morning and check my Facebook. And there we are: the daily dose of politics, courtesy of NYT, Al-Jazeera, the Daily Mirror, Colombo Telegraph. The best of Techcrunch and Wired. A dose of the Anti-Media. A few scattered longform blogs and a smattering of what a very limited circle of my friends are up to.

There you go. News.

I’m not alone. Ever since Facebook added the Follow mechanic, the screen I see when I log on has been changing from random noise and those horribly shareable Aunty Acid pictures to a highly curated news website, customized and served up for my consumption.

Why it works so well, and why we like it more than ye average news site, is because of a curious psychological effect. I follow certain individuals who have three things in common:

a) They constantly seek new information
b) Because we’re friends, they tend to share more tastes or personality traits with me than the rest of my online associations
c) Each of them has a dedicated interest in one or more subjects than I care about

Anything shared by these people is inherently given a significantly higher weightage in my mind. Their untold endorsement (that this content is worth reading), in my mind, is practically a trusted judgement.

And again, because we share certain tastes and traits, I often find that I do like what they push out onto Facebook. This in turn reinforces my acceptance of their endorsement. Now I’m even more likely to click on what they share. It’s a feedback cycle that builds my mental image of these people as a fantastic source of news. Add to these a couple of follows to the brands you absolutely know and trust — like Wired — and you’re good to go.

This is why I’m really skeptical of news aggregation sites. Facebook’s personalized selection is doing such a good job of aggregating news – especially spreading memes – that plain old websites have it really tough these days.

Mind you, Facebook’s echo valley effect is a constant threat. This is groupthink, and groupthink is dangerous. To counter this I follow people who have drastically different views on the same subject. My mainstream Western Media is balanced with the Anti-Media. My Google Loon and death penalty discussions have hugely vocal for-and-against splits.

It isn’t a completely balanced system. This is because of b) — the similarities in taste and personality that make this interaction possible inevitably lead to, or arise from viewpoints that overlap; therefore, there’s always the danger of finding that all of your friends agree on this one thing (the New Zealand All Blacks, for example).

Nevertheless, Facebook is saving me massive amounts of time and effort.  Try it for yourself.   Follow some brands you like. Unfollow those idiots who reshare soppy love posts, Paulo Coelho quotes – generally avoid anyone who does not force you to learn something new with every other status. Follow a couple of good news brands.

Done right, you don’t have to visit a hundred sites; you don’t even have to visit one local news site every day —  if something serious has happened a whole lot of people will share it. We have a system, and it works.

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