It’s time to take back control of what we read on the interne
The social-media web is built on a lie. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter enticed countless users to join with the promise that they could see everything their friends or favorite celebrities posted in one convenient location.
Over time, though, the sites were carefully calibrated to filter what users saw—regardless of their stated preferences—in order to manipulate their attention and keep them on the platform. Algorithmic timelines quietly replaced chronological ones, until our social-media feeds no longer took direction from us, but rather directed us where they wanted us to go.
Lately, this deception has become more transparent. Last month, Elon Musk reportedly had his engineers alter Twitter’s algorithm so that it fed his own tweets to the platform’s users, whether they followed him or not. (Musk denies having done so.) This might seem to say more about Musk’s vanity than about social media in its entirety. But in his typically crass way, Musk was just making obvious what was always the case for his industry. Meta did the same when it launched Meta Verified, a subscription service that promised it would provide paying users with “increased visibility and reach.”
These developments underscore a stark reality: As long as we rely on social-media sites to curate what we read, we allow them to control what we read, and their interests are not our interests. Fortunately, there already exists a long-standing alternative that provides users with what social media does not deliver: RSS.
Introducing a quarter-century-old technology as if it were novel might seem a little strange. But despite the syndication format’s cult following, most internet users have never heard of it. That’s unfortunate, because RSS provides everyday internet users with an easy way to organize all of their online-content consumption—news media, blogs, YouTube channels, even search results for favorite terms—in one place, curated by the user, not an algorithm. The answer to our relatively recent social-media woes has been sitting there all along.
But though RSS is remarkably useful, it can be daunting to the uninitiated, and it lacks the slick marketing and cultural footprint of the social-media giants. So I thought I’d offer a simple guide for anyone who wants to take back control of their online experience.
Get an RSS reader.
At its core, RSS is an underlying internet protocol that keeps track of the content published on a given website. To access this material, you need an RSS reader, which turns these feeds into a format you can peruse on your computer or phone. I have used Feedly for many years, and find it extremely easy to manage: Just pop in a link to a website or social-media page, and the service will automatically grab its RSS feed, if there is one, and add its content. Non-paying users get up to 100 feeds, while paying users have no limits. Several other excellent RSS readers—such as Inoreader and NewsBlur—have similar arrangements. And my friends with Apple devices rave about NetNewsWire, which is completely free. These apps work in your browser and on your phone, so your reading is always synced and available wherever you are.
Fill your reader with subscriptions to things you like to read.
This is the fun part. Do you want The Atlantic’s latest stories? There’s a feed for that. Would you rather just follow a specific section? There are feeds for those too. Want to get more specialized? There are even unique feeds for every individual Atlantic writer (such as myself). Do you enjoy Substack newsletters, but are afraid that they will overload your inbox? Each of them has an RSS feed, so now you can offload their editions to your RSS reader instead and enjoy them alongside everything else you read. You can do the same with your favorite web comics, such as xkcd.
Many sites publicly link to their RSS feeds on their pages, but you don’t actually have to hunt for them. Just copy the URL of any page into your reader—e.g., “TheAtlantic.com”—and the reader you have chosen should be able to find any RSS feeds connected to it. What’s more, if a page doesn’t have a feed, many of today’s readers can build one for you. And if your RSS reader doesn’t have that functionality, you can use an app such as Fetch RSS, RSS.app, or FiveFilters (free but more technical) to create a custom feed yourself, and then just add it to your reader.
Subscribe to social-media feeds you don’t want to miss—and you’ll never miss them.
Unlike the algorithmic timelines of the social-media giants, RSS readers don’t suppress content based on what they think will and won’t arrest your attention. This means you will receive every single post of every single social feed you subscribe to, in whatever order it was posted, and you can scroll through and select whichever items you’d like to explore. For instance, each YouTube channel has its own feed, so with RSS, you can always find each video an artist posts. The same is true for Reddit pages, if there are subreddits you want to keep track of. And although it’s not as seamless, building feeds for Instagram and TikTok accounts is easy as well. Twitter and Facebook don’t always play nice with RSS, but many of today’s readers can grab content from them too.
Get fancy and follow things you can’t on social media.
Many years back, as part of my day job covering the Middle East, I met an aspiring right-wing politician and thought he might be going places. So I set up an RSS feed for all YouTube-video search results that included his name, which enabled me to follow his rise. This meant I was ready when, in 2021, Naftali Bennett briefly dethroned Benjamin Netanyahu and became the prime minister of Israel. But search-result feeds like these can be useful for everyone, not just political junkies. For example, I have one for every YouTube appearance of The High Kings, my favorite Irish folk band, which means that my RSS reader catches every live performance of theirs that gets uploaded, including new songs before they’re recorded in studio.
Services such as RSS.app can take any YouTube search query and turn it into a personalized feed for your reader. Google’s own Google Alerts can do the same for any internet search term. One trick I recommend: Put any multi-word search term in quotation marks (as in, “vegan birthday cake”), which restricts the search results to exact mentions of that phrase; otherwise, you’ll get results in your feed that only partially match your query.
The internet has introduced many problems into our ever more chaotic digital lives, but in the case of RSS, it has also provided a solution. The question is whether enough users are willing to implement it.
In 2013, Google shut down its celebrated RSS client, Google Reader, citing a decline in RSS usage. Today, millions of people still use RSS readers, but many times more use social-media sites and don’t even know that RSS exists. This imbalance means that media outlets and other content providers have greater incentive to invest in social-media infrastructure rather than RSS support, leading some to drop the latter entirely. But though the internet’s creative output deserves our attention, social-media companies do not. When the primary way we read online is filtered through the algorithms of capricious corporations that can change what we see on a whim, both writers and readers suffer. RSS is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Twitter source code partially leaked online, court filing says – Al Jazeera English
GitHub removed code shared without permission after request by social media giant, court filing says.
Twitter’s source code has partially leaked online, according to a legal filing by the social media giant.
Twitter asked GitHub, an online software development platform, to remove the code after it was posted online without permission earlier this month, the legal document filed in the US state of California showed on Sunday.
GitHub complied with Twitter’s request to remove the code after the social media company on March 24 issued a subpoena to identify a user known as “FreeSpeechEnthusiast”, according to the filing with the US District Court of the Northern District of California. San Francisco-based Twitter noted in the filing that the postings infringe on the platform’s intellectual property rights.
The filing was first reported by The New York Times.
The leak of the code is the latest hiccup at the social media giant since its purchase by Elon Musk, whose tenure has been marked by mass layoffs, outages, sweeping changes to content moderation and heated debate about the proper balance between free speech and online safety.
Musk, who bought Twitter for $44bn last October, said recently that Twitter would open the source code used to recommend tweets on March 31. Musk, who also runs Tesla and several other companies, said the platform’s algorithm was overly complex and predicted people would find “many silly things” once the code was made public. It is not clear if the leaked source relates to the code used to recommend tweets.
“Providing code transparency will be incredibly embarrassing at first, but it should lead to rapid improvement in recommendation quality,” he wrote on Twitter. “Most importantly, we hope to earn your trust.”
Utah is first US state to limit teen social media access
Utah has become the first US state to require social media firms get parental consent for children to use their apps and verify users are at least 18.
The governor said he signed the two sweeping measures to protect young people in the state.
The bills will give parents full access to their children’s online accounts, including posts and private messages.
Under the measures enacted on Thursday, a parent or guardian’s explicit consent will be needed before children can create accounts on apps such Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.
The bills also impose a social media curfew that blocks children’s access between 22:30 and 06:30, unless adjusted by their parents.
Under the legislation, social media companies will no longer be able to collect a child’s data or be targeted for advertising.
The two bills – which are also designed to make it easier to take legal action against social media companies – will take effect on March 1, 2024.
Governor Spencer Cox, a Republican, wrote on Twitter: “We’re no longer willing to let social media companies continue to harm the mental health of our youth.
“As leaders, and parents, we have a responsibility to protect our young people.”
Children’s advocacy group Commons Sense Media welcomed the governor’s move to curtail some of social media’s most addictive features, calling it a “huge victory for kids and families in Utah”.
“It adds momentum for other states to hold social media companies accountable to ensure kids across the country are protected online,” said Jim Steyer, Common Sense Media’s founder and CEO.
Similar regulations are being considered in four other Republican-led states – Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Louisiana – and Democratic-led New Jersey.
But Common Sense Media and other advocacy groups warned some parts of the new legislation could put children at risk.
Ari Z Cohn, a free speech lawyer for TechFreedom, said the bill posed “significant free speech problems”.
“There are so many children who might be in abusive households,” he told the BBC, “who might be LGBT, who could be cut-off from social media entirely.”
In response, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it has robust tools to keep children safe.
A spokesperson told the BBC: “We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including tools that let parents and teens work together to limit the amount of time teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences.”
There has been other US bipartisan support for social media legislation aimed at protecting children.
President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address in February called for laws banning tech companies from collecting data on children.
Last year, California state lawmakers passed their own child data law. Among other measures, the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act requires digital platforms to make the highest privacy features for under-18 users a default setting.
The passage of the Utah bills coincides with a bruising congressional hearing for TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.
The digital media rollup dream is dead for the moment — now it’s all about core brand strength
When a marriage or an engagement fails, it’s common for the participants to take time to work on themselves.
That’s where the digital media industry finds itself today.
After years of focusing on consolidating to better compete with Google and Facebook for digital advertising dollars, many of the most well-known digital media companies have abandoned consolidation efforts to concentrate on differentiation.
“What you’re finding is companies are trying to find a non-substitutable core,” said Jonathan Miller, the CEO of Integrated Media, which specializes in digital media investments. “The era of trying to put these companies together is over, and I don’t think it’s coming back.”
A 90% decline in BuzzFeed shares since the company went public in 2021, a failed sales process from Vice, the collapse of special purpose acquisition companies, and a choppy advertising market have made digital media executives rethink their companies’ futures. For the moment, executives have decided that more concentrated investment is better than attempts to gain scale.
“Right now, everyone’s trying to get through a tougher market by focusing on their strengths,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said in an interview with CNBC. “We’re in this period now where we should just focus on innovating for the future and building more efficient, stronger, better companies.”
What’s happening in the digital media space echoes trends from the biggest media companies, including Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery. After losing nearly half their market values, or more, in 2022, those companies have emphasized what makes them different, whether it be distribution, brand or quality of programming, after years of global expansion and mega-mergers. Disney CEO Bob Iger said the word “brand” more than 25 times at a Morgan Stanley media conference this month.
“I think brands matter,” Iger said. “The more choice people have, the more important brands become because of what they convey to consumers.”
Making strategic decisions based on consumer demand rather than investor pressure is a pivot for the industry, said Bryan Goldberg, CEO of Bustle Digital Group, which has acquired and developed a number of brands and sites aimed at women, including Nylon, Scary Mommy, Romper and Elite Daily.
“Too many of the mergers were driven by investor needs as opposed to consumer needs,” Goldberg said in an interview.
The rollup dream’s rise and fall
From late 2018 to early 2022, the digital media industry had a shared goal. Pushed by venture capitalist and private equity investors who had made sizeable investments in the industry during the 2010s, companies such as BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox Media, Group Nine, and Bustle Digital Group, or BDG, were talking to each other, in various combinations, about merging to gain scale.
“If BuzzFeed and five of the other biggest companies were combined into a bigger digital media company, you would probably be able to get paid more money,” Peretti told The New York Times in November 2018, kicking off a multiyear effort to consolidate.
The rationale was twofold. First, digital media companies needed more scale to compete with Facebook and Google for digital advertising dollars. Adding sites and brands under one corporate umbrella would boost overall eyeballs for advertisers. Cost-cutting from M&A synergies was an added benefit for investors.
Second, longtime shareholders wanted to exit their investments. Large legacy media companies such as Disney and Comcast‘s NBCUniversal invested hundreds of millions in digital media in the early and mid-2010s. Disney invested more than $400 million in Vice. NBCUniversal put a similar amount into BuzzFeed. By the end of the decade, after seeing the value of those investments fall, legacy media companies made it clear to digital media executives that they weren’t interested in being acquirers.
With no strategic buyer available, merging with each other using publicly traded stock could give VC and PE shareholders a chance to cash out of investments that were well past the standard hold time of seven years. Digital media companies eyed special purpose acquisition companies — also known as SPACs or blank-check companies — as a way to go public quickly. The popularity of SPACs picked up steam in 2020 and peaked in 2021.
Deal flow accelerated. Vox acquired New York Magazine in September 2019. About a week later, Vice announced it had acquired Refinery29, a digital media company focused on younger women. BuzzFeed bought news aggregator and blog HuffPost in 2020 and then acquired digital publisher Complex Networks in 2021 as part of a SPAC transaction to go public. Vox and Group Nine agreed to a merger later that year.
BuzzFeed, generally thought by industry executives at the time to have the strongest balance sheet with the best growth narrative, successfully went public via SPAC in December 2021. Shares immediately tanked, falling 24% in their first week of trading. The coming weeks and months were even worse. BuzzFeed opened at $10 per share. The stock currently trades at about $1 — a 90% loss of value.
BuzzFeed’s underwhelming performance coincided with the implosion of the SPAC market in early 2022 as interest rates rose. Other companies that planned to follow BuzzFeed shut down their efforts to go public completely. Vice tried and failed. Now it’s trying for the second time in two years to find a buyer. BDG and Vox, meanwhile, abandoned considerations to go public. Vox instead sold a 20% stake in itself in February to Penske Media, which owns Rolling Stone and Variety.
The industry turns inward
Consolidation was always a flawed strategy because digital media could never become big enough to compete with Facebook and Google, said Integrated Media’s Miller.
“You have to have sufficient amount of scale to matter, but that’s not a winning formula by itself,” Miller said.
Vice’s deal for Refinery29 is a prime example of a deal motivated by scale that lacked consumer rationale, said BDG’s Goldberg.
“The digital media rollup has proven successful only when assets are thoughtfully combined with an eye toward consumers,” Goldberg said. “In what world did Vice and Refinery29 make sense in combination?”
Vice is engaged in sale talks with a number of buyers that fall outside the digital media landscape, CNBC previously reported. It’s also considering selling itself in pieces if there’s more interest in parts of the company, such as its TV production assets and its ad agency, Virtue.
Vice is a cautionary tale of what happens to a digital media company when its brand loses luster, Miller said. Valued at $5.7 billion in 2017, Vice is now considering selling itself for around $500 million, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the sale discussions are private.
A Vice spokesperson declined to comment.
“In the old days of media, with TV networks, if you were down, you could revive yourself with a hit,” said Miller. “In the internet age, everything is so easily substitutable. If Vice goes down, the audience just moves on to something else.”
Companies such as BuzzFeed, Vox and BDG are now trying to find an enduring relevancy amid a myriad of information and entertainment options. BuzzFeed has chosen to lean in to artificial intelligence, touting new AI-generated quizzes and other content that fuses the work of staff writers with AI databases.
BDG has chosen to primarily target female audiences across lifestyle categories.
Vox has focused on journalism and information across a number of different verticals. That’s a strategy that hasn’t really changed even as the market has turned against digital media, allowing Vox CEO Jim Bankoff the opportunity to continue to hunt for deals. Just don’t expect the partners to be Vice, BDG or BuzzFeed.
“We want to be the leading modern media company with the strongest portfolio of brands that serve their audiences on modern platforms — websites, podcasts, streaming services — while building franchises through multiple revenue streams,” Bankoff said. “There’s no doubt M&A is part of our playbook, and we expect it will continue to be in the future.”
Finding an exit
While executives may be making strategy decisions with a sharper eye toward the consumer, the problem of finding an exit for investors remains. Differentiation may open up the pool of potential buyers beyond the media industry. BuzzFeed’s emphasis on artificial intelligence could attract interest from technology platforms, for instance.
It’s also possible that there will be an eventual second wave of peer-to-peer mergers. While Integrated Media’s Miller doesn’t expect a future industry rollup, BuzzFeed’s Peretti hasn’t closed the door on the concept if market conditions improve. As executives invest in fewer ideas and verticals, the end result could be healthier companies that are more attractive merger partners, he said.
“If everyone invests in what they’re best at, if you put them back together, you’d have that diversified digital media company with real scale,” Peretti said. “That helps drive commerce for all parts of a unified company. I think it’s still possible.”
Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.
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