Scroll for yourself

Many of the apps we are enticed to use have a feature of scrolling down a feed. It's an almost mindless activity which due to the intermittent variable rewards principle is addictive in nature.

It is now a well known fact thanks to documentaries like the social dilemma on netflix that these feeds are engineered to captivate you attention.

There is a phrase that I like “If you are not paying for it then you are the product” which applies to these free services we use every day. Facebook’s consumers are not the people who scroll down their news feeds for hours at a time, the consumers are the advertisers who pay facebook to promote their posts and place the adverts. What those consumers are paying for is the attention of the mindless scrollers (myself included).

I turn to mindless scrolling when my mind is particularly weak, when I’m too tired to do anything useful. When it isn’t the right time of the day to just have another coffee so as to do something I enjoy. When my tired mind is searching for scraps of dopamine while its circadian rhythm prevents it from actually falling asleep. A hangover being the exact sort of state whereby scrolling is inevitable.

Recently I questioned myself, why allow myself to be captivated by systems with incentives so misaligned with my own, when I am cognitively at my very weakest. When I am perhaps most suggestive to badly formed ideas and junk information which isn’t worth my knowing.

The moments of mental weakness are not going away and as much as I can try to improve my consumption to be more healthy the 3pm slump is unavoidable and real.

Why not take control of those moments?

I am a great believer in a growth mindset, that the belief that you can achieve better will lead you to making better decisions to that end. As often stumped by my dyslexia as I am, it leads me to find solutions around my own weaknesses. Although I don’t believe any wall can be scaled with a growth mindset alone it is often the case that you can end up somewhere close.

So although I can’t remove the mentally weak moments, and it seems I can’t in those moments exercise the strength to not scroll endlessly through my YouTube feed, perhaps I can compete. Perhaps I can make a feed more compelling (To myself at least) than any of those which I am often caught in the grasp of.

These exist a lot of RSS readers out there, they allow you to assimilate all the sources you want into a single feed. There was one recently highlighted on hacker news, Findka, which even uses a very clear algorithm to prioritise particular sources over others to give you a sort of ordering.

I think this ordering is very important as there are far too many sources and items from those sources to simply put them in a list. The list wouldn’t be compelling enough to beat the algorithms of YouTube, Instagram and Facebook might serve up.

What I want is something like Findka in that there is an effective algorithm to order the elements. Moreover I want to control that algorithm. I want to be able to dig into the statistics that it is using and see what it is filtering out and why.

I want to be able to observe my echo chamber, and understand what in my algorithm is causing it.

I decided to have a go at building such a system. I haven't go very far yet but the following is my plan.

  • I have a display server, for this I plan to run a simple flask server.
  • I have a database where the entries of articles etc. are stored.
  • I have a gathering process which periodically scans the web and categories the information it gathers.

For the ordering algorithm I want to use something which gives weight not just to the source but also to, if the content is an article the n-grams within the article. I hope that in this way it will be able to correlate phrases I am interested in and serve me more articles with those topics.

Extended idea

The idea of controlling my own feed gave me the further idea that given I have control of the feed I could use these mentally weak times for more than just mindless consumption of content, albeit more relevant content than I would otherwise get.

I could use it to enter into the computer information that it could be useful to keep track of. I could embed in the feed the odd survey question of myself which I could then try to correlate with other aspects. For example the question “How productive do you feel you have been today?”. Given that I would be on the feed it might perhaps be a leading question but there could be interesting insight to be had.

I could also embed other elements like small Chinese language questions. Although I do dabble in learning Mandarin I am anything but consistent in opening Duolingo and it might be interesting to embed the odd question in the feed. I wonder if there are other topics which could be passively learnt in this way and how effective that learning technique might be.

It would certainly be a better use of my time than scrolling down a Facebook feed when my mind is too tired to even read a news article.


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