Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

I was not born to follow

I’m a bit too fond of saying things like “following is broken” or “followers don’t count”. One of the things that attracted me to is that it doesn’t display a list of followers. What a great idea! Other platforms/networks, most prominently Twitter and Instagram, have publicly toyed with the idea of hiding the number of followers but have so far been wary of taking the plunge. The problem, I think, is that we who use the internet don’t like to think too clearly about what “following” means, and what we want from it.

On the face of it, following appears to be simple: you see or read something you think is interesting, informative or useful, so you add the author or creator to a list so that you’ll see what they come up with in future. That’s rarely how it works in practice. Very few platforms show you everything posted by the people you’re following. I’ve seen several writers on Medium complain that, though they have thousands of followers, the page views for their posts don’t reach into the hundreds. Twitter grudgingly reverted to offering people the option of seeing an “everything” timeline. Pinterest similarly has a “Following” tab which is supposed to show only pins from the people you follow, in reverse chronological order, but this is not the default view.

On the web proper, RSS is still widely available, though it has become a lot less visible in the 6 years since Google shut down its Reader. Most news sites offer a number of RSS feeds, and the most popular blogging platforms make it easy to set one up. RSS offers the possiblity of following a site or blog in a way that guarantees you’ll be notified of every post. No black-box algorithm is filtering what you’re allowed to see. But this has its own problems. It’s not unusual to see a lament about the huge unread count in somebody’s feed reader. People occasionally find that they have to “declare bankruptcy” and mark everything as read, so they can start from scratch.

The fact is that most of us don’t really want to follow people, sites or accounts: we do it for want of a more satisfactory alternative. It doesn’t follow that, just because one writer has posted something we find insightful or enlightening, we’re going to want to read everything she writes from now on. Even a Jason Kottke or a Dave Winer isn’t going to have a strong claim on our attention with every post.

As I’ve suggested before, the algorithmic approach to search introduced by Google more than 20 years ago is a kind of recommendation engine: it uses heuristic methods to decide which of many available options it should present to you for your attention. So far as we can tell, Facebook’s algorithms work in an analogous way on a much smaller, though still large, corpus. In this respect, Facebook and Google are broadly in the same business: turning up something worth your attention out of the vast, overwhelming mass of undifferentiated “content”. Just as we place an unreasonable amount of faith in Google’s ability to orient us in an unimaginably huge ocean of information, we “follow” in the hope, but not the expectation, that we’ll be led onto the right path through the maze.

When you think about it, it’s quite absurd that we have an already enormous and rapidly expanding repository of online writing (as well as pictures, audio, video etc) that we can navigate only by relying on heuristics and algorithms whose workings (and reliability) we can only guess at. I recently wrote about the need for a new kind of search, based on machine learning, neural networks and data. Until that comes to pass, we can’t know how well or how badly it will work. We can be sure, however, that if it’s a substantial improvement on what we have already, we’ll no longer have much desire or need for “following”.

As a thank-you for reading this far, here are The Byrds:

Posted by Art on 01-Dec-2019