The Care and Feeding of Feeds

Three new apps make for healthier scrolling.

January 1, 2023 • 6 min read

If you could manifest your ideal social and media consumption diet, what would it look like?

Maybe it would be deep, meaningful, and personally impactful. Maybe it would be a healthy mix of informative, educational, and fun content. Maybe it would just be cute dogs. A veritable herd of pups.

The trouble is, no matter how clear our vision for our future selves, we are later foiled by that age-old nemesis: our current selves. Yeah, I’m talking about you, current self. I’ve seen what you scroll thoughtlessly, wasting time on total nonsense whenever you’re even slightly bored.

Four paragraphs into this article, some cranny of your animal brain is already feeling:

Hm. This is a lot of words. If I closed this, I could instead be watching video clips. Maybe one where it looks like something might go wrong. Ooh, or I could check for the latest micro-development in a story that won’t matter in a month. Or see a charismatic person doing something unexpected! Or maybe get agitated about people being wrong on the internet…

Your thumb twitches. Maybe you send the article to your read-it-later service – and never come back to it.

So yeah. There’s a gap between how we wish we spent our screen time, and how we actually do. This is nothing new. We’ve all developed some go-to strategies for cracking down on it. You know, stuff like:

  • Unfollow anything that doesn’t spark joy
  • Mute with abandon
  • Prioritize sources that are thoughtful and wholesome
  • Try to spend more time with feeds you curate yourself, and less time with algorithmic ones
  • Use Screen Time to try and halt thoughtless scrolling
  • Intentionally spend time with longer-form content
  • Unfollow and mute more, just like go ham on it, really get in there

And that’s all great. But in recent months Twitter has gotten… worse. The pain has been more acute. Thankfully, recent times have also given rise to some promising new ways to level up your feed diet. So! Here are three new things that might bring you more joy and less anguished scrolling.

1. One Sec, breaking old habits

The wonderfully crafted One Sec app helps throttle your less-wanted apps in a brilliant way. It simply has you take a moment to breathe, and consider whether you really do want to launch that app. You know, Twitter, which you’ve said you’re off of, but keep compulsively checking. Or the news, with its questionable ratio of learning to anguish. Or TikTok, which is… TikTok.

By default, One Sec gives you a very brief breathing exercise, and lets you decide if you still want to open the app. This has worked wonders for how much time I spend on my phone, and how I spend it.

Even better, One Sec is highly customizable with different “interventions”, complete app blocking, the ability to suggest more intentional apps or activities, and so on. It’s well worth the couple minutes it takes to set it up for your most problematic app.

2. Mastodon, getting critical mass

Mastodon has had a couple false starts, but as of January ’22, my Mastodon account now has a higher joy-to-anguish ratio than my Twitter feed, and I’m now mostly posting there. This might not yet be reproducible for everyone, but for my feed – mostly people who make software and games – it’s hit critical mass. As such, the hype for Tapbots’ upcoming Mastodon client, Ivory, is elephantine.

Beyond the fact Mastodon is a new network with a new energy, there’s something wonderful about starting fresh on who you follow. A classic social media problem is that you tend to keep following people you like, even if those people start posting stuff that you don’t like. This can be as simple as dull updates on their pool house construction, or as fraught as long rants about politics in the poster’s home country. Either way, we tend to just stay subscribed, and our feeds degrade.

This is a huge reason why the big social networks have moved hard towards algorithmic timelines. Of course, algorithmic timelines cause the opposite problem: a feed full of stuff you’re sucked into, even if it’s mind-numbing – or even actively bad.

Last week for example, Reddit sucked me in. It recommended I watch a 10 minute video of some asshat unsuccessfully trying to get out of an agricultural inspection by citing the constitution. It did not make my life better! But… an arrogant guy was wrong. And my dumbass then-self monkey brain wanted to see what would happen to him. I hoped to see some sweet sweet justice, which the video didn’t even show!

Afterward, I stewed – annoyed both at how I’d been spending my time and at how wrong this random guy was. Then I recalled One Sec. I added Reddit to its shitlist, and haven’t been back as much since.

3. Readwise and Matter, supercharging reading

As much heat as Google got for killing RSS with Google Reader, in many ways Twitter dealt RSS’ worst blow. Twitter one-upped the “show things you can read from people you follow” part of RSS, plus it has pets and dunks and wrong people and all that fun stuff.

As a secondary or tertiary feed, RSS readers tend to struggle for attention against links from social, read-it-later queues, books, newsletters, and so on.

Now though, as many folks crank down their Twitter usage – perhaps using a tool like One Sec – there’s been a rise in discussion of good old RSS. NeimanLab predicts that this is the year of the RSS reader. If my own RSS stats are any indication, RSS has indeed been on the rise in recent years. In 2023, though, I suspect that will step up meaningfully, with both the chaos at Twitter and the rise of two fascinating entrants in the RSS space: Readwise Reader, and Matter.

These apps do something that I’d previously thought was folly, but I’m now convinced is genius. They present RSS feeds, email newsletters, ebooks, saved read-it-later articles, Twitter threads, and more, all in one app that is meant to be your primary app for reading. They also offer thoughtful highlighting features, along with a bunch of affordances for refining your media diet.

I’ll describe just one detail I love from Readwise: I find I often start reading an article from RSS, but then get interrupted by life. If I later open Readwise on any device, it will offer a one-click resume to the place I’d been. 💗

I’ve been enjoying Readwise’s previous highlighting and annotation product for a while, so when I found out about the new public beta of their Reader app, I jumped right in. It definitely comes from a web-first origin, but so did Superhuman and Figma so I’m optimistic about their ability to iterate and polish up their app.

Matter, meanwhile, has taken a different evolutionary path, starting as a mobile read-it-later app that has been growing and morphing into a different but also interesting omnivorous reader experience.

It’s the dawn of a new era for this space, and I am stoked. When paired with One Sec, Readwise Reader has already done far more for my reading diet than willpower and Screen Time prompts ever could.

As humans, we’ll always be fighting headwinds to spend our time intentionally. There will always be new and more enticing ways to waste our time and attention.

And yet, having added One Sec, Mastodon, and Readwise Reader to my tool belt this winter, I’m feeling less exhausted and more excited about what I’m reading than I have in years. I’m really excited to see where these go.

Next in the Living Thoughtfully series: Humans Need Play →

Liked this? Follow along to see what's next.

© Allen Pike. 👋🏼 You can contact me, or check out Steamclock.