inessential by Brent Simmons

July 2019

NetNewsWire Status: Almost Beta

We’ve got just three things still to do before we hit 5.0b1:

One is a bug — when searching, a refresh or sync can end search mode.

Another is kind of a documentation thing: we need a set of sample AppleScript scripts. These will help people learn how to script the app — and it will also give us the chance to exercise the scripting support more thoroughly.

The third thing is to write the Help book and publish it on the web. Luckily I’m a pretty fast writer and I’ve written NetNewsWire Help books before. I’ll probably start with an older version and revise it for 5.0.

I think we can get to 5.0b1 some time in July — but, if we don’t, it’s because it’s summer and people are in and out due to vacations and ball games and cookouts and rock-and-roll shows. We’re super-eager to ship, but living life comes first. :)

No Algorithms Follow-Up

(This is a follow-up post to No Algorithms.)

Joshua Emmons made the point I was trying to make, but more explicitly:

Tweet 1:

Brent is making a subtle point here:
1. Algorithms weigh signal.
2. In the domain of engagement, outrage and anger mask all other signals.
3. These signals are fatiguing. As Outrage: 5 is normalized, Outrage: 10 is now required to move the needle.

Tweet 2:

1. and 2. mean it’s not the algorithm’s fault. There’s no way to write an engagement algorithm that doesn’t select for outrage and anger. But 3. means anything that incorporates such an algorithm actually makes us worse people.

This is key: it’s not the motivation — selling ads — that turns algorithms bad. (But, yes, selling ads makes a company pretty keen on these types of algorithms.)

This may not be true of music, movies, and other things, but when it comes to news, outrage and anger swamp everything else.

It’s also not an issue of UI. If there’s any way, implicit or explicit or both, of signaling engagement, it will tend toward rewarding outrage and anger. And this gets even worse, not better, if you add data from what your friends and peers like.

Trust

Maybe, though, I could do better. I kind of think not, because I think the problem is a bug in human nature. But let’s say I believed I could do better.

Should I?

For one thing: how much better does it have to be? I think an algorithm that radicalizes far fewer people than it might otherwise is not a good call. Better is still harmful.

So here’s the thing I keep coming back to: I think of NetNewsWire as almost a kind of ideal public utility. As such, it should be completely trustworthy — you should never wonder if it’s leading you down some path or other you didn’t intend or foresee.

There are plenty of other apps in the world — every app is part of an ecosystem — and this one doesn’t have to solve what I think may be an unsolvable problem. I’ll leave that to other people.

Instead, it should be one place for news that you can absolutely trust. Articles come in, and NetNewsWire sorts by time, and that’s it. That’s solid.

Old Bloggers and New

I like to read what people write about RSS readers.

One of the themes goes something like this: “I used to use an RSS reader, then I stopped, years ago. I decided to try it again — so I imported my old list of subscriptions. Over half the feeds were gone or no longer updating! Pour one out for RSS.”

Here’s the thing: blogging is like any other human activity — some people stop and other people start. It’s natural.

And: nobody ever said your favorite bloggers would continue forever. It’s okay to miss your old favorites! I miss mine.

But here are a few examples of current blogs that I like that you might like:

There are plenty more.

No Algorithms

I’ve been asked a few times about using algorithms in NetNewsWire to bring articles you wouldn’t otherwise have seen — from outside your feeds list — to your attention.

I’ve also been asked a similar question about using algorithms to bring articles — from inside your feeds list — to the top based on the likelihood that they’ll interest you.

I’m not going to do either.

Why

These kinds of algorithms optimize for engagement, and the quickest path to engagement is via the drugs outrage and anger — which require, and generate, bigger and bigger hits.

This is what Twitter and Facebook are about — but it’s not right for NetNewsWire. The app puts you in control. You choose the sites and blogs you want to read, and the app reliably shows you their articles sorted by time. That’s it.

My hypothesis: these algorithms — driven by the all-consuming need for engagement in order to sell ads — are part of what’s destroying western liberal democracy, and my app will not contribute to that.