How do you discover content to read, on the Web?
Do you have a specific set of websites that you visit every day?
Do you have a single website that you visit every day and people there fill you in with links?
Do the pages that you read online mostly come from your friends?
Do they come from random strangers?
Or, is it a mix of friends and strangers?
If you like an author, what strategy do you follow to get updates from them?
Do you follow them on their Twitter/Facebook account?
Do you subscribe to their blog/website/column using a feed reader or an email subscription?
Web is the most powerful and the most useful when it is decentralized.
When people have their own websites, the Web is decentralized.
People who have their own website (self hosted blogs, maybe) have complete control over what they can do with it. They can express themselves in whatever manner they find appropriate. The presentation can be as unique as they can make it. Individuality, creativity, freedom, control - it's all theirs. They are limited only by their imagination (and technical constraints).
Nobody can censor you on your own website. (Except authoritarian Governments who seek to control citizens by limiting their freedom of expression).
But people can't keep visiting your website everyday. There must be some way for you to let your readers know when you publish a new post.
Email subscription offered by many websites and blogs is an easy way to send subscribers an update whenever you publish (or in a bunch). But email subscriptions go straight to the main inbox of most people and create clutter. This forces many people to unsubscribe them soon after they subscribe.
That's where web feeds come in. Web feeds, in ATOM or RSS standard, are small files served at a fixed location on your website. People can run feed aggregators (also called feed readers) to collect the feeds of various websites/blogs they like. These applications automatically checks the respective feeds for new content and if there's any they show up as unread. In fact, till Google Reader shut down web feeds were very popular (or is it vice versa?)
What happened to web feeds?
Well, the task that web feeds did was taken up by social media. Whereas with feeds you had to directly follow the content creator (or the publisher), with social media you just had to follow someone, anyone (mostly your friends) and if they followed a publisher (or their friend did, or a friend of their friend, and so on) and shared an article from the publisher, you would find it in your feed.
With web feeds you'd have been restricted to listening to a set of publishers you already were connected to. But on social media, what your friends discovered for you were a wide variety of websites and publishers.
But there was another side for this too. With more and more friends pouring more and more content on to your single feed, social media like Facebook started employing algorithms to prioritize certain posts and show them higher up in your feed than others.
That was a disastrous moment. All of a sudden people running these websites became immensely powerful. They could promote or demote anything in the feed that millions of people rely on every day. If they wanted a website to suffer or an idea to be not heard, all they had to do was let their computers know.
Censorship. Arbitrary community standards. Seizing Control.
Publishers now have to pay to reach their own readers. Even then their content could be taken off people's feeds any moment. And readers would never know, because they are not used to seeing all the content from a publisher. They are put in filter bubbles. Who wins?
A person is what they read.And by letting someone else decide what we read, we're giving them immense power over us. When an entire society does that, it is inviting catastrophies.
For example, Facebook has such power and influence over people that recently in Kerala, a campaign against Facebook was running in (any guesses?) Facebook itself! And it doesn't end there. They were even paying Facebook to boost posts and get more visibility.
Imagine what can happen if Facebook decides to support a political party in the next general election? What if they're already doing this and you don't know? And the same Facebook is greedily trying to control more of what people can access or see.
If there's anyone killing our bloggers by denying them a chance to build a permanent readership and by promoting conformation, clickbait, and virality over quality and substance, it is social media, especially Facebook.
Still, all is not lost. Social media are but feed readers with social capability. It's not something we can't have parallels to.
Web feeds still exist. Blogging platforms too. I've already written about alternative communication platforms.
And we can start building our plan B right now.
Choose a feed aggregator for your operating system. I use Akregator. You might like Thunderbird (used as a feed reader), RSSOwl, Tiny Tiny RSS, or Liferea. There are many more feed readers (they're also called RSS readers because RSS is one of the most popular format for web feeds. Another format is ATOM. Most feed readers support either formats). Download and install it.
When you land on a blog/website you find interesting, look for the feed to subscribe to. If you have difficulty in finding the feed, you can use this nifty firefox feature that adds a "subscribe" button to your toolbar which will automatically detect feeds for you. (If you still have difficulty you can reach out to me and I'll help you). Start by looking for the feed of this blog.
At last, there's one more thing you should do. Create a blog. If you have at least something to say, you must start a blog and make sure what you say stays on the open Web forever. And don't forget to share your blog's URL with me so that I can follow your feed.
Together, we can save from dying the largest social network in the world - the open Web.