Staying Informed Without Big Tech
A 2019 study from Stanford University challenged a random sampling of Facebook users to quit the site for a month. The results were mostly positive: people felt happier, interacted with friends and family more, and were less polarized in terms of news and politics. I often encourage my readers to ditch mainstream social media like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and similar sites if at all possible, as I have also felt those same effects. Particularly I noticed that my conversations with friends and family became significantly more meaningful and felt more genuine and sincere. But there was one major downside the study found that I also noticed: people felt less informed. While we all know that Big Tech is feeding us selective headlines based on our algorithms, it can still be helpful to get even a few major, biased headlines to help us know generally what’s going on in the world. When you give up social media, that information is no longer fed to you, and it becomes your job to find out how to stay informed. So this week, I want to share what works for me to help stay informed without sacrificing my privacy so much.
An obvious method we often forget about is newsletters. Most organizations that you may want to follow – like non-profits and companies – offer newsletters. If your first reaction to that was “ugh, my inbox is already cluttered,” then you will have to go through and start unsubscribing to stuff. Once you do that, I encourage you to use an email masking service (so that you can burn the address if it gets breached or starts spamming you) and start signing up to newsletters you care about. Feel free to unsubscribe to any of them if you stop caring. The companies won’t hound you, I promise. They’re focused on other stuff.
Bonus tip: most email providers offer folders and rules that allow you to keep your inbox organized. For example, as a freelancer I have certain recurring client emails automatically drop into a freelance folder. That way I can open that folder and see ONLY emails pertaining to work, clients, contracts, upcoming events, etc. I don’t have to see that folder interspersed with a bunch of newsletters, personal emails, etc. Likewise, you can create a folder and have all your newsletters go straight there so you can check them at your leisure and/or keep them out of your main inbox so it doesn’t get cluttered.
Please note that many emails of all kinds – not just newsletters – come with tracking pixels and analytics built into them. Make sure you have your email client or inbox set to not load remote content automatically and instead load it manually. This will prevent much of this tracking and give you a much more private experience.
Alternate Social Media
I’m a big fan of Mastodon. It’s like a privacy-respecting Twitter. I’ve met some really cool people, seen some neat ideas, and overall had a positive experience. One cool thing about Mastodon is that many people have created mirrors which basically just copy and repost content from Twitter. There’s several BBC News mirrors, for example, so I can still subscribe to BBC if I wanted to and get their tweets. Some privacy-conscious companies even manage their Mastodon directly, like Tutanota and Nextcloud. This is not limited to Mastodon. For videos, some people cross-post or mirror their content from YouTube to PeerTube. This isn’t always a guarantee, but it’s worth looking into. You’d be surprised sometimes what has been mirrored or has a fediverse account.
Alright, this is the power-user option where you’ll probably get the best results. It sounds harder than it is, so don’t panic. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it used to be all the rage back in the mid 2000s. These days it’s less common, but still widely supported. First, you’ll need an RSS reader. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of open source, privacy respecting options here. As far as I know, there’s only two: Tiny Tiny RSS and Thunderbird. I personally lean toward Thunderbird as I tend to use it for email as well, so it kills two birds with one stone, but admittedly it’s not the prettiest solution. At any rate, for most websites I simply search “[website name] rss” and that usually pops up a direct link to their feed. For example, here’s a Brave Search for “Wired RSS”. Most websites don’t advertise their RSS feeds anymore, so I’ve found this to be the most direct and least-frustrating way of finding it. From there, you can add that link to your RSS reader of choice and set the options to your liking: how often to check for new stories, how far back to keep old stories, etc.
But wait, there’s more! You don’t need to limit your RSS experience to just news sites. I also use RSS to keep up with Twitter accounts, subreddits, and even YouTube channels. Let's start with Reddit because that one is easiest. Simply go to the subreddit you wish to follow, such as the Privacy subreddit, and add “/.rss” to the end and add it to your reader:
https://www.reddit.com/r/privacy/.rss. There are additional tips you can add here, such as to only pull the top posts each day if you’d like to filter out some of the lower-level content. Michael Bazzell talks about some of these configurations in his own podcast episode about RSS here.
For Twitter, you’ll need to pick a Nitter instance. Any instance will do so long as it’s reliable. Then you find the account you wish to follow. In this case, we’ll use mine as an example. Then you’ll add “/rss” to the end and add it to your RSS reader:
https://nitter.nixnet.services/thenewoil1/rss. Bam! You are now following my Twitter account without needing an account of your own! (Note: I encourage you to follow me on Mastodon, instead. It’s the same content. I only use Twitter so I can schedule posts and mirror them to Mastodon.)
YouTube was a little trickier and took me some time to track down. In this scenario, we’ll use The Hated One, a popular YouTuber who produces content about Big Tech and privacy. After a lot of searching, I found the following code that seems to work for me:
https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=Channel_ID. Where it says “Channel_ID,” we’ll replace that with the link at the end of The Hated One’s channel from above. It now becomes
https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=UCjr2bPAyPV7t35MvcgT3W8Q. So that means to make that link work with any channel, simply copy the channel ID. For example, Techlore’s YouTube channel is
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCs6KfncB4OV6Vug4o_bzijg, so the new RSS link becomes
https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=UCs6KfncB4OV6Vug4o_bzijg. My own channel is
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCH5DsMZAgdx5Fkk9wwMNwCA, so my RSS link would become
https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=UCH5DsMZAgdx5Fkk9wwMNwCA. (Alternately, you can just get the RSS link directly from my PeerTube channel with no trickery or fuss.)
Last but not least, let’s not ignore podcasts. Many news outlets – and a variety of other creators and brands – offer regular podcasts, ranging from twice a day to once every other week, where they share top stories. This can also be a great place for you to get your information, especially if you’re on the go and rarely have time to sit down and sort through an RSS feed. Unfortunately the podcast landscape is getting invasive. Spotify and Apple are the two biggest podcast apps, and both of those are already quite invasive (with Spotify becoming more and more so each year). Spotify is even going a step further by offering many podcast series contracts to become “Spotify exclusive,” further locking listeners into their data-sucking monopoly. Many privacy-respecting podcasts share RSS links so you can listen to them without the invasive tracking, but again we’re now back in that same position of using an RSS reader. Of course, you could always download the episode and upload it to your media player of choice for listening on the go, but that may be more than some readers are willing to do. The point is: podcasts are an option, but they are not without privacy risks. Beware.
That’s all there is to it, honestly. Those are all the tricks I personally use to stay educated. RSS is my main option, as it gives me the chance to sort through things on a protected desktop environment at my own pace, but as with everything in privacy that may not be right for everyone. If I missed any tricks (or RSS readers), feel free to let me know. Good luck out there and stay safe!