Battling the Filter Bubble … and Losing

I read a lot of trade news and RSS feeds for news sites, blogs, and other sources of information relevant to my day job.  Which is pretty much the same as saying my personal areas of interest.  But I’m aware of the need to avoid forming too much of a filter bubble.  You can get many news reading apps to do this, where you subscribe to broader news sources and enjoy the serendipity that can bring.

This has been an area in flux for me and, unfortunately, remains so.  I had been trying out News360 while also using Google’s Currents app.  Neither was perfect but both brought something to my reading.  News360 has humans involved in selecting content and you can read based on topics.  You don’t worry about the content source, although you can mute or approve sources to help the human/algorithmic selection.  Google’s Currents had far fewer news sources, and they were aligned by publication.  That worked fine for me, because it was like flipping through a stack of magazines and seeing what was new.

My biggest hangup appears to be getting rid of the stuff that I’ve read.  This was what I disliked about most news apps and that Currents got right.  Once you’d read an article, you could disappear it from your news stream.  It wasn’t perfect.  In fact, one of its biggest annoyances was that it didn’t bother to deduplicate an article.  It could appear as many times as the publisher wanted, and only the iteration you’d read would disappear.

Too many of the same Forbes article

Sometimes the effect was creepy.

But Google has now killed off Currents.  Their fallback app is Google Play Newsstands.  It replicates an experience I recently had with a WordPress app.  The app is updated and the utility of it is dramatically reduced.  I get it.  I’m not the target audience, which is what the devs are focusing on.  Here’s why I uninstalled Google Play Newsstands after about 15 minutes (partly because I’d played around with it before and so I was expecting some of this behavior):

  • the default news view is Read Now.  This is great, because, like the broad categories in other news readers like Flipboard, you get a single scrollable page of your news.  Except that you don’t.  Read Now populates both the news you select and salts it with additional news that you don’t.  This means that, even if you have avoided all of the entertainment news feeds, you may still end up being shown the latest on Lindsey Lohan or Justin Bieber.  Whatevs.
  • the Currents-like view is My News.  You can select each news source and scroll through it.  This has two major drawbacks.  First, you no longer get a slice of news.  This is good for the anti-filter bubble focus but, again, it means that a subscription to the CBC News includes sports, entertainment, and a bunch of other rubbish.  Second, an article that is read remains in your feed and turns grey.  Which means that you, visually, probably look at it even though you’ve read it, because it can take a second to see that it’s a different color.

I recognize the purpose.  The other parts of this are for paid magazines and Google Play is trying to get some money from the app.

Fair enough.  I’ve decided to go back to Flipboard and may take another look at News360.  I like Flipboard because I can have a channel based on a search on Twitter.  So, for example, I searched within Flipboard on #legalIT and can now follow that as a channel.  Both News360 and Flipboard have the defect (in my mind) of leaving read news inline but at least you start with the latest news and can, usually, tell when you’ve reached the older stuff.  Flipboard maintains the Currents-like publication orientation, which I like.  But I feel the pull of News360’s topical arrangement and its deeper content.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.