More books, blogging, films; less tweeting

sand clock
Image: (c) Zeek_ on Flickr

As I’ve said before, social media and the vast majority of mainstream media is a sink on people’s time. Whilst I’ve done a pretty good job over the last 18 months of reducing my news consumption (see how and why), I’ve done much less well on social media, specifically Twitter (I’ve done ok reducing Facebook usage).

It’s a new year, though, so what the heck: let’s give a resolution of sorts a go.

Thus, I’m aiming to use Twitter considerably less over the coming weeks and months. Instead, I’m going to do four things:

  1. Continue to read books (mainly non-fiction). You can see what I’m reading on my Libib library
  2. Do the vast majority of my reading through RSS feeds (Feedly is my reader of choice – remember the good old days of Google Reader?)
  3. Capture what I’m reading and occasional reflections using Pinboard  – with links reflected on this site, too. (Remember the good old days of Delicious?)
  4. Finally, I aim to blog more regularly. A few posts will be original writing; most is likely to be reflections, comparisons and capturing themes of the stuff I’ve read above.

I’ll still tweet a bit – probably directing folks to the four things above (plus films I’m watching), but will be trying to limit the time spent on Twitter considerably. To help along the way, I’ve deleted the Twitter app from my phone – let’s see if that helps.

Happy 2016!


“No news is good”: the practicalities

A couple of weeks ago I posted “No news is good”, which captured my plan to opt out of news, social and other media in order to:

pursue the things that interest me and my mind – giving myself chance and space to be curious, to think, to create and to be.

It was great to have various exchanges with people about the move, and I really would recommend taking the time to read Rolf Dobelli’s original essay (pdf).

A couple of people were interested in the practicalities of what I was going to do instead. This post briefly summarises the things I’ve put in place or am trying to help make my opt out a reality, broadly by media type. It’s not at all a riveting read, but shared in the hope it may be useful to others thinking about this topic.

Spare Slots grid

My "Spare Slots" grid - things to do if in a spare ... on Twitpic

By far the most important element of my approach is the Spare Slots grid above. This simple grid enables me to make proactive choices about what I might want to do depending on what sort of time slot is available. The things that are in the grid are aligned with things I’m interested in or trying to prioritise – arranged by the 3 headings of Create, Consume and Cardio – including things like writing more or opportunities to read/study.

The time slots are truly ‘spare’ time, i.e. when family time or work responsibilities are done (or as done as they ever can be!).

What the Spare Slots grid does is provide a menu of things that are important to me, and that are an alternative to the default of opening up my laptop/phone, which often leads to “sink” activities.


  • The first and main thing I’m doing with Twitter is to use it according to my Spare Slots grid. This means I spend no more than 15 minutes at a time on it, and so help manage the overall time I spend on it
  • I tend to focus much more on interaction rather than tweets. So the first and second columns in Tweetdeck are @ replies and Direct Messages, rather than my timeline
  • I’m being clearer with myself on who I am following/unfollowing and why. Hard as it is, I’m also being a little less English and unfollowing people rather than hesitating over it all the time
  • Lists are very useful – it enables me to separate specific work people / things and other interests
  • I use favourites a lot
  • Another useful trick is to schedule tweets. This means that I can only be on Twitter for 15 minutes but still post stuff over a period of a few hours / days without necessarily having to be on Twitter myself
  • I use filters, especially with some website links. Thus, I now very, very rarely see Daily Mail or Guardian links (for example) in Twitter
  • The main tool I use to do all of the above is Tweetdeck. This works best on my laptop, and haven’t yet found the best app to use on my phone that allows me to do as much as I want.


  • I didn’t use Facebook much anyway, which is fortunate because it’s in no way as customisable as Twitter is. The key here appears to be (if you’ll excuse my phrase) “selective vision”. Thus, if I see a picture with text on it, I just don’t read it.


  • YouTube is more customisable than I’d realised, especially using a Chrome Extension that takes a lot of the noise away (some ads, suggested videos etc. – search for “YouTube” in the Chrome Extension Store)
  • The main thing I do here is use subscriptions to channels
  • Similarly, I use Watch Later a lot, and this is the landing page I go to when first visiting YouTube.

Feedly (RSS Reader)

  • I still don’t get why Google discontinued Reader because I find RSS the most effective way of managing sources of information
  • Feedly is my RSS Reader of choice LINK, which allows me to aggregate all sources of information I’ve chosen. This means I then don’t have to visit those sites and so reduces the possibility of wider distraction
  • My RSS feeds are categorised and arranged by certain topics
  • I’ve particularly added blogs / sources of info that explore issues in depth, are high quality or are from sources I trust/respect
  • Even here, I filter the aggregated information quite quickly by using star item/read later systems.


  • I’ve basically switched it off! I’ve done this in the following ways:
  • I use a website/URL blocker as a Chrome Extension, which means that, even I have clicked a link, I still can’t see actually see it
  • I don’t buy newspapers or periodicals
  • I very rarely watch television. If there is something I’d like to see I use YouTube or, for flims/series etc. I tend to use Netflix (other streaming services are available)
  • I’m still considering the possibility of a subscription to a quality print periodical. The ones I’m thinking about at the moment are re-subscribing to Prospect or the London Review of Books, but I haven’t done this yet. Good as they may be, I won’t be getting a subscription to something like The Week, New Statesman or The Economist etc.

Personal email

  • The number of emails I deleted without reading was amazing. If I found myself deleting an email without reading it I would instead unsubscribe from the mailing list if at all possible. This has left me with around six newsletters from organisations I like (for example, Policy Network and Nesta).


  • I’ve removed some apps from my phone
  • I’ve turned off all notifications
  • I use airplane mode quite a lot (partly a battery problem, and much to the annoyance of my wife. Ever the diplomat, it’s only a matter of time before I get a mobile battery pack and not use airplane mode.).

So, those are most of the practicalities. After a bit of time seeing how it goes, I’ll do an update on what difference this has made, as well as reflections on the bit that I think will be the hardest: balancing all of the above with the responsibilities of work.

No news is good

Rolf Dobelli’s essay, “Avoid News: towards a healthy news diet” (pdf), has provided me with the final signing post of a journey I’ve been on for the last few months.

In that time, I found I’d grown tired of most sources of media. Their focus seemed only to be on trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things to do with politics and policy, or fanning the flames of these things with news stories and opinion pieces. I’d also grown increasingly tired with social media, the majority of which was people sharing either trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things relating to politics and policy, or sharing a news story or opinion column that had fanned the flames of their outrage. On top of this, I found myself frustrated with the never-ending wealth of blogs, reports, videos and so on which offered organisation x’s perspective on the latest thing y or z.

I was tired, and yet found it difficult to draw myself away from it. As a result, I wasted huge amounts of time consuming news, social media and what x had to say about y or z.

I was checking all of these things when I didn’t have anything better to do.

Actually, I was checking them when I did have better things to do.

But even with spending so much time consuming, to use Short Circuit’s phrase, input, I was left none the wiser. I felt like I still didn’t understand what was going on. In my mind I couldn’t answer questions such as: why is what’s happening happening? How and why did we get here? Where are we going? Why are we going here and not there? What can the past tell us about why here may be better than there and what we might be able to learn about the options for getting there?

I had reached a dead end. Or, rather, I had so many choices of which direction to go in that I went nowhere.

Dobelli’s essay provided me with some thoughts as to why I was feeling that way. His argument gives 15 reasons on why news is bad for us, including: news systematically misleads us, news limits our understanding, news massively increases cognitive errors and news inhibits thinking.

In what is a forceful argument, the line of argument that particularly resonated with me was:

News has no explanatory power. News items are little bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world.

Instead, it:

feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking.

What’s worse, Dobelli notes that as humans we are more inclined to:

swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, like bright-coloured [sweets] for the mind.

As it goes for news, so it goes for social media and all the other brightly-coloured sweets on offer.

To some extent, and with one considerable exception, news, social and other media isn’t at fault; it is simply exploiting pitfalls in our make-up. Dobelli draws a parallel with food that goes beyond just sweets, but his essential argument is that we’re not rational enough to be exposed to the news – a thought that’s entirely reasonable to anyone familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and the work on heuristics it summarises. What’s worse is that the seeming availability of all this other input doesn’t challenge our thinking. Dobelli quotes Warren Buffet:

What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.

And so we have become, in Dobelli’s words, shallow thinkers; we can’t differentiate between what’s relevant and what’s new.

The considerable exception I note above is that news can and does shape the public agenda. The lament that politics is now about spin and not substance only captures one side of the problem, because:

Journalism shapes a common picture of the world and a common set of narratives for discussing it. It sets the public agenda. Hold on: do we really want news reported to set the public agenda?

It’s this question to which Tony Stoller, in a brilliant lecture for Gresham College, answers with a resounding “no”.

Bringing this all together, it’s no surprise that I was at a dead end. But the question becomes: where do I go from here? At the level of the individual, Dobelli argues we should stop consuming news entirely. Instead we should read books and journals, think and concentrate during uninterrupted time, and “go deep instead of broad”.

These, then, are the things I am doing.

It’s easy to consider this a New Year fad but the timing, I think, is just a coincidence. The process is one that began last year, and is why I refer to Dobelli’s article as the final signing post rather than a first step. In practice, I’m sure it will be harder than I think, and the outcomes of what this means I do do (for example, on social media) and the practicalities of how I’m going about doing it aren’t the point of this post (I may blog on them another time).

The crux is that I’m making a conscious and proactive choice to opt out of the news, social and other media. Instead, I am aiming to pursue the things that interest me and my mind – giving myself chance and space to be curious, to think, to create and to be.

The online presence of DPULOs – anecdotal findings (updated)

I’ve spent much of the last couple of days mapping what disabled people’s user-led organisations there are. This work is part of the Strengthening DPULOs Programme that I’m involved with, and draws upon other mapping exercises that have happened previously.

(It goes without saying that mapping and gapping is an art in itself, which people often pay very good money for others to do. Still, at this stage of the work I’m involved with, a relatively rough and ready mapping exercise – building on much more extensive work that others have done – will suffice.)

As part of the mapping, I’ve been finding out what kind of presence DPULOs have online. The results – as unscientific and anecdotal as they are – make for interesting reading.

To summarise:

  • The vast majority of DPULOs have a website
  • The websites themselves are very mixed: some are incredibly good, some are standard, a small few are quite poor
  • Associated with this, some have clearly had professional design and input
  • Others – though only a handful – are using slightly customized, off-the-shelf products like WordPress, Movable Type and Squarespace to run their online presence
  • In terms of social media, many more than I expected have a Facebook presence – approaching around a third of all DPULOs I’ve identified so far
  • Each has around 50-100 “likes” for their Facebook page, which I’m guessing is around the average for voluntary and community sector organisations
  • Relatively few DPULOs are on Twitter. I have compiled a fairly comprehensive list of those that are on Twitter here
  • There is a spattering of organisations using channels such as Flickr, YouTube, Audioboo, LinkedIn etc.

I’m working on the basis that this position is not dissimilar to any other subsection of the voluntary and community sector. If it is dissimilar, then I’d be keen to know the reasons why, as this would suggest a stream of work that could be particularly useful for DPULOs.

In the meantime, there are 4 (superficial) implications that occur to me as a result of this:

  1. A relatively low cost and low barrier means by which DPULOs can establish a local presence is not currently being fully explored to its potential
  2. Facebook is a popular tool that DPULOs are beginning to recognise is of value to their offer
  3. Twitter is less popular with disabled people’s organisations. Where individuals have used it to a great extent, the same can’t be said of organisations that are controlled by and for disabled people
  4. There is a business opportunity for someone to develop the websites (based on off-the-shelf products) and social media offering of DPULOs through a relatively low-cost offer. The added value of such of an offer would be significant, since the use of websites and social media are under-utilised by the DPULO “sector” as a whole.

Would be really interested to know if people have any other reflections on this, and importantly any ideas or stuff they know is already happening that can help address some of these points.

Update: this article from the Chief Executive of the Media Trust is pertinent to this post:

In a world in which local voices can have global reach, charities and NGOs have urgent and exciting new opportunities to give voice to their causes, to empower communities and citizens, and to be responsive to their needs and aspirations. Digital media has the power to enable charities and communities to become more integrated and cohesive – but finding the skills, strategies and resources can throw up some huge challenges to small and large organisations, many of which are juggling complex bottom lines around service delivery, campaigning and income generation.

Man walks into a column, no.1: Resolution

Note: This is a post by Phil

There are, apparently, many reasons not to make New Year’s resolutions. So it’s with those many reasons in mind I should point out that I decided upon this course of action a full day in advance of the dawn of 2011. A full day, I tell you (alright, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was on in the background at the time, so it was probably a little less than a full day). 

My non-resolution is to write a weekly ‘column’ on arbitrary constant, and this is why. I began posting on this fine blog about a year ago, and after doing enough of something you find yourself lapsing into self doubt and indecision or, at least, I do. What can I possibly offer, dear readers, that Master Watts and Brother Webb cannot provide? (If anyone can spot the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves reference in that last sentence then, well, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.)

So, to cut a long story short: I decided to ignore my lack of expertise and find a way to ‘institutionalise’ my place on this blog instead, so that hopefully, given enough time, Rich feels he has no choice but to maintain my stipend: because those who browse these pages will have become accustomed to my posts, much in the way that one becomes accustomed to a vaguely irritating, moderately persistent but ultimately benign mole.

This is where the weekly ‘column’ comes in (inverted commas out of respect to the fact that, surely, a column is a slightly meaningless concept in web terms). I honestly don’t know what it will look like or what it will cover. Should it be a round-up attempt, aping Paul Carr on TechCrunch? Depends a bit on how much Rich decides to post, I guess. How about a review of the things I’ve read? Relies on me actually reading things, which can’t be relied upon in any given week. Irreverent commentary on the Big Issues of the day? Pffft. Let’s just settle for some words – not too many, fear not – posted on a more-or-less weekly basis. One step at a time, fifty-two in total.

This week, I’m a little behind the curve in only just having read TIME magazine’s lengthy ‘person of the year’ piece, written by Lev Grossman about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. I should point out from the off that, much as over time I’ve come to be a friend of Twitter, I hate the very idea of Facebook with all my heart and soul. But when you see statistics that suggest that almost half the population of the UK is doing something (nearly 29m users!) you start to think you might be missing out. And there’s definitely something attractive in Zuckerberg’s vision, as rendered by TIME:

…after the Facebookization of the Web […] wherever you go online, you’ll see your friends. On Amazon, you might see your friends’ reviews. On YouTube, you might see what your friends watched or see their comments first. Those reviews and comments will be meaningful because you know who wrote them and what your relationship to those authors is. They have a social context.

But… then again… the problem with Facebook is the way it is structurally biased towards a one-dimensional status of ‘friend’ – you’re friends with your spouse, and you’re friends with your plumber. As Grossman adeptly points out:

Just because you present a different face to your co-workers and your family doesn’t mean you’re leading a double life. Identity isn’t a simple thing: it’s complex and dynamic and fluid. It needs to flex a little, the way a skyscraper does in a high wind, and your Facebook profile isn’t built to flex.

And I will admit to nodding in particularly vigorous assent when Grossman goes on to say:

Facebook is still a painfully blunt instrument for doing the delicate work of transmitting human relationships […] relationships cannot be reduced to the exchange of information or making binary decisions between liking and not liking, friending and unfriending.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that, as the article pointedly notes, governments around the world have shown a marked interest in the power of Facebook (the director of the FBI was visiting at the same time the interview was conducted!) because it’s a database of personal information many orders of magnitude bigger than anything we would hand over to our political masters. And I found Zuckerberg’s ‘commitment’ to occasionally pushing back when it receives a subpoena very unconvincing. 

Am I being hypocritical by liking Twitter whilst loathing Facebook? I don’t think so, because there’s no danger of anyone, ever, pretending that a personality can be distilled into (however many) 140 character blobs. Thanks to its simplicity, Twitter is controllable: a tool for communication rather than a philosophy for life.

Until next week, I’ll be tweeting sporadically @philblogs. Happy New Year!

Facebook: for better or worse

Ah, the perils of superficial policy.

No sooner do you have a webconference love-in with the founder of a website who could save you potentially billions of pounds, than you have to condemn pages doing stuff you’re not so keen on on the, erm, same website.

Perhaps Cameron and Zuckerberg can poke each other to get their relationship back on track?