On "Fraidycat", and the pleasures of non-algorithmic tools for following stuff online

It's been out for more than a year, but just this week @strutting and Robin Sloan introduced me to "Fraidycat" — an intriguing tool for keeping up with people and sites online. It's a type of RSS reader (like Feedly, the one I use), but with some important and useful differences.

Like an RSS reader, Fraidycat lets you subscribe to all sorts of sources — blogs, Twitter users, people on Twitch or Youtube. But it's quite clever about how it lets you organize and display things. You can create any subcategories you want to cluster together like-minded sources, which is cool, though also something most RSS readers do.

But the really fun — and different — feature is you can pick the periodicity with which Fraidycat checks in for new stuff from the source. There's "Real-time" for things where you want to know now now now, but also "Occasional" or even "Rarely". This is a nifty bit of psychological design that tracks how my attention naturally works. There are people and sites whose utterances I'm intrigued to know every day, and others in which I'm only dimly interested, and would check maybe twice a year.

The algorithms of today's social-media feeds are crap for this. They completely break our natural attentional rhythms, jamming the most hotly-emotional or virally popular to the top of the feed. In Fraidycat, in contrast, there's no algorithm at all. It's up to you to check the different buckets you've created. If you've got a section for "music" following a bunch of Soundcloud or YouTube accounts, some of which are "real-time" and some "rarely", it's up to you to mosey over and click through those buckets.

The creator of Fraidycat, Kicks Condor, compares it to the periodicity of browsing magazines in the atom-based era:

"Magazines of the past kept us up to date with hundreds of people — celebrities and powerful names. The thing that excited me about the internet was that I could keep up with a whole lot of unknown but wonderfully interesting people," says creator Kicks Condor in a YouTube video explaining the purpose of Fraidycat. "However, I don't want some giant news feed of everything. Why is it the current obsession to just dump everything everyone is saying right in your face? I don't want a giant noisy feed that's dominated by anyone who posts the most frequently or, worse, the most flagrantly."

Fraidycat also, in an interesting way, is not really a feed. When you open it, it shows you the sites and people who've been active, but only a few words of their most recent posts. More-frequently-posting voices thus cannot dominate your viewport …

Another feature that distinguishes Fraidycat from most RSS readers I've used is that it doesn't show you the full text of what people are posting. You can't use to read stuff. It's just telling you that there is stuff to be read, and giving you the links to click to get there. It requires you to voyage onto the winedark Internet and see the original post itself, not a scraped version of it.

In this, Fraidycat suggests that context is valuable — that you should see a post on its own site, with its particular design and other webstuff dancing around in the margins; that the cultural thing going on to which you are attending is not just exfiltrated ASCII text but a bolus of design and affordances (good and terrible); that a Tweet removed from Twitter loses some context, as does a Youtube video from Youtube or a post from its blog. (I'm not sure I always want that context. Sometimes the speed of a full-text RSS reader is what I need. But it's an interesting design decision by Fraidycat.)

The upshot, as Robin notes, Fraidycat is for "following" stuff, not for "reading" it …

All fun! But it sounds like … Fraidycat takes some work, not just in setting it up but in paging through your buckets of stuff every day? It kinda does. Fraidycat is a tool you use, and which you have to figure out how to use in the fashion that fits your mental style.

This has, of course, the mental ergonomics the opposite of our algorithmicized age, where social-media feeds promise to make it super comfy for us — we just lean back while they do all the hard work of sorting the best stuff, which works great until miscreants game the rulesets and the feed devolves into a slurry of jittery influencers, can-you-believe-this spit-takes, conspiracybots and SkyMall-level promoted Weird Crap.

I am not saying anything here with which the Boing Boing audience is not already deeply familiar, bien sur. But either way, Fraidycat is very worth checking out.