The communication vs consumption dichotomy

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There is a semi-clear distinction between the main categories of items in my inbox. There are communications, which I may respond to or need to read in a time-sensitive matter, and there is content, which I very rarely respond to and which is even more rarely time-critical.[1] As I've seen more interesting things online, the amount of content in my inbox has grown to dwarf the amount of communication. I am now subscribed to content ranging from personal blogs, commentary on tech, the climate crisis, politics and fiction. The amount of content grew to massively outweigh the communication in my inbox.

I'm much less frazzled when I try to use RSS exclusively for reading and email for communication.

I've noticed this only recently when I realised I was getting stressed out by new emails. I was waiting for a couple of important emails, and everything else became a source of tension and noise. The mailing list paradigm blurs the boundaries between communications and consumption far too much for my monkey brain to deal with. Every email is treated as potentially impactful and time-critical, so every notification must be assessed.

Any entity I give my email address to can choose when to contact me. I want this to be the case, as it is the basis of how email works, but over the years, my internal gauge has shifted far too much towards inputting my email to every site that looks remotely interesting. Yes, there are spam filters, technical tools to block emails, etc. The better solution is simpler: being more judicious about who I give my email to and why. Now, if there is a source of content that doesn't have an RSS feed available, it suddenly becomes a much higher bar to decide whether or not to subscribe.

Using RSS to subscribe to content updates solves this problem.

An RSS reader can be configured however I like. To give me notifications when there is new content available, or just to wait for me to check it manually and pull down everything new from my sources. Show me a badge of unread articles, or keep that number hidden completely. I can treat RSS as my own personal newspaper, unencumbered by algorithmic sorting of content to maximise engagement, and on my own time. It also means that I can ignore it when I don't have the bandwidth for a while.

The fact that I sometimes get time-sensitive emails that I need to reply to means that I can't treat my email as a whole the same way as I can an RSS app. Even when I don't have excess bandwidth, I still need to reply to emails. Splitting content and communications out has had an outsized impact on how I interact with both.

Actual email is now appropriately important, and content updates can be consumed at my discretion.

I know I am incredibly late to the RSS bandwagon, but it is helping reshape my interaction with content in a positive light.


  1. What about the growing content economy around tools like Substack and other paid publications? These rely on the number of email subscribers for tracking growth and analytics for advertising or sponsorship.

    Can analytics be done on RSS feeds? Presumably yes, using IP or other identifying characteristics. Gosh, I would even support an update to the spec or ecosystem if it encouraged more people to use it for consumption. At the end of the day, I think the tech is more than capable of adapting to a paradigm shift away from email for content consumption.

  2. Could you instead change your response and feelings toward emails?

    Yes, this would be a pretty good solution. However, I don't feel it is anywhere near as straightforward! Using an RSS reader app has had the same outcome in next to no time. Also, no matter how zen I would like to be, there will be occasional periods where I find email slightly stressful.

Tips for a newbie from a newbie

  • NetNewsWire is an excellent RSS reader for iOS and MacOS. It does many things very well, but there are plenty of alternatives if it is not to your taste.
  • Use folders to categorise your feeds. You can even create and use a probation folder for content you've just come across and are unsure whether you will continue reading. Go nuts.

Bonus: my current favourite feed

Tangle, by Isaac Saul available at https://www.readtangle.com.

We are a non-partisan politics newsletter that summarises the best arguments from the right and the left on the news of the day. We're 100% independent and ad-free, with no investors and only reader support.

Why Tangle?

Because you probably hate the news. And I don't blame you. Political news is broken in our country: Just 13% of Americans have a "great deal" of trust in what they read in the papers, watch on television or hear on the radio. For the first time ever, fewer than half of Americans trust traditional media. That number only goes down when you narrow the focus to politics, and the credibility of news organisations continues to plummet every day.

In today's political discourse, the most popular thing to do is to elevate the worst arguments the other side is making and then eviscerate them. The tactic is used across politics, partisan media outlets and it is employed religiously by political pundits. Americans from the right and left think negatively of people with different political views than them because all they see are the worst actors on the other side. Additionally, most political reporting today has a slant, lacks context, lacks transparency or fails to answer fundamental questions that readers want to know.

We're trying to fix this.

  1. Traditional mailing lists, where you might actually want to take action don't quite fit this. For example, emails from your local council or organising groups. These can be time-critical but not always, and you may choose to reply or engage, or you may not and the content is purely informative. ↩︎