How To Build Your Own Internet with RSS

The Magician is about taking an idea and making it real.

Sometime during the summer of 2016, I’d had enough; I quit using Facebook.* Worn down by the outrage cycle and fed up with my friends’ newfound “political expertise,” I deleted the app from my phone, removed Messenger, and closed the tab. This series of decisions—probably the best I made that year—continue to pay dividends today. Not only did they free me from an emotionally unhealthy dependence, but they freed up time and space I didn’t even know I’d sacrificed at the altar of Supreme Leader Zuckerberg.

The other thing this decoupling process made me realize is that social media (and the Internet at large) does not have your best interests at heart—despite warm and fuzzy press releases. It is not designed for you the consumer, but for you the product. As smart-guy and author Colin Wright reminds us:

“If you’re not paying for something, chances are you are what’s being sold…it’s your attention, your clicks, your time…”

Like the mall or a casino, the Internet is designed to suck you and never let you go. There are no clocks, no windows, no nearby exits. But there is always more content to read and there are always more things to buy. That’s all well and good if your intention is to read or make a purchase, but if you want the Internet to be a font of inspiration or a tool to achieve your creative goals, it’s lethal quicksand.

Around this time last year, I tried to solve the problem with liberal newsletter subscriptions:

“If you don’t want to get stuck scrolling around on Slate, NYT or your favorite blog, sign up for their newsletter. That way, you’ll get the information delivered to your inbox, read it, and move on. The amount of information contained in an email is limited. The website, on the other hand, always has new or related content to recommend.”

And while I still subscribe to some awesome newsletters, I’ve found this solution less than perfect for two reasons.

1) You don’t control the flow. Like the actual mailbox outside your house, you are not in charge of what gets dropped off. Yes, you can order a package from Amazon or wait for a magazine to arrive, but the dry cleaner and Arby’s and AmEx can also send you offers every other day. In your digital inbox (as with your physical mailbox), the good and the bad mix together no matter how judiciously you unsubscribe. And because sending an email is free, the receiver pays the cost in terms of time and attention. If only we’d stuck with the postal regime from the 1800s in which:

Letters were expensive to send and the revenue from sending them kept the rates low for newspapers. Furthermore, the person receiving the letter, not the sender, paid the cost of postage.”

I would gladly pay for the email I want to receive and return the rest to sender.

2) You don’t control the content. If you subscribe to a single-author newsletter (like mine), you typically get an email that reposts content from the blog or shares that writing with additional relevant links. But when you want to receive a newsletter from a large site like NYT or Bloomberg (or any site with multiple authors), you’re presented with a daily or weekly roundup—what you want is mixed in with other writing you don’t care much about. Rarely are you given the option to subscribe to a specific writer or specific topic on that site. There is little customization, if any.

By relying on newsletters rather than wandering out in the wide wilds of the Internet, you solve some problems and eliminate certain distracts, but at the same time, you create others. So I’ve been searching for another solution. And I think I’ve finally found one: RSS.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the technology is almost as old as the Internet itself. And to be honest, I’m not expert. But the elevator pitch is this: (assuming the site is set up for RSS, and many are), you can choose what you want to follow (authors, keywords, websites, blogs) and you’ll receive a notification any time something’s published. No more inbox. No more junk you didn’t ask for.

Of course, this creates the problem of tantalizing notifications showing up from time to time, but it keeps you out of your inbox and allows you to further refine who and what to follow—which is especially helpful with bigger sites. For example, I’m subscribed to NYT’s By The Book section only (which does not have its own email subscription).

With RSS, I mostly get what I want and nothing I don’t.

Your One Task

Set up an RSS notifier. Here’s how.
  1. Add the Feedly Notifier app to your browser (Chrome, Safari, Firefox).
  2. Create a Feedly account.
  3. On the Feedly website, click “Add Content” then “Publications & Blogs” in the bottom left.
  4. Search for someone or something you like (e.g. Austin Kleon or By the Book) and click follow
  5. Done.
Try it out and see if you like it. Let me know if you do and what you think!

Each week, I write a new article helping busy people find meaning and fulfillment through sustainable creative habits. If you enjoyed this week’s letter, you can sign up to get them delivered to your inbox each week by digital carrier pigeon.