Newsletter Crew October 9, 2020

Newsletters broke the internet

Aquiles Carattino @aqui_c

I have been thinking lately about several things I think are wrong with the internet, and I think newsletters are the epitome of a lot of them. Yes, the title is inflammatory on purpose, I actually believe that a broken internet led to the emergence of newsletters.

In a world where I can consume content with RSS feeds, there is no need for anyone to ask for my e-mail to send a message like: hey, I wrote something new. If IndieHackers could give me a feed to consume my personalized e-mails, I would opt-out from the newsletter and subscribe to the feed. It's a win/win, less infrastructure expenditure on their side, more control on my side.

However, RSS feeds were undervalued. Google closed Reader a long time ago. Twitter became a replacement for the public feed. New generations of bloggers, even if they are developers, are operating in the following context (the following was extracted from an e-mail I received personally):

honestly I've just never used RSS in my life! I'll have to look into it and see how it works with Gatsby, thanks for the nudge :)

And my reflection is not against newsletters themselves. I understand the marketing value of newsletters, the idea that you can validate a business concept by proving that people is willing to give their personal information to you.

Tools like zapier or ifttt can integrate RSS to social network channels because players like Facebook or LinkedIn never cared about two-way connections between platforms. A post on Facebook needs to be manually shared on LinkedIn or Twitter, a post on a website will never be picked up automatically.

And this path we've been following is what I think broke the internet. Instead of building interconnected systems, we are creating silos. We are forcing people to consume content on our terms. I don't give them the freedom to decide when to take a break to check the news, I send them an e-mail at a moment of the week that I've optimized for click-troughs.

And, as Indie Hackers, imagine the things we could achieve if, instead of closing down, we open up. Imagine if, for example, podcasts apps were not distribution channels but administration channels. As a content creator, forget about pushing to 25 different platforms, just publish a blog post, under your own terms. Or a closer example, imagine if the updates to my projects here on IH would be pulled from a centralized place (such as my blog), and they would also appear on LinkedIn or wherever I want. The infrastructure, the standards, are already in place.

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    I'm a big fan of RSS, and funnily enough I use RSS as the core way to pull together a weekly curated newsletter that I send out.

    There is also the perspective that blogging broke the internet.

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      I disagree to a great extent with that post (but I have to acknowledge that I took inspiration from it for of this post's title). Just by looking at the fact that despite their claims (which are from 2017) they keep a chronological order of articles already points in the direction of a marketing stunt and not a seed article to create a change.

      I am glad I found a fellow RSS fan! :D

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    And, as Indie Hackers, imagine the things we could achieve if, instead of closing down, we open up. Imagine if, for example, podcasts apps were not distribution channels but administration channels.

    Funny that you say this, especially since podcasts have exploded in popularity while the device they were named after—iPods—have declined/been replaced by smartphones. As a technology, RSS feeds are a runaway success if you are willing to acknowledge that mainstream podcasts use RSS under the hood for distribution 😊.

    It's totally understandable that you feel that the Internet is less open now than it was several years ago, but you need to realize that there is another perspective. The glass can be either half-empty or half-full. Viewing the Internet as being less open is the half-empty view—the negative view. Then there is the optimist's view, the half-full view which affords us a positive world view.

    Why? Because it allows us to see the world from at least two perspectives, the default negative view and the opposing positive view. There is a third not-so-obvious view.

    6 vs 9 or 3 vs 4 illusion

    As you can see from the image above (taken from this album on human perception), two contrasting views can be incredibly empowering as they allow us to better understand a nuanced topic. Nuanced topics are easy to misunderstand if one picks a side too early. The third (meta) view is the union of the two opposing views—the observer's view where it is clear to you that the correct answer is not "3 or 4" or "6 or 9" but "it depends on your perspective".

    Like you, I used to be frustrated by these changes but after making the switch from engineering to a product, I've found the engineering mindset can be a significant liability when designing a usable product or when trying to understand how the Internet is evolving or will evolve. An engineering background conditions us to think in terms of "oughts" as opposed to "is" when making design decisions. Stated differently, you'll gain a better grip on reality and thus make better trade offs when designing a product, if you think in terms of how things really are ("is") versus how they ought to be ("oughts").

    • "is" is merely a fact about the real-world—a stable foundation to build a product;
    • "oughts" presupposes (untested) assumptions about the real-world—a risky foundation for product building;

    I think it is a mistake to think that "RSS feeds [a]re undervalued" since they are in heavy use now than they have ever been thanks to podcasting. The reason why you hold a negative view is because human consumption of an open format like RSS never fully took off like you think it should ("an ought"). An unrealistic expectation has caused you to not acknowledge the explosive growth of RSS elsewhere. RSS is a behind-the-scenes technology powering the widespread machine consumption of RSS by podcast apps on hundreds of millions of smartphones.

    Why didn't human consumption of RSS take off? Well, RSS is a means to an end, not an end in itself. You need an RSS reader to properly consume RSS feeds but your goal really isn't to consume RSS feeds, your goal is to consume content. In technology, the vendor that reduces friction for the most users tends win market share, which is why social networks have replaced RSS readers as you rightly point out.

    The current trajectory of the Internet merely mirrors society at large. It will evolve according to human goals and aspirations.

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      Thanks for the long post. However, I think you missed the point by narrowing down on the RSS feed itself. I don't care in the success of RSS in itself, but I do care about what I wrote:

      And this path we've been following is what I think broke the internet. Instead of building interconnected systems, we are creating silos. We are forcing people to consume content on our terms. I don't give them the freedom to decide when to take a break to check the news, I send them an e-mail at a moment of the week that I've optimized for click-troughs.

      Also, I do not agree with this:

      Stated differently, you'll gain a better grip on reality and thus make better trade offs when designing a product, if you think in terms of how things really are ("is") versus how they ought to be ("oughts").

      We, as people in positions of power, not only have to understand what the world is, but we can also shape it. The fact that you are contempt with how things are because you have to ship does not mean you cannot contribute towards what you think will be a better world.

      the vendor that reduces friction for the most users tends win market share, which is why social networks have replaced RSS readers as you rightly point out

      I think this is biased. I can't consume content on Instagram if I don't have an acount on it (after few photos the page gets a pop-up blocking it), the same is true for Facebook. I see this as a gigantic amount of friction.

      The current trajectory of the Internet merely mirrors society at large. It will evolve according to human goals and aspirations.

      I also disagree with this. "The internet" is not a mirror of society at large, but just of a very tiny portion of society, the ones that have a say in it. We, as IndiHackers, developers, etc. have a say. The person working 9-5 in a factory probably won't have any say on how they consume content.

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        Glad you took the bait when I started this argument 😛. My original response used the Internet and the Web interchangeably but I’ll avoid that kind of imprecision here so my arguments are clearer.

        Instead of building interconnected systems, we are creating silos.

        Again, this is an “ought”. Why?
        The moment you turn a non-profit entity into a for-profit entity, people’s expectations of that entity’s behavior will change. Let me illustrate what I mean with an example.

        If all animals in a game reserve run by the government are relocated to a bigger reserve, the amenities will slowly rot as they sit idle. A businessman could offer to buy the property with the intention of turning it into an amusement park for kids & grown ups.

        When the property was a game reserve, entry was free since it was government-owned.

        My question for you: now that the same property has been converted into an amusement park, will you be willing to pay an entrance fee to be allowed in?

        If your answer is yes, then you have acknowledged the fundamental difference between social norms (for public goods) and market norms (for private property). If OTOH you think asking for an entrance fee is immoral, then we’ll have to agree to disagree.

        Interconnected systems was a goal of the Internet when it was founded in the 60s by DARPA, but we oftentimes mistake this (noble) goal as a goal of the web, which was founded in the 90s. The norms that govern the Internet vs the Web—i.e. what people generally consider as acceptable behavior—have diverged which is why they are different today.

        The non-profit nature of the Internet means that it is largely governed by social norms. OTOH, the Web is a for-profit entity and is thus largely governed by market norms. Some commentators refer to the Internet as a form of public goods but it would be a category mistake to refer to Web properties as a form of public goods.

        I think this is biased. I can't consume content on Instagram if I don't have an acount on it (after few photos the page gets a pop-up blocking it), the same is true for Facebook. I see this as a gigantic amount of friction.

        One of the beauties of the Web being driven by market norms instead of social norms is that you are free to start a Facebook/Instagram competitor if you feel strongly about the way they force you to consume content. Create an MVP, gain traction then get attention from VCs. Pinterest, SnapChat and TikTok are examples of people scratching their own itch and finding success in the marketplace so I don’t see a problem.

        Developers, Indie Hackers etc are non-moneyed interests that shape how the Web evolves. Moneyed interests also shape how the Web evolves. Compared to non-moneyed interests, moneyed interests as a group have an outsized influence, just like in the real world. In fact, your statement “very tiny portion of society” doesn’t disagree with what I wrote, except that I’ve switched to using “the Web” which is more precise than saying “the Internet”.

        We are forcing people to consume content on our terms. I don't give them the freedom to decide when to take a break to check the news, I send them an e-mail at a moment of the week that I've optimized for click-troughs.

        Since you used the pronouns “We” & “I”, I took this to mean you are speaking for yourself. If you do this, I have no problems with it since I am not here to judge you or your business practices. In any case I don’t engage in such practices.

        But if an entity does this to me I have two choices:

        • endure it as long as I get some value in return, or;
        • look for an alternative.

        Those same choices are available to everyone because users have agency, whether individually or collectively.

        We, as people in positions of power, not only have to understand what the world is, but we can also shape it. The fact that you are contempt with how things are because you have to ship does not mean you cannot contribute towards what you think will be a better world.

        Contempt? Is that a typo? Even if you meant “contented” I’m not sure how you can make such a leap based on what I wrote ...
        The thrust of my original comment was about making better decisions. This will help you conserve your energy so you can pick the right battles and know when frustration is the right reaction to a situation or not.

        The first step to making better decisions is to maintain a mental model of the world that is realistic (compared to the idealistic models used in engineering like ideal gases, ideal machines etc which are tools of ought-based thinking) to gain a good understanding of the environment that constrains your decision-making.

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    Honestly I always used to avoided RSS because its not a very 'sexy' tech. It's like if you asked a normal user to set up a webhook or socket listener for incoming posts, they would give you a blank stare. I wonder how far you can get without even reinventing RSS and instead just rebranding it and providing an easy and intuitive pub/sub UI that the average Joe could use.

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      I agree. But my concerns are not regarding RSS itself (I couldn't care less whether it is RSS or ASFLJK), but whether we are building a closed-down internet, where you need to give your e-mail to a random person in order to stay up to date, while I could have been empowered to consume content on my own terms. We are centralizing access and being jealous instead of growing outwards

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    I read through your post and I think you raise some interesting points, many of which I agree with. Notably, that the emergence of newsletters feels weird and perhaps in conflict with the way that the internet has traditional worked.

    I don't think there is anything broken with the way newsletter are though. I think a lot of it is that newsletter are booming right now and I feel that the "correct" or "final" state of newsletters is yet to be determined (who knows, maybe it will never settle and the wide variety will remain).

    In my mind, there are 4 types of newsletters:

    1. Topic-focused, single author - most similar to a blog that emails posts to users. GOAL: build a following for the specific author
    2. Topic-focused, curated content - I see these as most similar to sub-reddit or group, but with a single trusted content curator. GOAL: build a community/targeted audience
    3. Paid newsletter (content) - If someone is good enough at the content they produce, then they should be able to charge for it. Ben Thompson's Stratechery was the first example of this model. GOAL: people pay for high quality content
    4. Paid newsletter (community) - This one is least like an actually "newsletter" in my opinion, as these are more of a target group of people that are paying for access to a great community. GOAL: connect like-minded people around a key topic

    The problem is that those 4 categories are not well defined, so the result is a plethora of newsletters that aren't aligned well with their long term goals. I think a lot of newsletter creators are optimizing mainly to grow their audience (which makes a lot of sense to do), but this makes the long term intentions less clear and not as easy to categorize.

    I think over time, patterns will emerge and newsletter will be more easy to categorize based on their goals. I actually feel like "newsletter" is becoming a bit of a misnomer as I see two major categories being quite distinct:

    BLOGS - You want people to focus on your content: type 1, type 3
    COMMUNITIES - You want to bring people together on a topic: type 2, type 4

    The emails are just a means of notifying your audience/community. The reason email is so effective still is that in many ways it acts as a person's personal homepage to the internet. No sane person can check all the Reddits, Twitters, and Facebooks and still have time to poop and eat. People get overwhelmed and back away from all those sites - but they still check their email daily.

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      Thanks for the write up. I am not against newsletter per-se, I was just rumbling about the fact that blogs are not implementing notifications systems other than the newsletter. I keep an active feed of blogs, but if they require an e-mail I probably will forget them quickly. (Sadly, blogs being published through Gatsby tend to forget about RSS overall)

      The emails are just a means of notifying your audience/community. The reason email is so effective still is that in many ways it acts as a person's personal homepage to the internet.

      As you say, e-mail became a homepage to the internet, while it was never intended to be, nor required. However, since we are copying each other's playbooks all the time, we tend to default to some behaviors that perhaps were not reflected upon enough.

      And, the final reflection was not just about the newsletter or RSS feed itself, but about the type of internet we are building. By sharing content on Facebook, we are actively locking out everyone who is not on the platform, Medium, even if more open, also is restrictive (N free articles a month). And even here on IndieHackers they rely on e-mails for updates, instead of an RSS feed. And I mention the RSS feed because it is a standard, with well developed parsers. An RSS feed is an instantaneous API for content consumption, and there is no lower barrier than that, I believe.

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    Hi Aquiles, it's so funny you mention this; I saw this tweet yesterday which recommended unsubscribing from newsletters that no longer give you value.

    I completely agree with you about RSS feeds being undervalued. And the resurgence of newsletters as a channel that gives creators a direct line to their audience is also likely leading to saturation in inboxes (as someone who publishes a newsletter, I empathize with this greatly).

    I've found myself unsubscribing from newsletters because I just can't read them all. There's too much competing for my attention. I'd love to hear how others are dealing with newsletter fatigue!

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      Indeed, I have started unsubscribing, not only because of the competition for my attention, but because I got tired of people tracking my every single move.

      I have a relatively clean inbox, and blogs without a feed are just forgotten.

      The other topic is regarding the discussion around articles. I see that often a newsletter can generate an answer, while for it to happen via a feed update requires an extra effort. I am not certain about this yet, must reflect a bit more.

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    RSS is one of those technologies the tech press just didn't like and bashed out of existence. They said it was too complex for ordinary users.

    You can actually already subscribe to many newsletters via RSS. Every Substack and Revue newsletter has an RSS feed, just enter the newsletter's URL (e.g. https://newslettername.substack.com) into your feed reader. Feedly recently added direct support for newsletters but it's available only for some of the most expensive paid plans.

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      Indeed, that's what I did with Substack's I found interesting. But that is just one platform in the intersection between blog and newsletter (which wouldn't have ever existed weren't for the problems I mention above).

      It is the lack of adoption that forces content creators to go the newsletter approach just to let readers know you published something new. That, I think, is a complete waste of everybody's time. And is not exclusive of newsletters.

      They said it was too complex for ordinary users.

      I think it deserves a comeback! Users are no longer ordinary ;-)

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        Absolutely, I always loved RSS. And now it's even easier to explain it to the social crowd:

        • subscribe ➔ follow
        • newsreader ➔ social app
        • feed ➔ social feed/timeline
        1. 1

          Haha, never thought about it on those terms, but you are completely right!

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