Adolfo Ochagavía

RSS is dead, subscribe through email

This is a story of how a random person on the internet set me thinking and eventually triggered a change to this blog. It started last September, when someone suggested offering email subscriptions in addition to the existing RSS feed. The thing is… I was purposefully not offering email subscriptions! What a waste, someone might say: you had multiple articles reach the Hacker News frontpage in 2023, yet you failed to “capitalize” on the opportunity to “grow” your email subscriber base.

Why was RSS the only subscription option? Part of it was simplicity, of course, but there’s more than that. As an avid reader myself I’m pretty fed up with “content creators” who insist on shoving subscriptions down the throats of their “content consumers”. Some writers are even willing to interrupt an article’s flow to display a subscribe form… the heresy! In my opinion, such practices send a clear signal to the reader: I’d rather nudge you into subscribing than let you enjoy a distraction-free, high-quality article. No surprise that I preferred a non-intrusive RSS feed, especially considering I’m writing for a technical audience.

Still, if you look around carefully, you’ll see I’ve actually added an option to subscribe through email… but hold on before grabbing your pitchforks! It turns out that plenty of people simply don’t know how to use RSS or even what it is, also among programmers. My well-intentioned RSS-only policy prevented genuinely interested readers from receiving updates to my blog! That’s not exactly what I was aiming at, and it’s fixed now by offering both RSS and email subscriptions.

I’m not totally sold on the current layout, though, because the subscription option is more prominent than in the past (you can see the Internet Archive’s version before the change here). Regardless, I decided that having an imperfect solution was better than no solution at all, so here we are. If you have ideas on how to let people know in a more discreet way that they can subscribe, please hit me up! Update: I ended up using a less invasive subscribe link, as a part of the navigation bar, that opens a dedicated subscribe page.

Finally, since this post is also meant to trigger a discussion about current subscription practices, here are a few principles I’m trying to follow:

  1. People should subscribe because they are genuinely interested in what I write, not because I happened to nudge them into providing their email address.
  2. There should be nothing on my blog that distracts people from actually reading. The possibility to subscribe should be easy to find for those actively looking for it, without getting in the way of people who don’t care.
  3. Anonymous subscriptions through RSS should be encouraged, even though they don’t allow me to quantify the “engagement” my posts are “generating”.

Regarding the discussion itself, I’ve submitted the article to Hacker News, so there’s a chance people are commenting there. Also… sorry about the title! I couldn’t resist. I actually love RSS and hope most people use it! I’ll probably post a follow up in a few months, telling whether people actually subscribed through email. Maybe time will prove me wrong and confirm that, after all, RSS is alive and kicking.