I really enjoyed reading Shawn Blanc’s analysis of RSS and Twitter usage. Very insightful and some interesting stats to boot.

Shawn’s findings and thoughts are generally in agreement with mine. I don’t see Twitter as a real inbox, though. Semantics? Yeah, probably.

But Twitter’s anti-inbox nature is what makes it such a beautiful-on-the-inside, obligation-free source of information. I’ll try to explain.

But first, what is an inbox?

To me, an inbox has two key characteristics:

  1. It has a bottom (end)
  2. I intend (with varying degrees of regularity) to process it to zero

Email and RSS both fit my definition of an inbox, though the information sources are very different: I get to decide who puts things in my RSS inbox.

My Twitter usage increases every year, but RSS remains the most effective catcher of information I really want to see. I’m okay seeing unread counts in RSS because those numbers represent pieces of information that could be useful and interesting.

RSS is indeed an additional inbox I’ve created in my life, though. And I don’t take inboxes lightly—as my questionably pedantic inbox jibberjabbering here highlights. But seriously: inboxes can be one of the lowest (negative?) ROI time investments you can make. So it’s important—I think—to limit and manage inboxes well. Especially don’t abuse them.

RSS inbox abuse

How might one abuse an RSS inbox? One way is by inviting too much in.

Personally, I don’t see how any normal person could follow high-volume sites like Lifehacker, Mashable, or any major news organization using RSS—unless maybe you are a professional RSS app beta tester or something. I’m not saying those sites and writers aren’t worth following. I’m just saying it’s too much for the average, productive-intentioned individual to take in.

I can’t explain the psychology of it, but when I see 30 new RSS items from the same site, it’s way more unsettling than seeing 30 items spread across, say, 15 sites. It also feels more “worth my time” to browse 30 items from a diverse group of sources. Too much from too few is a cognitive, guilt-laden nuclear warhead I’d rather not tango with day to day.

Rational or not, that’s how my brain works. And I try to structure my inboxes in a way that keeps my brain as happy as possible.

Twitter: a less-sticky fly paper

Twitter is far more useful for keeping up with the shovel sites.

Instead of following high-volume feeds in RSS, I subscribe to their Twitter feed. This lets me glance at what’s happening every so often without seeing any unread counts.

I also know that if any of those big sites publish an article I really want to read, it’ll likely bounce around in my Twitter feed because I follow folks with similar interests. Everything else is blissfully ignored.

When it comes to gathering information, I think Twitter is best used as a tool for outsourcing curation. Twitter lets me filter high-volume information through the eyes of people whose interests parallel my own.

My practically general rule

If a site has high value and low frequency, I subscribe by RSS. If it has moderate to high value but high frequency, I use Twitter lists.

There are exceptions. And no, I’m not telling.

A note on dedicated Twitter feeds

Shawn also compared the follower counts for dedicated and personal Twitter feeds. Without a doubt, personal Twitter accounts attract more followers than dedicated feeds, often by a large margin.

This site is no exception. I have four to five times more followers on my personal Twitter account than PE’s dedicated Twitter feed, @PractEff. Moreover, PE’s RSS subscribers are more than 12 times the following on Twitter.

I think this says a lot about my favorite “social network.” People place far more value on the human element in Twitter. Dedicated feeds are robotic and RSS-like. They typically don’t respond to mentions, and they typically don’t make impromptu remarks.

It makes sense to me that most people go to Twitter primarily for conversation and curation and less for static information. That’s what I do.