David Heinemeier Hansson

May 21, 2021

Not just what you read but how

The concept of a media diet has gotten a lot of attention, and it's surely an important one. If you fill your mind with drivel, it'll soak your thoughts in kind. But how you choose to fill your mind matters too. Even if the sources are ace.

For many years, I consumed media in a continuous, never-ending stream from morning till night. I'd go to the same websites several times per day, just checking, seeing what's new, then reading right away anything I found compelling. Add to that the flood of links and opinions consumed through Twitter all day long. When you graze on media like this, you're never done.

That idea of being done was the most compelling part of receiving a print newspaper, which is something we did for a while before moving during the pandemic. There's just a fixed number of pages. You scan through, find a few things to read, and then eventually reach the last page, and it's finished. No more news or opinions until the next day!

I still think the print newspaper has a lot going for it. That delightful combination of done with a way of reading that's free not only from internet comments but also screens altogether. Let's face it, though, most people are just not going to go back to print.

That doesn't mean you have to give up on done.

I've been trying a new experiment lately to embrace that feeling of done, and you might like it too. It's basically email. Yup, good old email. I get a couple of newsletters from traditional newspapers delivered every day, mix that up with a smattering of Substack subscriptions, and then the secret weapon that really makes this possible: Mailbrew.

Mailbrew lets you subscribe to everything from Hacker News to RSS-friendly sites like Daring Fireball to a throttled intake of Twitter and Youtube and get it delivered via email. You mix these sources together in brews, which you decide how often you want, and thus control both the when and the how-much you're interested in reading. In advance! Allowing you to set the budget before you reach the casino.

Take Twitter. There are people I'd like to follow who just only post their thoughts there, and I'd like to get a sampling of those thoughts, without being soaked in all of Twitter, or even all of someone's feed. With Mailbrew you can say "3 tweets from this person per day or per week, that's it, thank you", and it'll only grab the top 3 tweets from that person, free of the retweets.

The same approach works for Youtube. For this channel, just give me the top video once per week. Done.

I've divided my brews into three: 

  1. The Daily, which includes the top 16 links from the past day on Hacker News, a handful of Twitter follows, and a few tech sites like Daring Fireball. I get that at 9am in the morning. Read it before starting work.
  2. Cars & Watches & Stuff, which I get at 7pm, and includes mostly Youtube channels about things that I like to relax with in the evening after dinner.
  3. The Weekend, which I get on Saturday mornings, and includes writers and creators of more long-form stuff that I'd like to dig into over the weekend.

These are all the same sources that I used to consume, so it doesn't feel like I'm really missing anything – and what's missed, like the free-flow scrolling of Twitter, is a feature not a bug. Yet I spend so much less time and attention keeping up.

This how of media consumption goes with pledge: That's it. Can't just go to these sites, or others, and scroll, and graze. Gotta wait for the email hitting The Feed.

It's a completely artificial construct, of course. I could go to any of these places any time. It's not like I've blocked them from my browser. But now that it's been a few weeks, the results are astounding.

The days literally seem longer. In the best possible sense. There's both more time to do more of the things I want to do, but also no attention spent on "everything from everyone all the time". It's been a complete revelation.

Throttling Twitter in particular feels like a personal breakthrough. I took a complete two-month break last year, and it was wonderful, but I still ended up back. This trickle, just from a few people, feels like the trick that's going to make it stick. Barely there, but just enough. Temperance with a wink.

Which of course led me to think about my own use of Twitter, and I've ultimately come to much the same conclusion as I did with Instagram in 2018. I don't want to contribute to that any more. So for now, it's over. Going forward, just links to HEY World posts, and whatever business boosts that come with it on the side. No direct engagement either.

That's the flip side of the how of consuming media: the how of producing it. This, writing on HEY World, just feels so much better. Same thoughts, principles, but filtered through the bar of "does this warrant a post", and then shielded from the corrosive effects of likes and retweets and arguing with strangers on a stage. Ahhh.

We'll see. Media dieting has about the same success rate for most people that actual dieting does. Which is to say abysmal. But I don't for a second regret quitting Facebook back in 2010, and I don't regret quitting Instagram in 2018 either (and that took two attempts as well!).

To focused reading, to filtered writing 🥂

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.