Awhile back, I shared a screenshot of what my RSS feed looks like and a couple of people asked for more details about what RSS is and how to use it to have frequent encounters with things one might to make notes about.
Now that Readwise's read-it-later app, Reader, is in public beta, I thought I'd talk a little bit about how I use it to help curate useful notes in Obsidian... although my method doesn't require Readwise, the self-serve onboarding transition means I'm finally allowed to share screenshots of how I use RSS feeds to help synthesize information.
What is it?
RSS (“real simple syndication”) is a protocol, a standard set of rules that allow electronic devices to communicate with each other. It’s similar to an API or the standardized way we use radio waves to send information from radio stations to car radios (or your phone, but I digress). In the case of RSS, it basically lets websites talk to content aggregators, which put together new posts from a variety of different sources into one combined, chronological feed under your control (instead of being at the mercy of an algorithm or having to visit 10+ different sites to find everything you’re interested in).
It’s similar to how email is a host-neutral protocol, except RSS is for content instead of conversations.
What can I do with it?
The vast majority of web publications and podcasts put out an RSS feed; it’s a stock feature of Wordpress, which powers over a third of all the internet’s websites. Popular newsletter hosting services like Substack and Ghost also provide RSS feeds. Newsletter services that don’t (like Mailchimp and Convertkit) can usually be turned into an RSS feed with services like kill-the-newsletter. Even forum software like Discourse, which is what the Obsidian forum uses, supports RSS. For example, according to my RSS app, over 400 people are currently following the feed for Obsidian Update Announcements. Here's what that looks like in Feedly:
How do I use it?
I am personally in the habit of using the free tier of Feedly for truncated or “complicated” feeds (like reddit threads and ScienceDaily) that I like to “click through” to the original site to read once I’ve identified something interesting, and then use the Readwise Reader extension to highlight useful things. If I just want to take notes without highlighting, I do that in Obsidian using the method I described in the LYT Conference (you can skip ahead to 14:54).
For things I my feed, generally I divide them into 5 categories:
- things I haven’t seen yet (unread)
- things that have an interesting title and I want to follow up on (read later)
- things I read and want to take notes on but didn’t highlight or annotate, perhaps because I was on my phone and it was a reddit thread and none of my phone apps can handle highlighting reddit threads cleanly (starred)
- things I read and liked but don’t actually feel a need to take notes on (archive — to make it easier to find when it inevitably comes up again and I find myself wishing I’d taken notes on it)
- things I read and liked and took notes on (archive + in my Obsidian vault)
Although I use Feedly and Readwise, you could just as easily use something like Hypothesis or Matter or Inoreader. You can even set up filtered views or "buckets" in just one app, but I personally prefer to use two different ones because it helps my brain differentiate between modes. When I open an app I like to "clear" the whole thing, and separating them out makes it easier for me to avoid feeling like I'm leaving something unfinished. I prefer to handle my RSS like my email and keep it empty, which is to say I sort things as they come in.
When do I use it?
I “filter the noise” of the RSS feed when I have short snippets of time, like for example waiting for access to the bathroom at work, or when my husband is finishing up dinner and I'm out of things to do while I wait. All I do at this stage is flag things that might be useful later.
When I have bigger blocks of time, but am not at my desk and can’t “be productive” (like at the doctor’s office or otherwise waiting for an appointment), I’ll read something from my read-later pile.
When I am actually at my desk, but too tired or stressed out to “be productive” (often at night or before a big event, when I can’t focus on longform writing or big projects), I will “process” my highlights and annotations by making notes in my own words and organizing them.
Readwise's Reader lets me divide things in a bunch of different ways, but the main one is the three "buckets" of inbox, later, and archive. I put everything I read into the archive so when I inevitably have that moment where I remember having read something but it didn't make it into my notes, I can find it again. It makes a great pile of things I've already vetted as having been worth reading, too. If I need to look for information on a new topic, I always start with my archive.
Some people prefer to have their archive locally managed, but as much as I generally ignore warnings about collector's fallacy, and as much as I know link rot is real, the reality is that I have limited access to local-first archives at work because my computer usage is obnoxiously restricted, for something that I want to be able to easily access, and won't be devastated if I lose control of, the Readwise archive is pretty great. It helps that Readwise is a small team of people I like, and not a big behemoth company, so I'm pretty sure that if they ever go out of business they'll let me export the archive. I expect they'll add that feature in eventually anyway, but Reader is still very much in beta and still iterating very quickly, so I'm willing to take the risk for things that are ultimately low-stakes if I lose access to them.
What do I create with it?
As I read things and highlight them and prepare to bring information into my notes, I cross-reference everything right in the app I'm reading in.
Sometimes that's kindle, often it's Readwise, but if I annotate a highlight with something like
#nonfic/newsletterIdea then when it gets imported into Obsidian, that tag takes effect and I can find the information. It comes in organized and ready to use, which is great.
From there, I use the method outlined in this video along with the Zettelizer script for QuickAdd to spin these highlights out into atomic notes. But it all begins with RSS, and it all will end up as stuff to support and expand on my newsletters about cave dwellers of the ancient & medieval worlds or burial practices.
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).
Check out one of these related posts
An evaluation of the viability of using Obsidian for long form content as opposed to tools like MS Word, Google Docs, & Scrivener.
On the importance of knowing when to sit down and dive deep into your notes... so you don't get overwhelmed always keeping them neat.
Old, simple tools are often still useful, especially when paired with a practice of frequent check-ins with your goals and mental state.