imagining an email-free contact form

by benjamin hollon on january 26, 2023

I don’t like email for many different reasons, including that it’s a decentralized platform that’s been forcibly centralized by big companies.

To line up with that, I’ve been slowly eliminating email from the code of my websites over the last few years. Finally, I stopped putting out emails when I post new things, instead providing RSS feeds for people to keep up with my posts.

There’s one spot I still use email though: for people to contact me. Let’s think for a moment about how I could do away with that, too.

eliminating email on the user’s end

The standard solution is to provide a contact form where people can leave a message. However, these forms are usually written with the goal of eliminating spam and keeping the site’s owner’s email private, not the goal of eliminating email. They usually ask for the user’s email and then the site’s owner replies with email.

Clearly not the solution I’m looking for, but it can get close: a form like this could let me ask users if they’d prefer I get back to them in a different way, for example XMPP, Matrix, Mastodon, etc. (Ideally it would be a platform other than email; using email would defeat the whole purpose.

Using the standard model of these forms, though, that would still require sending an email from the site to me.

eliminating the contact form

I found coding a contact form challenging; my implementation kept breaking and handling email in code is frustratingly difficult.

The easy solution? Just give my email and let people send me messages themselves. I currently do this, albeit using an email relay through Firefox Relay so that I’m not giving away my private email address to spammers.

This is very much not the solution I want. It uses email in every part of the process, even though it is easier to code.

So, this got me thinking: what would be easy to code and yet eliminate email completely?

For sending blog post updates, RSS was the solution. Could RSS be an answer to this problem?

rss for a contact form

I love RSS. If you don’t know what RSS is (or you don’t use it), you’re missing out. It’s a private, easy-to-code way for websites to provide updates in a machine-readable format. Users can plug the link to the feed into a “feed reader” and then get updates from the site through it.

The problem: RSS is usually used to update users about site content. Can I use it to notify the site owner about users trying to contact them? I think I know a way.

Imagine a form as described above which asks people using it to input a way for me to reply to them. Now, if instead of emailing the result to me, I stored it on the server, I could then generate an RSS feed using those stored messages.

RSS links can use authentication, if your reader supports it. My reader, newsboat, does. This would let me restrict access to the feed only to me, making sure people’s messages to me are private.

I think it would be the perfect system. Now, I haven’t implemented it yet, so there very well may be issues. But I plan to try it. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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