Is RSS Email's Savior – Or Just Overhyped?

from the jury's-out dept

In the past few months I’ve been getting a better and better understanding of the power and the weakness of RSS. While the “true believers” seem to go a bit overboard in their promotion of RSS as a means of notification and syndication, it certainly does have its benefits in certain circumstances. However, I’m not ready to jump on the “email is dead and RSS is the savior” bandwagon just yet. RSS does have advantages: it gets around the spam problem by being a subscription mechanism and not a push mechanism. However, it also has its limitations – which are only going to become more apparent as more people adopt it. I haven’t yet been convinced that RSS can scale properly. People will (and do) disagree – but the automated nature of RSS readers presents a clear problem for overburdening servers with automated pings. However, beyond the technical limitations, I think RSS has a marketing problem. It is still terribly confusing for most people – and most publicity efforts so far do more to confuse rather than help. First of all, I don’t care what the hell RSS stands for, but having an acronym be the focus is confusing (and scary) to your average user. Second, most folks don’t understand why they need an RSS aggregator/newsreader or whatever it is. They have email which they understand (content is pushed) and they have the web which they understand (content is pulled). Where RSS fits into this is a bit confusing and the terminology doesn’t help. I think it needs a clearer explanation that fits with email and the web. Perhaps something along the lines of “content is grabbed and stored”? Even the awkwardness of that sentence shows what a difficult issue this is. I didn’t care about SMTP when I started using email. I didn’t care about HTML when I started using the web – so why this focus on “RSS”? If folks want to promote “RSS” they should be promoting the benefits, and not the standard itself. They also need to be aware of its limitations – and work towards ways of overcoming them. I like RSS and think it has a ton of potential, but I think it’s getting too much hype in some circles.

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Comments on “Is RSS Email's Savior – Or Just Overhyped?”

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Michael Leuchtenburg says:

Re: Re: Simple explanation for the non-technical user

A normal bookmark list itself doesn’t get updated automatically – syndication provides automatically updated bookmark lists. Admittedly not the most elegant way to put it, but it still sounds more understandable to non-technical users than the explanantions I’ve seen before.

Bookmark lists managed by someone else. That would be pretty handy in itself, too. A way to subscribe to Open Directory (, powers google’s categories) categories in my bookmarks would be quite handy.

kael says:

Re: Re: Re: Simple explanation for the non-technical user

The problem I see with most RSS apps is permanence; things fall out of the feed over time.
So, if I don’t check my news feed for a day, some stories get missed because they’ve been dropped or whatever.
The answer, of course, lies with the client RSS app, it should keep a list of items that used to be part of a particular feed. However, it seems few implementations actually do this.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Simple explanation for the non-technical user

No, you don’t. You might have a bookmark to my site, but you don’t have bookmarks to the content I just put there ten minutes ago. But if you were looking at my RSS feed, you would have those new bookmarks.

Sure I do. I click on the bookmark and I see the content you put there 10 minutes ago. No problem.

What I think you’re trying to say – and which I agree with you on – is that it allows you notification of only new content. Thus, you don’t have to wade through old content again and again to get the new content.

Okay. That’s still not quite as compelling. I understand it, and that’s exactly why I do use RSS for some things – but it’s not the answer that’s going to explain to an average user why to go with it.

Adam Rice (user link) says:

not bookmarks, not just grab-n-store

The best way to think of RSS is as a lightweight distribution alternative for frequently-updated information. Stuff that might be updated way too frequently for you to put up with a separate e-mail each time, or to remember to check the website that frequently.

The server-load issue shouldn’t be too bad: if there’s no new data, the server should return a “304” indicating that. Incremental content updates might save more bandwidth, but at increased processor cost.

And as long as your talking about RSS, I need to mention the Pie/Echo/Atom/Whatever project (which hasn’t settled on one name yet, obviously). See:

Doug says:

All of e-mail, dead?

What arrogance for Pirillo to declare “E-mail is dead, period”. Maybe for him it is. But I happen to use e-mail for [gasp] correspondence, not for broadcasting.

RSS is useless for private correspondence, as the content must be made public (yeah, passwords yadda yadda; still, it needs to be published). Furthermore, you have to leave it published until you’re sure that all recipients have read it.

Maybe the guy should have set up a Web site in the first place, instead of complaining that a medium intended for private one-to-one ephemeral two-way correspondence no longer serves for his need for public one-to-many permanent one-way information broadcast.

Greg Bair (user link) says:

Re: All of e-mail, dead?

When Pirillo says “Email is dead”, he’s not talking about correspondence, he’s talking about newsletters and mailing lists and the like. It’s much easier for the publisher to just post his RSS feed than to have to keep up a subscription list, worry about blacklists, run enough bandwith to mail, all just to say, hey, something’s new here.

Mark Fletcher (user link) says:

We're struggling with these exact issues

You’ve pointed out many of the issues we’re struggling with at Bloglines. How to make the concept easy to understand, and what terminology to use. I absolutely agree that focusing on ‘RSS’ or ‘Pie/Echo/Atom’ or some other acronym is wrong. We think more in terms of ‘blogs’ or ‘feeds’. But even those words are pretty esoteric.

RSS and syndication is pretty new, so these issues are understandable. But I wonder how much quicker the technology would be adopted if there was a single word to describe it. What is RSS’s ’email’?

kai says:

this reminds me

of the debate about whether XML is a good technology. XML by itself is a bunch of text surrounded by squiggles. RSS is a way to subscribe to certain things and then you get text surrounded by squiggles back.

I certainly don’t understand all the rah-rah about RSS. It’s not like subscriptions to content are a new idea (though Amazon will probably get a patent on that too). You only want emails from certain users? So filter on those users… You want Techdirt? Get an HTML client to download it every day. I can’t figure out what RSS (or XML) has done to deserve the massive amount of hype they receive.

Tony Lawrence (user link) says:

Re: this reminds me

Well, let me explain it this way:

My site is a hodge-podge of stuff. It’s all at least vaguely Unix related, but on any given day I might be writing about Mac OS X, Linux, or whatever. I also save newsgroup posts that interest me, have online tests and other features.

Maybe you are just generally interested in the same sorts of things I am and if so, you are right: you might as well just visit my site every day to see what’s new. That assumes that I’m the only site you visit though. If you are like me and want to scour dozens of places each day, you’ll find it much easier and quicker with RSS.

But maybe you are only interested in my site and a few others, but.. maybe you think my Blog is a total waste of bits but that my articles and reviews are worth reading. If you go to my site, you are going to have to scroll past the Blog links to find what you really want.

Instead, you could subscribe to my “Articles Only” RSS feed and get only articles and reviews. Or you could subscribe to “Announcements”. Or you might only want to see the most popular stuff: that’s a feed you can subscribe to also.

In fact, because I’m the kind of guy who cares about my users, if you asked me to create an RSS feed specifically for whatever it was YOU wanted, I’d probably do it, because if you want it, chances are someone else might too.

Maybe this gives you a hint why RSS is really better.

tonypa says:

Re: Re: this reminds me

But maybe you are only interested in my site and a few others, but.. maybe you think my Blog is a total waste of bits but that my articles and reviews are worth reading. If you go to my site, you are going to have to scroll past the Blog links to find what you really want.

This just shows how bad you have designed your site 🙂

If you care about your users, you wouldnt make them scroll past the Blog links to find what they really want.

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