One of the threads I commonly hear as a newsletter author is that email is already a busy medium, and newsletters are something of an inbox distraction.
I get it. People get a lot of emails. It’s an imperfect medium.
But in many ways, it’s the best we have for the small publisher, because of what it represents. Done right, it’s an end-to-end production and distribution mechanism in which the publisher maintains some semblance of control over that distribution. It supports scarcity and intimacy as a result.
It’s not like the web, where most everything is open, allowing for information to be distributed at scale.
But email is old and its advantages as a medium ignore a whole lot of disadvantages. The biggest? It’s a polluted medium, with lots of information already being distributed through it without a lot of consideration of the end user.
So what’s the alternative? I think the technically minded would make the case for RSS, given that the information feed style is what it was built for (and given that companies like Feedly have already adapted their products
to the newsletter trend), but I’d like to suggest that RSS itself needs a little bit of a refresh based on what we’ve learned about email.
Here’s the reason RSS didn’t work in the long run: It was too open in its nature, essentially giving the user full control over the mechanism. Publishers had little control over design (which, as a publisher, I actually care about), and little control over the model of how the content was shaped—it often felt like all or nothing. Publishers were constantly encouraged to support this community around RSS that carried massive influence
, even though they didn’t get much in return.
Despite being the plumbing of the blogosphere
, eventually publishers realized this was a bad deal, because it didn’t leave any room for supporting business goals. Sure, a handful of bloggers made it work—a whole lot of Mac blogs born during the RSS era still publish weekly sponsor messages—but the truth is, at least from a blogging and text-publishing perspective (rather than a podcasting perspective), RSS was all content, no model.
RSS users got upset about truncated feeds
that resulted from this dichotomy, even though the reason publishers truncated feeds was because RSS was costing them money, even though they didn’t want to out and say it.