RSS Rethink 💡

Perhaps the reason why email newsletters work when RSS feeds didn’t comes down to control—that is, publishers feel like they have some say in the medium. And perhaps good ol’ RSS could borrow from that.

Feed me, Seymour.

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.

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Keeping the feeds working. (Tekton/Unsplash)

I think now is a ripe opportunity to look at RSS again in light of what is actually working for email newsletters, and to fix it. RSS should be built around the subscription and membership models that are working in newsletters. There should be a gating element that the publisher can control and manage. And there should be ways to optionally allow for modest design so the end user can turn it off, but the publisher can share their content in the way that it was intended.

I think RSS was a good idea, and there are still innovative things being done with it. But it was a good idea that failed to win the zeitgeist because it didn’t appreciate business realities that often matter a whole lot more to small publishers than large ones, and that meant the publishers didn’t support it to the degree it needed to truly go mainstream. Instead of ignoring those publisher concerns, like we did 15 or 20 years ago, we should find ways to fix its weaknesses so they become strengths in the long run.

Because email newsletters, for all their flaws, are working. And they’re working because publishers, large and small, have a semblance of control over the final result. There’s a lesson there.

Time limit given ⏲: 20 minutes (I know!)

Time left on clock ⏲: 24 seconds (I know!)

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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