Features - The Future of RSS - Is E-Mail Publishing Dead? RSS-based Information And News Feeds: Pros and Cons For Content Distribution Through RSS

Robin Good (Luigi Canali De Rossi) is the Editor of Sharewood Tidings, the alternative and independent news source on the effective use of new media technologies for online communication and learning.  He is the author of several web guides, including Robin Good’s Mini-Guide, Become A NewsG-d.


RSS is good because it gives back to individual users the power to choose and select content. This, along with timeliness, portability and cost-effectiveness, are probably the best reasons why you should understand how and why RSS is going to change the way you select and receive your information, news and updates.

Is RSS Going to Replace E-Mail?

As my first and most immediate answer I must say that the question has been wrongly posed. E-mail is a two-way communication medium while RSS is only a distribution one. From that simple realization, you can immediately derive that e-mail is here to stay, while RSS may well poised to substantially challenge e-mail in its ability to be the best and preferred distribution/subscription mechanism for newsletter publishers on the Internet.

The issue is still hot and being discussed in many online forums and discussion lists, though, until now, reserved to an audience of veteran computer users, Internet pioneers and geeks. According to several industry analysts, researchers and technologists writing in the noosphere, email is soon to be dead and RSS will be the prince coming to mourn at her death Web. Unless you go and read carefully what is being written and sometimes easily skipped over, it would appear as if RSS was not coming by to save or resurrect email, but to replace her with a new way of messaging and communicating with each other.

Much of the confusion and misunderstanding stems from the fact that RSS is an acronym that few understand, and one that has multiple meanings (RSS stands for "Rich Site Summary" or "Really Simple Syndication" or "Really Stops Spam," depending upon your preference). RSS is also something that once you have read its description, you know less about it than you did before. In essence, very few understand what RSS is and why it is something of relevance to many of us. In such an eco-confused information space, readers, information seekers and independent publishers are somewhat confused about how to proceed, how much hype is in the RSS news, and what is in store for them in this fast-changing communication formula.

One way out of this confusion is to start adopting terms that would allow popularization of the term and easier understanding of what benefits it provides. The terms information and/or news-feed appear in my opinion to be the ones best suited for this task.

What is RSS?

RSS is an old technology that originated with Netscape. RSS allows readers to sign-up and to receive news, headlines and short summaries from websites, weblogs, and online newsletters. In order to do so, RSS subscribers must download and install a so-called news reader or aggregator (not to be confused with the more traditional type of newsreaders used to access Usenet forums and discussions).

Newsreaders and News aggregators - Where to find them

Many newsreaders and aggregators exist today on the market. The most popular ones are: Newzcrawler, AmphetaDesk, FeedDemon, NetNewsWire, NewsGator, Newsmonster, and Radio Userland.  For more resources, please see: Lockergnome RSS Resources, RSS Resources, RSS Readers, or
RSS Info.

To simplify your task of evaluating and better understanding RSS, I have summarized the key positive aspects of RSS-based information feeds for email publishing and distribution.

The Positive Aspects of RSS-based newsfeeds

Using RSS as a source of timely and up-to-date information is a positive evolution and a definite step forward from where we are now. The advantages of RSS over traditional emails are:

1) RSS is timely. Subscribers get updates and breaking news as soon as they are published and not on the date the newsletter is due. RSS allows us to plug into selected sources of information, like independent reporters, researchers and industry analysts and when they disseminate or report some new information, it allows us to be the first to get it, without having to subscribe to any newsletter, or having to disclose our email address to a new, unknown company.

2) RSS is cost-effective. Cost of delivery and distribution is reduced dramatically. No more paying a mailing list distribution provider, nor having to format and layout news and articles for a different media than the website.

3) RSS is standards-compliant. (If wanted) Maximum compatibility is preserved allowing email subscribers with text, HTML, AOL or MIME Multipart preferences to all receive well formed news updates perfectly compatible with your email client.

4) RSS is email independent. Email client not required. RSS news and feeds can be easily read online, aggregated into a web page journal/portal, sent out to SMS clients or managed to create new online content.

5) RSS can be fully integrated fully in your email. Yes, no one forbids the final user from using new services and tools which do allow perfect integration and receipt of RSS feeds inside your email Inbox (e.g., NewsGator, BlogStreet Info Aggregator).

6) RSS facilitates organization of content. Relevant messages can be easily archived, sorted and organized according to topic, in a fully automated way, something impossible with previously non-standard newsletters.

7) The subscriber is again in full control. Subscription and removal from a news feed is totally under the control of the user, unlike now where users may receive many newsletters that make it very hard or unintuitive to unsubscribe.

8) RSS is private. Privacy and security protection. RSS subscriber never have to provide an email address to their selected information provider. Publishers cannot as a consequence easily resell those emails to unscrupulous marketers and email spammers. RSS is hardly spammable as you always know the source of each news item received, and there is no easy way yet to easily hack into the system.

9) RSS is fully resuable. RSS is a structured, re-usable content protocol that allows the content to be reused for many other purposes: feeding of other news channels and Web pages, integration into dynamic libraries and learning objects.

10) RSS is searchable. RSS can be fully indexed and searched just as Google does with the HTML content on the Internet. See Feedster for a great live example.

11) RSS is secure. RSS cannot yet carry viruses or trojans like a newsletter or email attachment can. If it did, you could easily isolate and identify the source of your infection.

12) RSS is modifiable. Even after it has been sent out. Nobody forbids your ability to change a current posting, or revise an errata, and thus RSS subscribers indeed seamlessly receive that posted update. As a matter of fact, RSS posts can be also removed or expired, and while some would argue that this is not completely feasible, there is certainly a wide open opportunity to explore further in this direction.

13) RSS will be seamless to use. While not yet so, we are getting closer and closer to having news readers and aggregators fully integrated in email or so easy to use that it will not be a problem anymore suggesting their adoption to novice and non-technical users.

14) RSS feeds are not blocked by spam and email filters. As newsletter publishers know very well, the battle to overcome the spam barriers raised by spam and email filters is getting harder everyday while RSS-based news feeds have no such problem.

15) RSS can be monetized. RSS can support free as well as paid content distribution. Some publishers have already started text ads into their RSS-delivered news feeds. The good news is that if you don't like it, you can unsubscribe in a matter of seconds, without having to ask anyone's permission.

16) RSS adds value. When RSS provides an easy to use complement to your site, it clearly becomes a free value-added service. As a matter of fact, this is already happening. Lockergnome's RSS Resource and Amazon.com Syndicated Content feeds are two great examples of this.

17) RSS paves the road for true ethical marketing. As RSS feeds provide a simple and effective way to create specialized subscription channels for your customers and potential clients. As RSS allows them to receive the specific kind of information they seek, it is perceived as a tremendous bonus and as an opportunity to simplify and reduce readers effort to reach, filter out and access the type of information they are looking for. As a consequence, there is no need for the publisher to utilize advertising to become sustainable, as the publisher HAS all of the user attention and need only to provide what the user is looking for.

RSS Cons: RSS-based problems and possible limitations

1) RSS tools may be trojans for malicious software. Pre-assembled aggregators and newsreaders that contain spyware and other malicious code.

2) E-marketing through RSS. RSS marketing may soon be the new trendy buzzword in e-marketing circles. If you come to think of it, there is no embedded mechanism inside RSS that prevents me from posting plain marketing and promotional news items and having them sent out via RSS to anyone subscribing to my feed. While this is not a problem per se, it may be possible that much of our present day pure news feeds will soon be enriched with advertising and other non-related items. The good news is that if and when that happens, unsubscribing from any newsfeed will just be one click away from you.

3) Limited formatting options. You can have images, yes, but you certainly can't choose where they are going to be positioned on the page. Forget also about having
Verdana 12 point in bold in one section, versus Times New Roman in another one.

4) RSS cannot be easily measured, tracked and accounted for. For now, there are no simple or automated ways to account for how many RSS subscribers you have to your own feeds, unless you set up private access and you control it through a registration or subscription mechanism.

5) RSS is hard to grasp. It has been difficult to popularize as a "concept," as many people can hardly make any meaning out of an acronym by itself. Once we find a good way to popularize its role and function and identify a label to better refer to it, we may also see a tremendous jump in rate of  adoption. ("Newsfeed" is already a good step in this direction.)

6) RSS requires us to adopt yet one more tool. Currently, accessing RSS-based news feeds requires a separate software tool. This may prevent novice and non-technical users from easily adopting RSS as a format that they can fully leverage to stay updated on their favorite sites.

7) RSS restrains editorial abilities. Publishers are limited in the ways they can organize and prioritize the coverage of their news content through this new medium. Their ability to showcase, summarize, introduce or open up a newsletter is mostly unusable when distributing news and info via RSS.

8) RSS leaves online publishers with no mailing list. Publishers do not have a mailing list of those seeking information from them and it becomes harder for them to introduce advertising and promotional messages not strongly related with their focus as these will strongly affect reader interest and willingness to keep reading/subscribing. As subscribers to RSS-based information feeds do not need to share their private emails with content publishers, they indirectly force information publishers to maintain higher quality standards of publication and to have a strong focus on their selected topics of interest. On the other hand, publishers can still grow marketing lists by offering selected "premium" channels only to subscribing customers.

9) RSS offers no "reply" button. As of now, RSS offers no way of replying or communicating directly to your information source. It is likely that this limitation will soon be overcome by complementary features, plugins and services filling in this critical gap.

10) RSS is a bandwidth hog. Some criticize the fact that RSS readers and news aggregators have to visit a news address frequently to check for updates and new posts. The critics argue that this utilizes an enormous amount of bandwidth uselessly as supposedly newsreaders and aggregators would attempt to pool info from those sites several times a day. (If you look at the issue from a different point of view, you can see how a much larger bandwidth is actually used when Internet users seek information by surfing to unknown sites and online resources which, rich in images and other bandwidth hogs such as Javascript, tables and visual ads, require much more bandwidth to display than any RSS information feed I have seen so far.)

11) RSS comes in many flavours. Recently RSS has seen a number of different versions of its specification appear, and therefore it should come as no surprise to see listings indicating support for RSS 0.9, 1.x, 2.x. There is indeed a set of different possible implementations of RSS with differing qualities and capabilities. Suffice it to say for now that most news readers and aggregators read all of these different formats, making the issue not critical for end users. It is rather on the part of both content publishers and subscribers to activate and engage themselves in understanding which of possible standards may best benefit their specific needs and requirements.

Conclusion

In the wake of the quickly spreading rumour, Email is Dead, long live RSS, the superficial, non-technical reader lost early reference to the fact that what is being really touted is the death of e-mail publishing such as newsletter distribution and mail discussion lists. It is these type of email communications that according to these authors would be soon succumbing to an RSS flavoured distribution medium, and not the whole email-based exchange universe.

So we are in effect not talking at all about the possible death of email as we now know it (though a good review of it - how we use it and misuse it - is way overdue) but about the raise of RSS-based news feeds as an effective and efficient distribution medium for news, newsletter type content and other selected and highly focused types of information. Jon Udell writes to support the need for a more reliable email system: "Of the various proposals floating around, the RMX idea -- a DNS-based solution that enables a receiving mail server to verify whether the sender's IP address is authorized to send from the domain within the sender's address -- seems particularly interesting."

Electronic inter-personal and business exchanges will still largely utilize traditional email, although for the vast majority, this is becoming harder and harder to manage in an effective way.

Email is Dead -- Long Live RSS:  With mailboxes overflowing with junk mail, users have stopped reading email or have imposed spam blockers, which often block legitimate mail as well as junk. According to a survey by ReturnPath, an email list hygiene company, "17% of permission-based e-mail -- mail that users previously said they would like to receive -- was incorrectly blocked by the top 12 Internet service providers during the first half of 2003."

I have been able to verify that unless specific precautions are taken in the distribution of an email newsletter, over 50% of them may bounce off spam filters, be deleted or never reach the final user. And that is a lot of valuable resources put to waste. When I see that over 3,000 of my newsletter copies are not reaching my own long standing subscribers, I can certainly empathize with RSS promoters and can fully see the advantages and benefits I and some of my readers would get out of leveraging RSS to its fullest.

Three points to avoid RSS confusion syndrome

a) Newsreaders and aggregators
A news aggregator is a dedicated software program capable of contacting and gathering pre-selected news items posted at specific addresses on the Internet. What the news aggregator does is simply to go out to the URL/addresses you have specified, collect the information stored inside an auto-generating file that sits invisibly next to certain Web pages (and which contains all of the most recent updates to that page) and bring that information back inside the newsreader/aggregator while storing that information in a specific folder you have specified. So, as long as you know how to write the syntax and grammar of that invisible RSS/RDF/XML file(s) that sits idle on your server, you are in full control of what subscribers to your RSS feed will see/read. Since few people enjoy creating an RSS feed by hand, new publishing tools have been developed to facilitate this task.

b) Will RSS replace email even for personal communications?
Most people interested in finding out more about RSS and its future have been wondering how RSS could ever supplant altogether email and how we would then go about sending a message to a friend, work colleague, customer or business prospect in such RSS-enabled future.

Though I may raise a ton of suspicious eyebrows with this affirmation I am prone to believe that solid and certified individual authentication maybe the only solid answer to this digital communication problem deriving from the fact that people can act with absolute anonymity. Take away the anonymity from the education and the problem is easily solved. While this does not mean that I must surrender my complete ability to stay anonymous online, it establishes the option for those needing to carry out serious business online to do so by allowing themselves to be authenticated and certified for who they really are. Then we need not worry anymore about SPAM.

The level of authentication required in this vision would allow anyone who wished to obtain a personal identity token by utilizing a combination of digital authentication technologies (fingerprinting, voice, iris-scan, etc.) complemented by the intervention of a trusted and certified human notary who would have to take under his responsibility and good name that the person being authenticated is actually the one he or she declares to be. Once a solid authentication mechanism is in place the road to block everything not coming from trusted or "known" sources becomes extremely easy to implement.

Now imagine having an RSS feed address that is not available publicly. You could have such an RSS feed reserved, for example, for all of the information you need to pass onto your team. If you assume that email was not there, it would be apparent to you that you could indeed post all of the information relating to team work and assignments on a non-public page on your site, generate an RSS channel and send the URL/address channel to all of the people in your team. You can easily see that once they have set-up their news aggregator to read that special address you have provided, they all have a way to receive all of the information you want them to receive without having to use traditional email.

c) Potential for independent publishers to offer Premium content information-feeds
If you have been wondering how to obtain the maximum gain from RSS feeds while being able to maintain a growing list of subscribers my suggestion is to consider creating "private," premium, fee-based RSS feeds to your preferred paying customers.

Simply offer a subscription box that collects for you the names and emails of those who want to benefit from this free service. Then send them a small newsreader preconfigured to read the RSS feeds your customer has requested. (Send out in exchange for a reader email both an effective newsreader and a list of RSS feeds to receive automatically as soon as the tool is setup.) In this fashion, you get to keep your growing mailing list, which remains of critical importance to build business and marketing opportunities, while simplifying the subscribers job of having to download a newsreader, having to set it up and having to configure it to receive your feeds. A bit too much indeed to ask from your patient and often non-technical readers).

Overall, RSS is the best method available today to receive news updates, site changes and information feeds from your selected sources while avoiding the usual amount of search, navigation and ancillary interruption advertising required to receive most valuable content online.

References

Email is Dead -- Long Live RSS

The End of E-Mail?, September 1, 2003

Is RSS the Answer to the Spam Crisis? by Ryan Naraine

RSS Feeds are the Better Email Newsletters

Is RSS Email's Savior - Or Just Overhyped?

RSS replacing email? email dead?

RSS and email(ing lists) links and references

RSS definition
Short for RDF Site Summary or Rich Site Summary, an XML format for syndicating Web content. A Web site that wants to allow other sites to publish some of its content creates an RSS document and registers the document with an RSS publisher. A user that can read RSS-distributed content can use the content on a different site. Syndicated content includes such data as news feeds, events listings, news stories, headlines, project updates, excerpts from discussion forums or even corporate information.