The synergy of RSS to Email

The Thinker by Rodin

Four and a half years ago, I wrote about this new cool technology called RSS. Actually, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) was hardly new in December 2003. It was introduced by Netscape in 1999 as “RDF Site Summary”. This original version is now quaintly referred to as RSS 0.91.

The problem in 2003 was that RSS had not caught on. Who really wants to manually check the same web sites periodically for new content when a solution like RSS was available? It took a couple trillion web clicks but eventually users realized this was stupid and inefficient. Instead, web savvy people like me were noisily petitioning content providers to create RSS feeds. Eventually web publishers took notice. They realized the cost of implementation was relatively small, the underlying XML dirt simple to generate and that it could expand their market for minimal cost. Now, it is hard to find any web content provider without news feeds. This blog, for example, is accessible in two RSS formats as well as the Atom 1.0 syndication format. According to Feedburner, approximately thirty of you access my blog via my RSS feed. Thanks for subscribing, by the way.

So RSS has caught on to the point where it is widely available, but it is still not as widely used as it should be. Only about 10% of us web surfers regularly fetch web content through news feeds. I can only speculate on why this is so. I know I often prefer the rich content available on a web site to the relatively dry text that comes through with RSS. Both Internet Explorer and Firefox let you subscribe to a site’s news feed with a couple clicks, providing the site adds appropriate tags to its HTML.

Syndication formats like RSS and Atom thus serve a different purpose than a browser. We visit web sites for the relative ease of finding the depth of information at a site. We subscribe to news feeds because we want its regular content on a small range of specialized topics. Those of us who are religious about reading content via a newsreader know that it is very efficient at aggregating feeds for us. Yet it lacks the breadth of information that is available on the web site. A newsreader does not facilitate curiosity the way a browser does.

Many of us would probably like to subscribe to hundreds of news sources but really do not have time to read all of them, even with the efficiency built into a newsreader. For example, there may be a site that you only want to read quarterly. In addition, these sites may have pertinent information, but much of it may be irrelevant to our needs.

The problems with email are well known. Given the overwhelming amount of spam, it is hard to legitimate email to make it to your inbox. There is never any assurance that you have received all email sent to you. More email than you think gets lost, but much of it probably ends up in spam folders because spam filters generate too many false positives. As dreadful as missing an important email is to us, many of us fear the alternative even more: having to sift through the dozens or hundreds of spam emails we would get daily if we turned off our spam filters.

I have been wondering if RSS might be an effective solution to broadcasting certain kinds of information. Generally you do not have to worry about an RSS feed containing spam, since you typically verify that the site is legitimate by visiting the site. Once you know it is legitimate, you then can add its RSS feed. However, as I noted, unless you are meticulous about using your newsreader on a daily basis, it is easy to lose these timely notifications.

For those feeds where I need certain information, but only sporadically, it would be nice to get an email with the feed content when the feed changes, or when certain keywords appear in the feed. Moreover, when I no longer need to receive a feed from a particular source, it would be nice to have a fast way of unsubscribing from the feed.

As usual, industry is way ahead of me. A simple Google search eventually led me to the RSSReaderLive site, which I have been testing out. You could also choose one of the many other alternatives out there. Among them are RSSFWD, SendMeRSS, and FeedBlitz. FeedBurner also has a notification service. Using RSSReaderLive, the only thing I had to remember is to program my spam filter to let all emails from it go into my inbox automatically. I just have to hope that the email will not end up dropped in some digital bit bucket on its way to my inbox.

As you might expect these services are not necessarily free. You generally have to either pay a small fee for the service or deal with ads in the email. I hope that email clients will get smarter and start polling RSS feeds for you automatically, and include feed items as emails in your inbox. For those who like to diddle with their PCs, there are programs like rss2email that you can install that will act as an RSS to email proxy for you.

I like it when a confluence of standard web technologies (email, the web and newsfeeds) can be leveraged together to solve a problem like this, minor though it may be. It neatly solves the timely broadcast notification dilemma in a way that works for both content providers and consumers.

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