RSS vs. email: The First Phase of New Technology

    June 21, 2006

On Monday, Micro Persuasion blogger Steve Rubel posted “35 ways you can use RSS today.”

The list of links to offbeat feeds (like tracking drunk athletes) prompted numerous comments, most of which either listed other interesting feeds or pointed to similar lists. Neville Hobson applauded the list, calling its contents “terrific examples of how to think about RSS-a tool that enables you to get news and information about things that interest you, automatically and with very little effort.”

Over at, however, Brian Clark had a different take. In a post titled, “How NOT to sell RSS,” Clark sniffs, “Now, tell me – couldn’t you rewrite that headline to read: 35 Ways People Used Email in 1998 (And Still Do Today)’?” Clark makes a couple points while noting that RSS is hardly the first online opt-in mechanism:

  • People like getting content by email
  • People don’t understand why they should switch to RSS
  • People don’t like change

The only way to sell RSS, Clark says, is to tell people why it’s better than email. Worse, he says, selling RSS isn’t much different than asking folks in 1995 if they’d like to get content via HTTP.

Clark makes some good points, but he’s wrong about a few things and, from where I sit, his points don’t invalidate Steve’s list. The main thing to keep in mind is that every new technology gets its start doing things the old technology did. Television, for example, initially broadcast radio shows; it was some time before innovators (Edward R. Murrow, Paddy Chayevsky, and the like) began thinking about things television could do that hadn’t been done before. The computer itself was initially a glorified typewriter and calculator. Those who built the first PCs did not envision it as a communication tool. The fact that TV first broadcast visual radio and the PC first gained steam with VisiCalc and PCWrite didn’t keep people from migrating from the old technology to the new. The migration was, however, gradual, so I’m not concerned that RSS has not yet enjoyed widespread adoption. As people begin to understand the benefits of RSS, they’ll begin to use it, particularly as it gets easier and easier.

Once Internet Explorer 7 rolls out, for example, with its built-in RSS functionality, a lot of folks will begin using it without necessarily understanding what RSS is and how it functions. (As a speaker at the New Communications Forum noted earlier this year, a lot of people use email without knowing what SMTP is.)

The uptake of RSS will occur, to some degree, because of things about which Clark is mistaken. First, people don’t like email. Clark cites a Nielsen-Norman study that found people develop tighter bonds with email newsletters than cold RSS feeds. Back in 2004, however, a study by Relemal determined that seven out of eight people believe subscribing to an opt-in e-mail list will result in more spam. And 83% have said they avoid subscribing to a list when they don’t trust the publisher, while 78% said they just don’t always believe a company’s official privacy statement…all of which makes feeds a more desirable option.

There is other research that confirms a declining trust in email, exacerbated by spam filters’ tendency to produce false positives, floods of unwanted CC’d messages from co-workers, messages that quote every preceding message in the thread, and well-meaning friends who forward ancient chain letters, causes, and jokes. But there’s another consideration: my 17-year-old daughter’s generation. They simply don’t use email, opting for tools they find more efficient. RSS is…well…more efficient than email for opt-in lists.

Clark also makes a very common mistake when he insists that people don’t like change. People love change. They longfor a change of scenery, a change of pace, a life-changing experience. People change jobs, change homes, change cars, change fashion styles. What people don’t like is being changed. Nobody’s forcing RSS on anybody; people are taking it up because it’s an improvement over email, and as it becomes easier and as the RSS label recedes into the background (which Clark endorses), that uptake will gain steam. After all, in 1995 you would have been hard-pressed to find a typewriter in anybody’s office, even though word processors just did what typewriters did.

And what will people do initially with RSS feeds? The same things they were doing with email, of course. That’s just the way technology adoption works. Clark’s position that selling RSS requires explaining its advantages over RSS is important, but once you’re sold, you need something to subscribe to. For all those people who are new to feeds and looking to find out what’s available out there, lists like Rubel’s are entirely worthwhile and a completely useful way to sell RSS.

One last point: I’m not sure Steve was selling RSS to potential subscribers as much as he was showing communicators the kinds of things they could implement on behalf of their companies and clients. For those of us who would create feeds, it is important to know what they are and how they work, and lists like this can give the brain a jump-start.

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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.