The difference between RSS and email

Cards on the table straight away. I love RSS feeds. I read something recently which described RSS as the ‘third evolution’ of the internet (or something like that), after ‘browse’ and ‘search’… and it’s not a bad way to see it.

I subscribed to my first RSS feed about three years ago, and I haven’t looked back. So I’m delighted – finally! – to see some comment on RSS feeds from usability guru Jakob Nielsen, although I missed it initially: it’s hidden at the bottom of a piece headlined ‘Email Newsletters: Surviving Inbox Congestion‘. But I just can’t agree with his apparent conclusion that:

Feeds are a cold medium in comparison with email newsletters. Feeds do not form the same relationship between company and customers that a good newsletter can build.

No way. In fact, I have found myself building a stronger relationship with certain companies and individuals precisely because of the feeds… and precisely because they are a cold, or rather a neutral, medium. Email newsletters are invariably about marketing blitz and glitz. RSS feeds, and the content they generally derive from, are pure information. One word for you here: Scoble.

Yes, I scan RSS headlines ruthlessly. But that’s exactly the point. Sites which feed their content to me in its purest form (and it don’t get much purer than XML) are showing they respect me. They give me the control, both in terms of which stories I read, and how I subscribe or unsubscribe. I am grateful for that. And you know what? It builds a positive relationship between us.

Jakob, himself, is a case in point. I don’t subscribe to his email newsletter. And actually, I can only think of one email newsletter I’ve actively subscribed to in the last two years. Email has become my one-to-one communication channel, where the sender knows who I am, and sends something to me specifically. When I get an email, I know it is to me, and intended for me as an individual. There is most likely an action attached.

I have a different place for my one-to-many communications, where the sender puts something out to a mass of anonymous users – my RSS reader. The ‘sender’ doesn’t know who I am, and that doesn’t matter to either of us. There is no expectation of a response, or an action of any kind. I dip in and out, when I want, or when I can. I am in control, and I like that.

If Jakob offered an RSS feed, I would subscribe to it immediately. Instead I am reliant on an unofficial feed created by a scraping service (Feedfire). Says it all.