Blog Pile

Bad Dog: Stuffing Newsletters inside RSS

I am all for expanding the use of RSS, and new things are popping up every day. However, stuffing an entire newsletter inside an RSS feed as listed at Lockergnome (referring to
Barbara Feldman’s “Ezine-Tips” on Using RSS to Deliver Newsletters seems to me a bad trend of stuffing a lot of things into RSS feeds that need not be there.

As an “EZine” maven, Barbara is proposing alternatives to sending electronic newsletters than email, but what she is suggesting is sticking the entire contents in an RSS feed.

Many are familiar with RSS as a syndication format for blogs, because most popular blogging platforms automatically publish headlines, summaries, and links in an RSS format.

Newsletter publishers, however, are just beginning to use RSS as an email-replacement technology to deliver full-content feeds.

Was RSS designed to deliver full-content feeds? No. Is it the perfect technology for delivering such feeds? No. But it is already widely available, and its penetration is increasing. And, being nimble in online publishing is all about seizing the opportunities as they present themselves.

This to me is bastardizing the notion of RSS as Simple Syndication, or providing a synopsis of content with a brief descriptiion, that allows viewers to scan the title and blurb and then choose on their own, to go after the full content.

But what Barbara is doing is pushing out the full content in RSS (why? because she can?), taking away that right for users to browse and click for more, pushing out more bandwidth to aggregators who check feeds hourly. Next stop, spam, porn, and why not pirated movies stuffed inside RSS?

RSS has potential as well for access to content descriptions via PDAs, cell phones, but not if it becomes weighted down with giant feeds.

This is bad. Do not do this. Keep it simple. Please.

Update: August 29, 2003
This has stimulated some interesting dialogue (see comments below), and I must come clean in that when this was written, I was not as aware of the different ways Barbara uses RSS on her site, including feeds for descriptions of her content (see her note below).

And yes, this dog must admit that selection of this newsletter feed is on the user, and completely self selected in.

On the other hand, there is this rising tide of suggestions of “RSS replacing e-mail” and I can swear I hear the sounds of the members of the Direct Marketing Association rubbing their hands, and other internet exploiters trying to figure out how they can make a buck by sleazing something via RSS. Maybe it will not be as bad, but as I noted in a comment below, I can recall a time when e-mail was as pure an open, spam/virus/junk free environment as RSS is today.

So I will take the “bad” dog snide remark back about what Barbara is doing, enjoy nibbling a bit of crow.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. What’s fundamentally wrong with this comment is encapsulated in this phrase: “what Barbara is doing is pushing out the full content in RSS.”

    Barbara isn’t pushing out anything. She is placing a file, in RSS format, on her website. Those who wish to read the file may do so by making a request, either directly with their own RSS reader, or via proxy, through an aggregator.

    People who don’t like her content, or her format, don’t have to read it. It’s not like some malformed email that lands in your in-box and crashes Outlook. If you don’t actually ask for it, it will never intrude into your space.

    You cannot establish the purity of any sort of content format. Systems designed with such an expectation will never succeed. Any content reading system must scan for the content it wants, unsert defaults where values are not obtained, and discard the rest. Failure to do so results in Microsoft.

    This would be true whether or not people put newsletters into RSS feeds.

  2. :::: What’s fundamentally wrong with this comment is encapsulated in this phrase: “what Barbara is doing is pushing out the full content in RSS.” :::

    Well a comment is a comment, not right or wrong, but open to discussion, eh?

    However, I do concede that she is not pushing content, and it is still user choice to subscribe to an RSS newsletter.

    My thought was if I am expecting to get 8k updates via RSS, and she wallops out 200k newsletters, is that going to be resent everytime my newsreader looks for an update?

    I would like perhaps if two levels of feeds were offered- one for the entire newsletter and one for smaller abstracts of articles. I like to scan content and click for more, not get the whole shebang without an RSS preview.

    But twice you are right- there should not be prescribed, Redmond-ian decrees on what goes into feeds, but better practices by the “feed-ers”.

    I still dread spam via RSS. It cannot be far away.

  3. “I would like perhaps if two levels of feeds were offered- one for the entire newsletter and one for smaller abstracts of articles.” — so would I. I would also like it if ‘link’ pointed to an actual link, and not the post (of whatever length) I just read in my aggregator.

    I’m sure RSS spam is just around the corner (if it hasn’t started already – I’ve received some junk in edu_rss). That’s why we need to tread carefully and be sure of our approach. The key, I think, is selectivity. We choose which feeds we will harvest, we choose which posts we will view, we choose which links we will follow. It is very difficult to make spam work under such an environment. And that, of course, is what we want. Trusted sources, relevant content, worthwhile links.

    But if we’re ever tempted to harvest en masse and filter after, we’ll be in the same position we are with email, trying to filter garbage that the increasingly clever spammers try to hide from us.

    That, and I have to learn to stop starting my comments with phrases like, “What’s fundamentally wrong with…” lest I be filtered out of people’s aggregator as well.

  4. Believe me, I won’t.

    Remember the beauty of one of the “S” in the acronym being for Simple.

    And what in the RSS will indicate that it is nice and lightweight (most feeds now) and not fat stuff?

    How useful will it being when RSS contains 5 Mb PowerPoints and PDFs and other crud?

  5. I am probably the last person in the room to figure out the difference between “push” and “pull” technology. I also am not allowed anywhere near our Web sites, except to write the copy that goes both on the sites and in our email newsletters. Finally, I am the editor of Ezine-Tips, the email newsletter that Barbara’s column appeared in and was subsequently cited on Lockergnome among other places.

    Having established that I’m not an XML/RSS expert, I also want to say that I’m still not sure what the big deal is with what Alan calls stuffing newsletters into RSS.

    Okay, I am being a bit disingenous here, because I do have an inkling about feed size and adding all kinds of bandwidth wasters and the like, but at the same time, I don’t have any more difficulty reading Barbara’s newsletter via an RSS feed than I do Chris Pirillo’s Lockergnome RSS feed or all the hundreds of items on Daypop or Slashdot that keep popping up even though I’ve either read them or marked the channel read.

    Maybe it’s because Barbara has deliberately left her newsletter graphics-free in the RSS feed and because it displays in my news aggregator (beta version of FeedDemon, which I really like now that a couple of bugs have been squashed) with just a headline and a link unless I have all three panes open.

    Once I read it — or should I ever choose not to read and mark the channel read — it doesn’t show up in the report, so it doesn’t get re-sent, which is something else that Alan objected to, I believe. That, also, is something that irritates me about the Daypop, Syndic8 and Slashdot feeds –even if I mark the channel read, I get the same news over and over.

    Going back to the bandwidth-consumption issue, I also read Rafat Ali’s newsletter via RSS, and his is formatted with graphics, even advertisements, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem.

    I’m a little uncertain about the spam potential of RSS, because unlike email and its address resellers and hijackers, with RSS if you don’t have the feed in your aggregator, you don’t get the material. And if some corporation does set up a blog via RSS and I add the feed thinking it’s one thing but it turns out to be crap, I get rid of the feed and that’s it.

    Or am I missing something? As I said, email is my life — I work for and we’re still dedicated to the proposition that email can work — but I see RSS as an additional communication channel for online publishers. It’s yet another way to make your site more accessible, to remind people to go to your site, without having to depend on them making the decision or relying on bookmarks or favorites lists,which was one of email’s early benefits.

    I’m not ready to pronounce email dead, but I agree that it’s on life support right now.

  6. RSS is a very new thing so it is not surprising to find there are different ways to see what it is/should be.

    In my mind, and the way I publish and use hundreds of feeds, I look for the RSS to provide a title, a brief summary of a story (a few sentences), and a link for me to get the full story. I do not look for a feed to provide the entire content. To me entire contents are best published on a web site, and RSS is the “teaser” that draws you to the site.

    I accept that anyone who chooses to subscribe to Barabra’s feed is choosing that as a type of info they choose to receive- at least a bit more choice than spam.

    I do not accept that position that just because others are doing something, it is okay for me. My mom would never let me get away with an excuse like that, but there is no Mom on the net.

    And just because your view of graphics rich online content is fine, remember that there are variations in access speeds, types of devices accessing the net, etc. Your experience is only your experience.

    Actually, Barbara’s newsletters are rather brief and likely not much more in net bandwidth than some blogs can syndicate. To me it looks like a cut and paste job of what gets sent out of email (no links).

    So I just do not see a bright future with everyone starting to stuff more and more content INSIDE the RSS feed when I am looking for the feeds to be an abstract of the content.

    Finally, for perspective, I remember back in the mid 1980s when email was simple, there was no commercial overview, no viruses, just a simple communications protocol, as opposed to this week, when I am having to delete hundreds of virus generated emails every day. I have genuine fears about opportunists who latch on to a simple useful technology and bend it for their profit at the expense of the internet community (tell why you think email is on “life support”- is it kids in poor schools acessing their learning materials? Curious people researching their ancestors? wheel-chair bound citizens finding online communities of support? Or is it commercial exploiters just trying to make a buck?).

    So the bottom line is we can have different perspectives on the use of RSS and continue to do as we desire. That freedom is more important, but do not come back around when RSS is as laden with undesirable content as email has become. I will be somewhere else.

  7. Just wanted to drop in with a comment with respect to my “forcing” my RSS full-content Surfnetkids newsletter upon my RSS readers: it’s just not true. The RSS edition of my Surfnetkids newsletter is NOT the only RSS feed I offer. I also offer a “traditional” RSS feed with headlines, links, and brief summaries ( ).

    Just as I offer 3 choices of newsletter delivery (email text, email HTML, and RSS), I also give my RSS readers a choice: full-content newsletter or headlines. I think the reason my headlines RSS feed wasn’t given any press is that is over 2 years old.

  8. Mea Culpa. I must admit over-stepping my remarks without really knowing the set up Barbara has for different RSS feeds, so I have added a postscript to my orignial post.

    It is more of a concern over these recent blog stories of people thinking that RSS will be a “replacement” for emailing of stuff to people, or that “email is obsolote”.

    The discussion has been worthwhile, so thanks for stopping by.

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