Two faces of RSS

August 26, 2005

I recently came to a realization that RSS (and syndication in general) has two faces:

  1. notification of new information
  2. rearranging information from feeds

This neatly explains something that's been puzzling me for a while: why I find RSS sometimes very useful and sometimes very irritating.

Notification works great, except for web sites that already update as frequently as I normally read them. (For example, Slashdot, which I only browse once or twice a day. If my RSS reader were to tell me that Slashdot had no new articles today, I would assume Slashdot's RSS feed was broken.)

Rearranging information from feeds is so-so. The clear win is having my RSS reader keep track of what I haven't read yet. While you can argue that this (and rearranging unread blog entries to oldest to newest) is just compensating for traditional blog formats being braindamaged, having it fixed is still useful.

Displaying entries differently from how my browser would is hit and miss. When a website does stupid HTML tricks, my RSS reader ignoring most of it is a nice win; but the real problem is that the website should have better design. When the website has good design, simplifying the entries is at best neutral and goes downhill rapidly.

Worse, RSS readers are at the mercy of the websites generating the feeds. If the formatting of the entries in the feed is broken in various ways (some described in AnnoyingRSSFeedTricks), there is nothing the RSS reader can do and the feed version is always going to be inferior.

Most RSS readers don't seem to do much other information rearrangement, although they could and should (as mentioned in RSSAndUsenet). Some information rearrangement is done by aggregate feeders, such as Planet Python.

Slashdot is probably the worst case for me in RSS feeds:

  • it updates more often than I want to browse it.
  • I have no problem keeping track of what I've already read.
  • it looks good in my browser.
  • it looks at best so-so in my RSS reader.

The first three are the important ones. That they also apply to a number of other websites I wind up reading often neatly explains why I am unenthused about their syndication feeds.

On the other side, the less frequently and the more irregularly a website updates, the more useful its RSS feed is to me. Just getting pinged with the information that an update exists is a huge win (since it means I will actually read the new stuff); any bad presentation in my RSS reader is a minor side issue.

Written on 26 August 2005.
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Last modified: Fri Aug 26 01:05:09 2005
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