The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

There's a rather interesting bitch-slapping session going on between Steve Outing and Chris Pirillo on one side, and Vin Crosbie on the other. The argument is over whether the future of digital publishing (specifically for newsletters, but by extension other formats) lies in RSS (Outing/Pirillo) or email (Crosbie).

Linkage to Outing's, Pirillo's and Crosbie's arguments pretty well cover their views (although Crosbie's parody argument is a little tedious to read without constantly referring back to Pirillo's original list; this post and comments is a little easier to read, and offers a pointer to unfolding arguments). Breaking it down, the pitch for RSS stems from the spam overload that's clogging email servers and making it hard to break through the clutter to reliably deliver requested correspondence; this is supplemented by the latest round of virus spread that's further made email flow harder due to more rigorous filtering. The argument for email is that RSS is still an infant format that most people have never heard of, and thus can't/won't access as readily as the familiar email format.

Crosbie's bigger beef is his contention that the other side's argument is based on the assumption that email newsletters are falling out of favor, as an extension that all email in general is losing its appeal in the face of the spam wave. Crosbie's experience is that subscriptions to email-published newsletters and magazines are in fact gaining in popularity. Whether or not that's the case industry-wide, and if it will remain the case in the foreseeable future, is probably the most salient point in this free-for-all.

My feelings? I'm not overly familiar with the big picture here, and my experience as an end-user is probably typical of others'. A couple of things occur to me:

- Crosbie is right about RSS being far from a universally accessible delivery format. His argument that the dearth of RSS-reader programs on computer desktops and portable computing devices (PDAs, cellphones, etc.) means the format will remain stillborn may not pan out, though. Services like Bloglines are starting to make RSS more accessible to a wider audience by allowing the user to read the feeds through the familar browser interface. If these sites take off, then RSS could catch fire in a hurry.

- If RSS does catch on--and the expansion of the format among major outlets like the Christian Science Monitor, Yahoo! and the New York Times indicates that it is--Microsoft could have a big hand in advancing it by including a built-in RSS reader into the next edition of Windows.

- For all the problems that have cropped up with email, I don't believe it's ever going to die. I wouldn't mind seeing fancy-schmancy HTML-formatted email go the way of the dinosaur, as in my experience that's the type of stuff that's the biggest hassle in terms of script-aided tricks. I very much prefer receiving basic text emails; frankly, I've never seen a solid enough reason to send or receive anything with advanced formatting or graphics. URLs can easily be written out and either autoformatted on the receiver's end, or else copy-and-pasted into a browser.

- Outing and Pirillo are obviously passionate about the possibilities of RSS, perhaps to the point of forgetting that not that many people are as into it as they are. Reminds me of the self-enclosed community mentality that grips many blogging proselytizers.

- I think the continuing fallout from the SoBig/Blaster worms will have a big effect on email publishing. True, viruses have forever been traversing via email default settings, and that hasn't soured people on the utility of email before. But I've really sensed something different this time around, both personally and professionally, and it could really put a choke on the business-as-usual of business emailing. Could Outing's/Pirillo's assumption about email losing its usefulness come true from all this?

- It's my impression that RSS feeds appeal mainly to active news junkies and hardcore Web users, and I'm not sure that'll ever change. Similar to Usenet newsgroups, which have loyal geekish devotees, but have been dying a slow death since the website-centric Web took root. It could be that mainstream adoption will never happen, possibly aided by the emergence of some new online publishing/delivery standard; if so, then obviously RSS won't be the way to go.

That's what I think, for now. I'll be interested in hearing more about this, especially once cooler heads prevail.