Those of us who subscribe to the brand-new Slate RSS
feed got an update this evening: a new story had been added to the website.
Now Slate doesn’t actually put the content of its stories into its RSS feed,
but does give us the headline and the standfirst. The headline, this evening,
was "Vox Populi", and the standfirst was "Lying down the rabbit
hole." In other words, the RSS feed was no use at all. If you wanted to
have the vaguest notion what on earth the story was about, you had to click
through from your RSS reader to the website.
Slate celebrated the launch of its feed with a long
article extolling the virtues of RSS, but it’s clear that the powers that
be at the magazine still don’t get it.
In fact, for all the wars between different flavours of RSS (I have no idea
what the substantive difference is between 0.9x, 1.0, 2.0, and Atom, and I have
no desire to find out), the biggest problem with it is not the technology itself,
but rather the way that most websites use it.
Every so often, an RSS feed is actually better than the website: NewYorkish
is a prime example. It breaks in my browser, with the middle column overlapping
the main text, but it looks wonderful in my RSS reader. Much more frequently,
however, it’s the other way around.
For starters, most bloggers who don’t feel comfortable messing around in the
engine room, as it were, simply go with the default settings in Movable Type
or TypePad. For reasons I’ve never been able to work out, the default setting
normally gives you little more than the headline and the first 20 words, rather
than the whole piece. Back in June, Lance Knobel guilt-tripped
me into making sure everything I wrote made it into the RSS feed, quoting with
approval a fellow blogger saying that "I get annoyed with sites that don’t
provide a full RSS feed and insist on offering snippets or headlines only."
But since then, the situation has only got worse. Gawker Media, for instance,
has horrible RSS feeds, which never include images, links to other sites, or
more than a tiny bit of text. ArtsJournal is even worse, providing nothing but
a headline. And although the New York Times RSS feeds
are excellent, good luck finding them from the nytimes.com homepage: they’re
all hosted somewhere else entirely.
In general, going down my list of feeds, the bad is much more common than the
good. I limit myself to 39 feeds at any one time: beyond that I can’t see them
all at once in my aggregator, and in any case beyond that I’d never have time
to get any work done at all. Of the 39, just 18 – Low
Stewart, The Trademark Blog,
(a recent development: thank you!), Below
Week Ever, and Belle de Jour
– have full RSS feeds which duplicate the content on the website. And
TMFTML’s links often don’t work from the RSS reader, for some reason.
I’m not going to name-and-shame the bloggers who don’t serve nice pretty RSS
feeds (Choire), because there are
so many who don’t serve any kind of RSS at all. The ones on blogspot we can
excuse, but the likes of Andrew
Sullivan, Josh Marshall
– really should get with the program.
Then there are the corporate blogs – the ones which are meant to drive
traffic to the sites on which they’re hosted. Some, like The
Kicker, serve crappy RSS (although to be fair, The Kicker’s RSS feed is
no crappier than that of Elizabeth Spiers personally),
but most have no RSS at all. The
Corner, Best of the Web Today,
– none of these blogs seems to have realised that an RSS feed would increase,
not decrease, their total traffic. In this category, too, you should include
Romenesko, which, one
would think, would be pretty much ideal for subscribing to.
The main reason not to put all your content into your RSS feed, of course,
is if you’re keen that your readers view the advertisements on your website.
It’s a bit like the old debate about newspapers putting their content online:
they were worried that the website would cannibalise their paper sales, and
now they’re worried that the RSS feed will cannibalise their website. I’m not
convinced, but I do see the argument, and therefore I don’t have a problem with
news organisations like the New York Times and the BBC which provide good, regularly-updated
RSS feeds which give you the top headlines and a one-line summary of the story.
When that kind of attitude spreads to webzines like Slate, however, I get worried.
Slate’s RSS feed not only doesn’t provide the full content of the stories: it
doesn’t even provide the same amount of information that’s in the site’s table
of contents. There’s a story with the headline "Vox Populi"? Um, great.
Now tell me who wrote it, and I might be interested.
Slate is all about its franchises: Chatterbox, Ballot Box, Webhead, Dear Prudence.
If something new is up on the site by Lithwick or Kinsley or Shafer, I’ll want
to read it. But the RSS feed, unlike the table of contents, tells me neither
the department in which the story is located, nor the name of the author. All
I’m left with is a headline, which means almost nothing. Why build up franchises
only to ignore their very existence when you move to an RSS feed? Even the main
image on the Slate homepage ensures that every story it mentions also comes
with the name of the author.
RSS, I believe, has been around since 1999, yet remains something known only
to a tiny minority of internet users. So long as the biggest and most important
websites continue to treat their RSS subscribers with such disdain, this state
of affairs is likely to continue. Really, I see little point in trying to fix
whatever minor problems there may or may not be with RSS itself. Unless and
until content providers actually bother to use what it’s capable of right now,
it’s going to remain something used only by the blogosphere’s nerdier types.