Why email is STILL the killer app, RSS is not dead and Twitter will help you find it

Death of RSS

This whole post was sparked by a blog post written by Andrew Chen - particularly the graph he used – I can understand Andrew’s intention to get readers to subscribe with an email, there’s a bit of give and take (feedback loop+lock in) which helps him as a writer. But I don’t agree that RSS is dying right now… the creator of RSS, Aaron Swartz is dead (or alive through Dave Winer) but that doesn’t mean RSS is dying and using Google Trends is probably not the best way to make a decision.

Personally I don’t use RSS anymore, but I’m not alone…

There’s no point in trying to justify email over RSS, when all you want is people’s email id (hopefully not to spam), whereas with RSS you get nothing in return. You can’t sell an RSS reader, but you can sell an email id (and marketers would love to have ones that work, with the added bonus of targeted demographics). But hey don’t worry about Spammers. Anti-Spam technology is doing a good job of keeping out those people (yet, they’re not 100% there… yet!)

Lots of people still like using RSS, why? Because it helps them stay on top of new blog posts, without having to visit the site, avoid advertisements (though they can be inserted into feed). RSS feeds allow for organizing into folders, granted you can use labels and filters for email, but if the “from” email id changes – the filter may not work. With RSS, there’s always a copy of the post (assuming full post syndication). With email, neither do you get to read the previous posts (unless, the author has an archive or auto responder set up somewhere on the internet) nor do you get to unsubscribe and subscribe later without missing out on anything. In case of armageddon – you pretty much are done for anyways.

But in defense of emails, I’m guessing a lot of people (novices in particular) don’t know what a feed reader is or what RSS is even. But I’m sure many know what an email id is (and they’re definitely going to need one to sign up for a feed reader!). And not everyone has a website. Some good publications are still out there that send email newsletters, as text, pdf or word attachment only – they don’t care too much about RSS because they already have paying subscribers!

Then why did Google Reader have to die? Maybe it has nothing to do with RSS dying (and I don’t think it was even on life support). Maybe it’s just because Google couldn’t make money out of it . Or maybe RSS is dying because of lack of discoverability. Whilst RSS is not meant for discoverability, Twitter does this better, RSS readers like Google Reader were meant for notification and reading… duh the name.

Twitter will replace RSS

I’m sticking my neck out here by saying that Twitter will probably replace RSS feed readers – for content discovery at least. Content producers like it because they can lead people to their website. As Paul Coelho quoted “The ultimate goal of a writer is to be… read. Money comes later.” – though I personally think he meant… “discovered” instead of just read.

Twitter is good for 1) broadcasting (the tweet), 2) interacting (the reply, the direct message) and 3) further sharing (the retweet).

It’s like a stream, you dip in and out, you can also take a bath, and you’ll still be refreshed because people generally love novelty. But it’s not evergreen, nor expandable (long form text). It’s hosted, so its own longevity could be questioned (ask Posterous on their experience), though you can download your data in a nice looking standalone archive format. Not to mention, it’s easily accessible; web, api, mobile, tablets, pc, mac and the lifespan of a tweet is a few seconds, but not as widespread as email (which must be in the billions) or Facebook (800+ million) yet.

What would happen if a feed reader only showed excerpts and provide a link to the website post? It would look like a rudimentary version of Twitter, without the interactivity (of retweets, replies or dms). Ok, before I go any further, let me talk about the keyword of this post: Discoverability.

Discoverability

The cost of producing content and distributing it has become almost close to zero in the long run – thus the increase in the rise of sites, blogs and social media. What is becoming more important is discoverability, standing out from the crowd. Content is no longer a king, it is just an emperor without an empire, until it is discovered by the tribe, the followers, the curators, the people who care to share.

We are dealing with what I call the “needle in haystack” issue. People are complaining that it’s difficult to find good content i.e. “Discoverability”. You need discoverability and virality (sharing) to be able to rise to the top and be read (and discovered). Maybe people don’t know what they’re looking for, so they rely on others to show them what’s hot / trending / interesting (as in real life). Twitter again helps discoverability with the help of #hashtags and retweets. Some Tweeps act as human curators. Human curation, even if it is biased will be more valuable than aggregation in the future here’s why . People generally love novelty but Google is not doing a good job of catering to that love.

1) Broadcasting

Some people like to only talk, and not be defined by the responses/replies they receive (they either switch comments off, or don’t reply to emails). But there are some who enjoy testing posts to see if people like it by the number of times it spreads (retweet, likes, shares). Think of CNN, after watching it for some time, the same news is repeated, why? Because not everyone watches the news at the same time. But that’s why it’s called broadcasting, it’s one-to-many and usually one-way, and the net is cast wide across time. Twitter of course is a stream, meaning there are good chances a person will miss the broadcast (the tweet) unless one of his friends / followers retweets it. Broadcasting helps discoverability.

2) Interacting – Commenting Vs. Replying

Interactivity or the ‘feedback loop’ – RSS may not provide the interaction required, as only a very small percentage (maybe 1% of readers actually comment, 10% if your lucky) actually comment on posts. Is this because of the ease of commenting? Think of the number of steps for commenting

Step 1: Type name,
Step 2: Type email,
Step 3: Add comment and
Step 4: Click post/submit

As against replying

Step1: Hit reply,
Step 2: Add message,
Step 3: Click send.

There’s just less friction with replying (by email). Unfortunately, not everyone wants to have a public record of what they say (i.e. comment), even though it may be good meta-data for your content and value for all your readers. Again, you could say it aids discoverability. On the downside, emailing replies help only the content producer or writer (but that’s a good thing).

3) Virality (NOT virility!)

Something that can be shared – easily, without friction. Great content floats to the top. But doesn’t stay there unless it’s still relevant. The more retweets, the higher the discoverability. Email does allow for stuff to be shared easily, that’s how hackers (the older ones) took advantage of unwary people by sending deadly attachments via email. You can’t easily measure or track the virality of your content via email, and that’s what some consumers (particularly the privacy type) like. However, today, anything on the internet can be tracked with an analytics program.

To quote Paul Coelho “Since the dawn of time, human beings have felt the need to share – from food to art. Sharing is part of the human condition. A person who does not share is not only selfish, but bitter and alone,” on why he decided to share his books on sites such as The Pirate Bay.

So what’s the problem dude?

Too many notifications can cause you some agony. Why are there fewer users with Twitter than Facebook? Is it because people don’t like to be notified always? Or is it because they don’t know what tweets are (people are hearing about tweets on news channels, so good chance they know about it by now). Or is it because they don’t want to be continuously notified! Are email notifications an intrusion or disruption because you spend a majority of your time in the inbox (and not in the feed reader).

What about Facebook? Well, they play on people’s psychology well. Help me figure out why Facebook succeeded to get so many users to sign up in comparison to Twitter? I’m not the right person to talk about Facebook, because I don’t use it as often. Maybe I’m a different generation, or maybe because I don’t like the fact that Facebook pushes what IT thinks are better posts (promoted posts) for me rather than first post first serve basis like Twitter.

Email is STILL the killer app. Long Live Email!

Email is more personal, not designed to receive notifications (or for that matter tasks, though people will be innovative). Email is for communication, two-way at best, maybe not the one-way notification kind.

So even if you’re a good blogger / content producer – you’re not necessarily my friend. I just want the free info that you’ve put out there. If I had to pay for it, you should be that good! Why would email be better for the sender (broadcaster), he knows that email is captive, if he starts a new site (or sells his last one) or gets hacked, he can broadcast a message to his subscribers. A local copy remains in the folder of the receiver (reader), so even if the site shuts down one fine day, he can still retain a copy. ( web.archive.org of course cannot archive the entire internet, even Google knows that).

But Twitter will not scale further in its current form:

|Limited identity and personalization| – Twitter lacks the personalization and identification of email. You can only have one username like @jpmartin but with email I can have multiple usernames maria @ jpmartin.com or jose @ jpmartin.com – does that limit its growth? Today if I can’t get jpmartin.com - I can at least try for jpmartin.co – thus opening up various combinations of identifications, unlike with Twitter – where I might run out of luck getting the Twitter handle of my choice (and they’re not releasing the inactive ones). This is important, which is why I think username@facebook.com failed as a messaging system and why Google plus will also fail, the lack of identification and personalization kills virality and discoverability. People still discover content from friends who forward stuff, email helps – it’s ubiquitous and everyone can use their own form of identification.

Are email subscribers more loyal than twitter followers? Both can unsubscribe/unfollow. Just because one provides you with his email, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s loyal. Engaged maybe? So… where do you spend majority of your time? In the inbox or in the feed reader? I’d like to hear from you, either via the comments, twitter or good ol’ email.

Update: You might want to read this excellent piece at GigaOm on Google Reader.