Why Do We Need RSS Readers?

This isn’t one of those “Technology X Sucks” articles (this one is one of those). I just don’t really understand why people use standalone RSS readers or even web-based readers.

I’m not knocking RSS at all — I love it. I currently subscribe to 34 RSS feeds and 6 podcasts. I don’t use a reader though — I use a Python script (a hacked version of Aaron Swartz’ rss2email) to download the feeds and email them to me. By doing this, I accomplish the following:

  • Synchronization! I use IMAP for my email so if I delete a feed item at work, it’s deleted at home too. A lot of people have talked about RSS synchronization, but we’ve already solved that problem years ago with IMAP.
  • Rules — I can use server-side (procmail) or client-side (thunderbird) standard email rules, like moving to folders based on the subject
  • Easy Configuration — When I get a new computer, I set up my email and my feeds are already set up too
  • Everything in one place — I don’t have to deal with updating two clients or checking for new items in two windows

Perhaps the biggest advantage is that by hacking rss2email, I’ve been able to insert my own processing between the feed itself and its presentation. For example, there are several feeds that for either legal or lame reasons don’t include the full entry — they just have a link to it. The Doonesbury Feed doesn’t actually have today’s Doonesbury — it just has a link to the official Doonesbury site. My version of rss2email can be configured to follow the links in a feed so that the email I get contains the actual comic, not just a link to it.

I’ve also added a way to disable feeds while still keeping them in my list, though I’m sure this is something that other readers can do as well.

There are numerous extensions that I’ve considered but haven’t had time to implement. For example, I subscribe to several feeds (like The Unofficial Apple Weblog) that are part of Weblogs, Inc. Periodically, each one of these guys sends out the exact same “Best of Weblogs, Inc.” entry highlighting some entries from the other properties. That’s great, but I only need one of those. The script is in a good position to detect the duplicates. Also, some feeds have an annoying tendency to send out “roundups.” This is where a blogger suddenly realizes, “Hey, I’ve posted a lot of stuff about finger painting lately. I’ll send it all out again as a ‘finderpainting roundup’.” I personally have no use for roundups since I’ve already seen the items, so I could exclude any items that have “roundup” in the title.

There are a handful of tools out there that are similar to rss2email, though most of the others are web-based services which means no hacking the source. I’ve submitted my rss2email modifications back to the original author, but got no reply. This, and the fact that it’s several years old, makes me think that it’s not being used all that much. I can’t figure out why — what’s so great about your news reader that you would forego the advantages of email-based news?

One Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *