Arto, Alex and I were having a discussion (ok, argument) over coffee yesterday morning about the suitability of email notification for events which are available via RSS. An interesting part of the conversation came when we reviewed the history of RSS, and how it become popular. RSS was created for news syndication, and later exploded in popularity when it became identified as an a potential part of the solution to the problem of following many, many websites.
Clearly trying to follow 100 websites can become time inefficient, when only, say, 5% of them have been updated since the last time you visited. Two possible solutions are email notification (push), and something like RSS (pull). From the perspective of server-side resources, implementing an RSS was dead simple — just publish a simple feed — compared to the alternative of maintaining a subscriber list, a mailing infrastructure, bounce handling, etc. And so RSS, and feed aggregator programs (desktop tools like NetNewsWire and web apps like Bloglines) soon exploded in popularity.
However, following sites via RSS and aggregators still hasn’t seemed to permeate into the mainstream, and we suspect that’s because the mainstream still don’t have the need or desire to large volumes of websites (nor participate in tools like Basecamp, and forums, which more and more are offering RSS feeds.)
We closed the conversation without any real conclusions, except that mapping the right communication mechanism to a given purpose isn’t always an easy task, and one may have to take into account the demographic context of the application. Even among the three of us, we couldn’t really agree on what would be the preferred notification mechanism for, say, a custom-configured Amazon search — email notification, or RSS?