RSS Truncation

I have already written in here about why I want full RSS feeds. This seems like such a common sense, automatic issue but people still think truncated ones are a good idea. Here is Teleread’s take on it, which references Jenny the Shifted Librarian’s take on it. She says about the same thing as my posts when she says:

Because if you really want to build an audience and get your ideas out there, then the worst thing you can do is offer only half of them to the very people interested enough to subscribe to your feed. If you’re in my aggregator and you’re sending me a truncated feed — or worse yet, only headlines — there’s a very good chance that I’m not clicking over to your site for the full content, either due to a lack of time or to a lack of interest in the first 25 words of your post.

Friends don’t let friends offer only truncated feeds from their blogs. Won’t you be my friend?

This issue has recently popped up again because I aggregate both of the Nielsen-Hayden weblogs, Teresa’s Making Light and Patrick’s Electrolite. Until recently, Making Light’s RSS feed was so truncated as to basically be useless aggregated and Patrick offered the full text via RSS. He changed that a few days ago, apparently primarily in response to a new feature in NetNewsWire that will show revisions to posts. I put in my $0.02 in the comments thread to deaf ears. The ironies here are a few: one is that I helped Patrick set up FeedOnFeeds at one point, the aggregator I use which I find not very useful with truncated feeds. Another is that not so long ago, he posted about how bloggers he likes should add RSS feeds and was asking how to make Movable Type add full feeds.

All this is prelude. Here are all of my assumptions and arguments for full RSS boiled down as briefly and as cogently as I can make them. If you want to argue via the writebacks, you can reference the arguments by number to keep it clear:

  1. All the arguments for truncating are based on the use at the other end (“they clog up my aggregator”, “people will hold my revisions against me”, “my aggregator works fine with them”)
  2. It is impossible to anticipate all of the uses of RSS. Some people collect them and read them off line on PDAs, some use them to correlate trends, to index.
  3. Full RSS works without incident for all possible uses, current and future. Truncated does not and will not. As of last week, you can no longer search Feedster and expect Electrolite to show up unless the search text was in the first few words of the post.
  4. Truncated feeds work for one and only one use – notification of a new post. To actually read the post, you must go to a webpage. This assumes entirely that the aggregation will be read by an online human with a web browser and the time and desire to leave the aggregator to view the posts in the browser.
  5. There is nothing magic about diffing the RSS. If I so desired, I could in an hour write something that would do exactly the same functionality with the text of the HTML pages. Patrick is truncating the RSS to prevent the diffing, but the only sure way to avoid this is to not make the text available publically. Even now, the revisions can be discerned to some degree via Google cache or the Internet Archive. There is no solution to this problem, so truncating the RSS does not alter the fundamentals of the situation.
  6. Truncating the RSS feeds reduces or eliminates their utility for a significant number of readers.

Everyone uses the cliche “thinking outside the box” ad nauseum. This an example of what that really means. Clipping the RSS on the grounds that “everything I use RSS for still works with the clipped feed” is a statement from inside the heart of the box. It is contrary to the nature of a normalized standardized presentation of data by stating “I anticipate all uses of this and I have ascertained that the clipped feed is acceptably usable by them.” It is saying to your readers “I don’t care if you want to read via RSS, you must come to my website to read my words”. Tools that handle RSS are how I deal with information overload, and truncating them undoes my ability to manage them with my tools of choice. It’s all well and good to require your users to come to the page but I as a reader of blogs don’t have time to do that for every blog I follow via RSS. It is selfishness and petulance, deciding for readers what you find acceptable in their reading habits, akin to musiciasn telling their listeners that they only want them listening to their music on approved stereos that play it the way the band wants it played. You put it out there, dude, let me read it how I want to. Truncating the feeds is having it both ways – saying you are putting it out there without really doing it. This type of altering the fundaments of what you do based on the affordances of the current spate of clients is crazy, impossible to keep up with and not worth pursuing.

Please, don’t truncate your RSS feeds. I’m really asking as nicely as I can. I’m begging, in fact. It’s not usable by me and many others when you do. In Jenny’s words “Won’t you be my friend?”

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father. Member of the Podcast Hall of Fame class of 2022.

2 thoughts on “RSS Truncation”

  1. I do indeed appreciate your help with FoF. I’m thinking your arguments over. What I will say, as I’ve said in my own comment section, is that the sense of people looking over my shoulder as I perform minor revisions and tidyings-up makes weblog writing no longer fun for me. It adds a level of self-consciousness and hesitancy that kills the urge to maintain a weblog. That’s *true for me* whether anybody else sympathizes or not.

    Of course we have no idea how the world will use the stuff we put out there. Just as equally, we have no idea how creative people will feel about the effects of the things we invent and distribute. All of our actions have unanticipated effects. I personally feel like a musician who was doing fine in a particular room, and then someone brought in painfully bright lights. “But we like the lights,” you claim, “and you don’t need to be able to see in order to play. Besides, you can’t control what the audience does.” Maybe I can’t, but the audience doesn’t get to control me, either. Maybe, just maybe, this is a negotiation that could stand to go in both directions.

    “Patrick is truncating the RSS to prevent the diffing, but the only sure way to avoid this is to not make the text available publically.” This is the kind of argument tech types make a lot. In fact Patrick isn’t all that concerned with the theoretical possibility of a command-line tool getting used on his weblog sometimes. He dislikes the idea of his revisions being casually visible to a much larger audience. Patrick couldn’t be less concerned about “sure ways to avoid it”; it’s a matter of scale, not theoretical possibility.

    “Truncating the feeds is having it both ways – saying you are putting it out there without really doing it.” With all due respect and considerable friendliness, this is baloney. Putting out a excerpt-only feed is exactly what it claims to be; imputing that I or Teresa are being dishonest in doing so does nothing to make this a more useful discussion. Sheesh.

  2. You know, you could consider warning commentors that they need to manually insert HTML paragraph breaks. That was meant to be at least four separate paragraphs.

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