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RSS Reconsidered

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.

Last month I presented a list of webcomics technologies that have failed to ignite my technophilic enthusiasm, despite their popularity or general usefulness. Over the past several weeks, I have given one of those technologies, RSS, a second chance.

First a quick recap of my original objections to RSS, based on my early attempts to use RSS readers:

  1. Tracking RSS reads required keeping an additional application open, on top of my usual web browser. I’m already a multi-tasker, and disliked the additional clutter.
  2. As a creator, I wasn’t keen on having to create and maintain another tool for my website.
  3. As a reader, I found that only about quarter the blogs/comics I read had RSS feeds at the time, so using the reader didn’t really save me much effort anyway.
  4. Once my web browser was open anyway, I just didn’t often remember to open the RSS reader, since it was basically redundant technology.

Despite all this, I did respect the goal of RSS -- I can certainly appreciate the desire to have a single service tracking my web reads, keeping me informed of updates, so that I don’t waste time looking at sites that haven’t changed since my last visit. For this reason, I fell in love with Piperka.net rather quickly. It performs that same function, but without any of the problems that made RSS unsatisfactory; Piperka is a website that I can keep open in a tab of my regular web browser, and it can track almost any webcomic with no effort on the part of creators.

Of course, Piperka isn’t perfect. Comics that use non-standard content management don’t slip easily into the system (It’s only recently that Dicebox was finally included, and even now it only seems to catch updates when there’s a new chapter, rather than a weekly update). And for some reason Piperka will occasionally miss updates, sometimes several in a row, but will later randomly catch up. Or not, depending on the strip. I can’t remember the last time Dan Mazur’s Palindramas showed up in my Piperka updates, even though it updates pretty regularly. So there’s definitely room for improvement.

So, with all that in mind, several weeks ago I adopted Google Reader as my primary tool for following any webcomic I read that supports RSS. And just to be completely thorough in my experiment, I added most of the blogs I read to my RSS subscription list as well.

Some of my original objections fell away immediately -- Google Reader is web-based, just like Piperka, and can be used in just as convenient a fashion, with no need for extra applications. I also found that a much larger percentage of my regular reads support RSS these days. The fact that so many comics hosting services have automated RSS feeds certainly helps. In fact, there were only a handful of exceptions among webcomics, and the only blog I couldn’t find a feed for was This Modern World.

Given the current near-ubiquity of RSS feeds, the RSS reader wound up with an advantage over Piperka -- it’s much rarer for it to miss an update than for Piperka. In fact, the only site whose updates I’ve noticed as absent from my RSS reader is Webcomics.com. Whether this is due to a glitch in the reader or an error in the site’s own RSS code, I couldn’t say.

Another advantage that Google Reader offers over Piperka is the option of collecting webcomic and blog updates directly in the reader. Piperka is able to track any webcomic, with or without creator approval, precisely because it doesn’t scrape any content from the sites; it simply lets users know when those sites have updated. On the other side, since RSS feeds are creator-defined, they allow creators to opt-in to RSS syndication. Not all do, but enough do to make it a worthwhile feature for users of the software. And so long as all you want from the site is the comic itself, the presentation is perfectly satisfactory. My only major frustration on this front has been the Narbonic Director’s Commentary, where the feed sends me each day’s strip (which I’ve already read) but not the commentary (which is what I’m now following the strip for).

Ironically, I’m far less satisfied with the technology’s handling of blogs. Neither Journalista nor The Comics Reporter include images in their feeds, which is a big part of the value of both those sites. Journalista’s feed is still useful, since the bulk of the blog is text, though the lack of images makes it harder to scan quickly for interesting items. The Comics Reporter becomes nearly unreadable without images, however, since Tom Spurgeon has a habit of making posts with nothing but an image, a title, and a link to the subject of the post. And since the links are tied to the images, you don’t get those either, making it impossible to judge my interest in any of the books or events he’s mentioning without jumping back to his site for each one. And if that’s not troublesome enough, his posts also come through my RSS reader without any line or page breaks, making longer articles completely unreadable.

Of course, most of these content inclusion difficulties are likely due to user implementation, not a fault of the technology itself. And, with the exception of the missing paragraph breaks in The Comics Reporter, may even be conscious decisions on the part of the content creators, since it’s still desirable for them to draw readers back to their largely ad-supported web sites. For content creators, RSS feeds do pose a conundrum in finding a balance between financial self-interest and audience accommodation; creators looking to make money need ad views, while readers don’t want to have to jump out to the website every time there’s a new post. One solution some creators have found for this problem is to imbed advertising directly into their feeds in one way or another.

In the end, though, the problems of RSS are far outweighed by the benefits—I’ve gotten very comfortable with my RSS reader, and don’t see myself dropping it as I have in the past. The technology has matured considerably since my early trials; as of today, I am officially a convert.

 

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.