A Tale of Two Inboxes: RSS and Twitter

Excluding the one for things to do, the average nerd has 3 inboxes: email, RSS, and Twitter.

Your email inbox is bi-directional: items come in and sit there until you volley them back. Your RSS inbox is uni-directional: items come in, stop at the inbox, and sit there until you file them away.

Twitter, however, is an amalgamation of both. Not only are we dialoguing in Twitter, the news and information that was once only piped into the RSS inbox is now being piped into our Twitter inbox as well.

But does that mean Twitter is “killing” RSS?

From the Reader’s Perspective, Is RSS Dead?

Brent Simmons correctly argues that when people say RSS is dead what they most likely mean is that people are replacing their RSS inbox with their Twitter inbox. When we used to open up our RSS readers to see what was new and interesting, we are now opening Twitter instead.

But is that actually true? Has the Twitter inbox replaced the RSS inbox?

In some ways and in some circles, perhaps. If so, then here’s are some observations about Twitter and RSS and why the former may be replacing the latter as an inbox for interesting stuff:

1. Average Users Are More Familiar With Twitter Than With RSS

For the average person to get RSS updates they not only have to know what RSS is, they have to know that they can download an RSS reader. But someone who has signed up for Twitter and sees the CNN Breaking News account can easily follow it and begin getting updates from CNN pushed to their Twitter inbox.

Twitter is, in a way, bringing RSS to the masses in a way that RSS readers never will. Which means Twitter hasn’t killed RSS, but rather it has simply become more popular and more accessible by the average user.

2. Unread Tweets Don’t Add Up Like Unread RSS Items

When you open up Twitter to check your timeline it is no big deal to only check the latest tweets and then be done. However, in an RSS reader items that you ignore do not go away.

Moreover, part of the unread guilt that comes with Twitter is that it’s easy to be confident that things which truly are important will float at the top of your timeline since many people will be talking about it.

3. Twitter Combines the Monologue and the Dialogue

You can have your conversations, your news, and your entertainment discovery all rolled up into one single inbox. Why check RSS, and Twitter, and email when you could just check Twitter?

4. Twitter is Personal

There’s a chance that when you check Twitter someone will be talking to or about you. When you’re checking your RSS inbox, at best you will only find things that are interesting to you. When you check Twitter you will not only find things which are interesting, you can also find things which are personal. Our natural disposition to self-absorption alone is enough to make it fun and even addicting to check Twitter than to check RSS.

5. Shelf-Life of an Unread Item

I’ve heard that the average tweet has a 2-minute shelf life. I would guess that the average RSS item has a 48-hour shelf life. Which means that your unread RSS items can add up a whole lot quicker than your unread tweets.

For those who like to subscribe to the fire hose Twitter may make a better inbox — if you missed something that was published an hour ago you don’t know it, and at times ignorance is bliss.

However, if there are feeds which you just can’t miss then you’re likely to put them in your RSS inbox because it will sit there until you do something with it. You either read it, skim it, or mark it as read. But you have to deal with it, even if dealing with it means you ignore it.

Of course, I will say that though I find a lot of interesting stuff via Twitter, most of it is significantly more trivial than the content I find in my RSS feeds. The weight or brevity of what I discover seems balanced with the long-term or short-term nature of RSS Feeds and Twitter streams respectively.

6. Twitter Auto-Filters the Important Items

In your RSS inbox if you have 1,000 unread items, the only way to prioritize the importance of them is based on the source. An unread item from your favorite website is perceived as more important to you than all the other unread items, but you don’t know that for sure until you’ve read and judged all other 999 unread items.

In Twitter, however, the important stuff gets auto filters to the top. By nature of the fact that everyone is talking about it. If you’ve only got 30 seconds and you want to know what is important right now, you only have time for Twitter.

(This is the same problem that Shaun Inman’s Fever works to solve: the most linked-to URLs become the hottest.)

Survey Results of People who Use Twitter and RSS

I posted a survey on Twitter and on this site earlier today, asking some questions about our individual Twitter and RSS stats and usage. Here are some highlighted results based on 725 responses at the time:

  • 80% of respondents follow 300 Twitter accounts or fewer; the most common following count was 100 – 200 (26%).

  • 82% check Twitter every day, and 68% check it at least 3 times per day.

  • 76% of people follow at least one account that is not a “real person”, such as @cnnbrk or @shawnblancnet.

  • Most people (57%) do not feel unread guilt in the Twitter feed, compared to 60% who do feel unread guilt with their RSS feed.

  • 75% of respondents are subscribed to 150 RSS feeds or less; 60% are subscribed to 100 feeds or less; 5% are subscribed to more than 300 RSS feeds.

  • Only 34% subscribe to more feeds than they feel they are able to keep up with; 32% of people follow more Twitter accounts than they feel they are able to keep up with.

  • 92% check their RSS feeds every day, and 75% check it at least 3 times per day.

The survey is still open, so the above results (calculated when there were 725 respondents) may differ than the current results. You can see the complete and latest survey results here.

From the Publisher’s Perspective, is RSS Dead?

From the publisher’s perspective, is Twitter killing RSS? Should we set up a dedicated Twitter account for our website’s headlines? And if so, should we focus on driving people to that Twitter account instead of our RSS feed?

According to the above survey results, 76% of respondents subscribe to accounts that are not real people. If you have a dedicated Twitter account, it will likely get used. However, as was also discovered in the results above, people are still checking their RSS feeds actively. In fact, they are checking there RSS feeds more actively than they are checking their Twitter feeds: 92% check their RSS feeds every day compared to 82% who check their Twitter feed every day.

And so here is a look a 12 tech-centric websites, comparing their RSS subscriber counts, their site’s dedicated twitter account following (if the site has one), that site’s author’s personal twitter following, and then what the ratio of RSS subscribers is to Twitter followers.



Website

RSS Subs (Approx.1)
Site’s Twitter Followers Author’s Twitter Followers Ratio of RSS:Site’s Twitter
The Setup 2,500 2,000 1,100 1.25:1
The Brooks Review 5,000 1,000 1,400 5:1
Shawn Blanc 10,000 650 4,500 15.38:1
MacStories 10,000 9,500 14,300 1.05:1
This is my next… 12,000 11,500 n/a 1.04:1
Minimal Mac 12,000 2,300 3,000 5.22:1
Marco.org 19,000 n/a 21,000 n/a
Inessential 50,000 38 5,800 1,315.79:1
Kottke.org 140,000 15,529 103,500 9.02:1
GigaOM 150,000 41,500 n/a 3.61:1
Seth Godin 250,000 93,000 n/a 2.69:1
Daring Fireball 400,000 29,500 140,000 13.56:1
- – – – -
Average: 2 5.78:1

As you can see, on average, there are about 6 RSS subscribers for every 1 Twitter follower of the site’s dedicated Twitter feed. Moreover, for most of the websites, the author’s personal twitter account has more followers than the site’s dedicated account. Meaning, people are subscribe to websites in RSS and following the author on Twitter.

I see no reason for a website not to have a dedicated Twitter account for its updates. But that doesn’t mean we should promote that Twitter account as the primary vehicle for which we want people to subscribe to updates. Especially for those of us whose websites have a more tech-savvy reader base.


  1. If the website itself doesn’t publish its RSS subscriber count, then I looked in Google reader for how many subscribers are in there and then added an additional 15% to help accommodate for RSS subscribers not using Google Reader. If anything, these RSS subscriber numbers are conservative.
  2. The average ratio of a site’s RSS subscribers to Twitter followers does not include the ratio for Inessential. It was thrown out because clearly it’s an edge case.
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