Making RSS as “pushy” as email

After a very busy and stressful few days, I’m ready to try to get a start on the list of post topics that have stacked up in my inbox. First is to attempt to explain the difference between Push technologies and Pull technologies and to make some suggestions on how RSS can be made to be perceived by users as a push technology as convenient as email.

Geekier purists, please note: We’re talking about PERCEIVED Push vs. PERCEIVED Pull. I’d argue that this isn’t the same thing as comparing a true push to a true pull, but that’s an argument for another day.

Web Browsing: An example of a perceived Pull Technology
The best and most common example of a pull technology is your web browser. When you type into your browser’s address bar, your browser contacts the server that HOSTS my blog and asks it (preferably in a refined English accent): “Excuse me please, web server. I’d very much like to see what’s available at Could you please deliver to me the default HTML file of”

The server replies (also in the Queen’s English): “Why of course, my dear browser- please do render this HTML file for your user!”

And the web server sends the file to your browser, which your browser interprets and renders for your viewing.

What makes this a perceived pull technology? You have to direct your browser to the web page so your browser can request (or PULL) the appropriate HTML file from the server to display for you.

Email: An example of a perceived Push technology
PC Magazine’s encyclopedia defines a Push technology as “[a] data distribution technology in which selected data is automatically delivered into the user’s computer at prescribed intervals or based on some event that occurs…”

Your email is probably a good example of this. If you use a version of Microsoft Outlook at home or at work, your Outlook client (the program what is installed on your computer) checks in the email server at regular intervals (perhaps every 5 minutes or so) to see if there are new emails. If it finds there are new emails on the server for you, it downloads them to your computer for you to view.

Viva la difference!
Note that the only difference in our examples between the perceived push and the perceived pull is that the email client automatically checks for new emails at regular intervals. So when the user starts up Outlook, it automatically checks the server to see if there are new emails. If the user leaves Outlook running all day, the user will see any new emails that are received by his/her email server within 5 minutes of their arrival without the user having to tell Outlook to go check the server for new email. The web browser is seen as a perceived PULL technology because it doesn’t automatically refresh the page from the server at regular intervals (unless, of course, the web site is designed to force a refresh at regular intervals- that is done sometimes).

Is RSS a Push or a Pull?
Let’s now look at the issue raised by a member of the MEDLIB-L ListServ about RSS a few days ago:

I see RSS as a pull technology and emails as a push tech. By that, I mean, that the user has to actively seek out their RSS aggregator and read whatever it contains. Emailed TOCs, however, are pushed to their email box and they don’t have to actively seek out another program to get info. I suspect that expecting busy HC professionals to seek out anything else (such as an RSS aggregator) will decrease current awareness usage.

This is, obviously, a really valid concern. The fact of the matter is that RSS is clearly a Push technology. Why? Because once one subscribes to the feed, the aggregator checks the feed at regular intervals to see if there is new information, and automatically displays it for the user.

RSS is as much a push technology in this manner as an email client. If you keep wither client open all day, you’ll know quickly if there is a new email/post.

The real concern shown by the librarian poster to MEDLIB-L here is that her users already keep their email clients open all day, and she doesn’t want them to have to keep another client open all day for RSS feeds. That’s a totally reasonable concern. Some users might see the need to visit a web-based aggregator as an additional step to their (already hectic) day.

How to make the push of RSS more conveniently “pushy” for the user
Here are some of the ways the user can be actively notified when there are new results from their subscribed feeds without having to visit the URL of a web-based browser OR having to install a “fat client” RSS aggregator:

  • If the user chooses BlogLines as her aggregator, she can install one of the many notifer tools offered by BlogLines that can, for instance, live in her Windows Taskbar and beep her when she has new information ready to be viewed via her subscribed feeds.
  • There are multiple aggregators available that are plug-ins for Microsoft Outlook. If your user already uses Outlook, she may be interested in one of the following plug-ins to allow her to read RSS feeds in Outlook, too:
    RSS Popper (Free)
    Attensa for Outlook ($20)
    BlogBot for Outlook (Free)
    inclue! (Free)
    IntraVnews (Free)
  • Please note that I have not tried these plugins myself, and cannot vouch for their quality or function. This isn’t a complete list, either; these are just the first five that I found in five minutes of searching. If any readers have used and liked an RSS plug-in for Outlook, please make a note of it in the comments for this post?

    While we’re fishing for opinions among readers, are there other options you’re aware of that would help users experience RSS feeds as more of a perceived push?

7 thoughts on “Making RSS as “pushy” as email

  1. Very interesting discussion. I am wondering if there has been discussion of the difficulties those of us that want to set up huge numbers of RSS feeds for library patrons to harness are having trying to get Internet Explorer 6 to work with FeedBurner and WordPress. There don’t seem to be the same problems with Firefox.

    RSS is a great techology, but setting up RSS feeds for others to use is incredibly labor intensive and huge amounts of time have to be devoted to quality control to make sure all has been set up properly and that link rot isn’t creeping in–and all this precedes the education efforts entailed in informing patrons of what RSS feeds are and how to use them and then how to obtain articles from the library that has set up the RSS feeds of tables of contents for them. “Try it, you’ll like it!” Librarians should buy the rights to that slogan.

  2. Hi Hope!

    I need to clarify something relating to your comment. Setting up RSS feeds is absolutely positively NOT labor-intensive, and that’s one of its appeals. What you’re doing at Medgrab is to use Feedburner to create script to insert into your WordPress account to generate email subscription forms- and, as you say, the problem is with Internet Explorer, not with RSS. I think it is important to clarify that your difficulty is one of web development, NOT one of the technology being, in and of itself, difficult.

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  4. A number of interesting tools have come out over the past few months that could be valuable if you work with RSS feeds professionally, either as a facilitator or as a user. I’ve recently started to generate RSS feeds using, which allows you to specify one or more keywords, runs it against a considerable amount of search engines and then generates a list of custom RSS feeds that you can use. The result is an automatically generated, reasonably relevant digest of headlines about your topic. TagJag is a project by Chris Pirillo.

    I also suggest to keep an eye on Touchstone (, a cool desktop program that monitors and analyzes your interests to determine your priorities and then delivers bits and pieces of information to you ranked according to your profile. The level of disruption is determined by the relevance of the information.

    Let me know what you think, I’l follow this conversation through coComment.

  5. Hello Marjolein!

    I have to say that I have been disappointed with TagJag thus far. I tried it out when it first launched as, and started trying it out again several weeks ago. I have to say that it has not done much for me. Perhaps it is just the sort of stuff I want constant searches for, but it doesn’t seem to find and feed me the things I set it up for. I’m absolutely open to the idea that this is due to user error, though. Your mileage may vary.

    I sure wish regular google searched provided RSS feeds.

    When it comes to tools that return search results as RSS feeds, I’ve used and found the following useful:

    – Google News (news search) & Google Blog Search (rss search)
    – Feedster (rss search,
    – BlogLines (rss search)
    – TalkDigger (rss search,

    I did submit my email to try out Touchstone when it comes out of Alpha. It sounds really interesting and I’d love to try it.



  6. Hi David,

    I have one or two invites left, I’ll get you one of those asap.

    About TagJag: yes, it would be nice if there were some kind of refined semantic clustering done in TagJag to reduce the noise. Until a major revision like that is implemented, I think we should stick to providing multiple keywords to fine-tune the search results.

    FYI: I just created RSSonate, a digest of news feeds related to RSS technology, in celebration of the fact that after so many months I finally revived my weblog ( RSSonate is hosted by FeedBurner at Let me know what you think.

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