Syndication vs design

What happened to RSS? Why has it ceded so much turf to centralized apps and to email newsletters? One reason is that syndication ceded design.


Feeds are text without art. Naked writing. Words. Letters. Punctuation.

A provider can’t style their posts using CSS or Javascript. As a reader, this is sometimes charming, but it can also be a loss. The presentation can be a part of the message.

Compare the version of Daring Fireball on daringfireball.net with the one in the Feedly feed reader.

Daring Fireball as it looks on its own web host
Daring Fireball as it looks in Feedly

The version on daringfireball.net has more readable typography. The gray background is more attractive than the black. The visual design on-site reinforces the Apple-centric theme of the site because the use of Helvetica reflects Apple’s house style.

Compare these layouts edge-to-edge. The version on daringfireball.net uses white space luxuriously to create a feeling of calm and focus.

The version in Feedly is cramped and frenetic.

Publications are not just words. Paper matters. The new book smell is heady. Covers enhance the pleasure of reading.

Blog syndication obliterates the new book smell. Readers must go elsewhere for that pleasure.


The inability to style blogs in RSS or Atom isn’t just a problem for readers, it’s also a problem for writers. Bloggers need to differentiate themselves. They need to stand out with a unique perspective. But in syndication, every blog looks the same.

Daring Fireball’s visual esthetic isn’t an accident. It looks like a Mac.

Does this design at apple.com/mac look familiar? Daring Fireball’s typography and palette calls back to Apple’s.

One way to approach this differently would be to embed blogs as a whole, in an iframe, and allow them to bring along their own styling.

Space shouldn’t be a critical problem – responsive design takes care of that already. Daring Fireball for iPhone, as hosted on its own site, fits roughly in the same narrow space that the syndicated text gets in Feedly.

Daring Fireball in responsive design mode, laid out for iPhone 6/7/8
The same block of text we’ve looked at in a desktop browser and in the Feedly desktop version, but in responsive design mode for iPhone 6/7/8

Embedding isn’t the only way to do this. There are other ways to approach the issue of design in syndication. Feed formats and the client software which displays them could do a better job with CSS and HTML.

Email doesn’t have that problem, though. It already supports HTML and CSS. HTML and CSS in an email are nowhere near as full-featured as in a browser, but they are light-years beyond RSS.

In fact, Mailchimp is a major sponsor of Daring Fireball, which goes to the question of why Daring Fireball is not already an email newsletter.

7 thoughts on “Syndication vs design

  1. Email’s style-ability and interactivity steadily improved, while RSS/atom remained as library index cards, virtual typewritten entries awaiting discovery manually shuffling through the deck.

    A useful feed indexing app or service would provide above-the-fold previews, on mouseover or click, of browser snapshots taken of the actual blog entry page. Given today’s bandwidths, that is not such a bizarre conception.

    Vienna, the macOS feed app, extracts the title and summary for presentation in a typical lists-and-boxes interface, opening entries into a browser-like tab array, rendering them with Webkit, but in somewhat constrained fashion (no fullscreen, some links not opening as expected, limited JS).

    Better than that, I’d like a better rake to help me select what to read, a bit of similarity ranking, preferring terms the user has previously indicated interest in.

    All of this underscores the great power of the proprietary UX, within the content providers’ walled garden the user’s needs are catered to or ignored, in varying degrees. “Don’t like our notification regime? Tough luck, we don’t want you viewing our content through any other lens!”

    1. Email had the advantage of being amenable to steady improvements. Every bit of improvement there is painful, to say the least. It’s a tough platform. But when you do make improvements the payoffs are huge.

      Snapshot-based previews would be useful.

      I’ve been using Vienna and I guess I like it, but the design is rock bottom.

      With all of these issues, proprietary silos move faster.

      1. Microformats had the potential to unite.
        Open APIs had the potential to unite.
        Notification APIs had the potential to unite.

        All got ignored, discontinued or limited by TOS.

        Are we rich enough yet? Will social networks ever be considered as common carriers and regulated to the public benefit?

        “I’m alright, Jack, keep your hands off of my stack”

        1. Barriers to the adoption of new standards are ridiculously high. The resistance to open markets with multiple players is through the roof – every VC investment is looking for monopolizable assets.

          Email has succeeded partly because it snuck in before Facebook et al.

    1. Glad to connect on those. I feel like there is low hangy fruit in improving the legacy weblog infrastructure.

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