Email to RSS…okay, maybe I was wrong

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I’ve noted a couple of times that I don’t see a real long-term value in email -> RSS conversion; it’s handy for the short term (as with situations like my roll-your-own RSS feed approach for sources that only provide their content via email), but longer term…I’ve not seen much future there.

The devil is in the details, however, and a post pointing to an article on Google’s internal use of blogs and related tools seems to have just built a new little neural pathway for me — one that connects some stuff that I didn’t think worked together.

On Friday I posted on possible uses for RSS in the corporate world, noting that most of the ideas that I’ve seen discussed didn’t seem to really gain anything by adding RSS to the mix…they’re good ideas, but they can be boiled down to “make sure that people have easy access to the information that they need,” which doesn’t have to involve RSS.

That corporate RSS article has been stuck in my head over the weekend, the Google/blog article started bouncing off of that post, and then I took a look at my inbox.

I’m sure that many people are familiar with the phenomenon: of the many, many messages that come into my inbox, there’s only a relatively small subset that actually require a direct and immediate respose. Many more are CCs, where I do want to know what’s going on with the thread, but it doesn’t immediately affect me: I’ll most likely be a passive consumer of the thread, rather than a participant. Other threads are idea farming, where nothing may come of it for weeks or months, but a new addition is made every few days, along the lines of well, what if we applied foo to this bar…client X mentioned it today, and it fits with what we were talking about in this thread last week.”

So what if you made use of an email -> RSS gateway for these scenarios? Rather than copying everybody and their mother on an email, you copy rssGateway@yourcompany.com, which generates a per-subject line RSS feed of each thread. When you need somebody new to contribute to the thread you don’t have to go through that godawful process of finding the most complete version of the thread to forward to them (assuming that everybody didn’t delete that key message that summarized the discussion so well), because the history is right there in the feed. You also allow people who aren’t directly copied on the email thread to check for updates on the topic as frequently (or infrequently) as they want by subscribing to the feed (or adding it to a Web interface, whatever).

You wouldn’t want this done for every email discussion, obviously, but there are certain types of corporate email use that could be significantly enhanced by an RSS gateway like this. You’re not replacing email — because people will still be able to use nice, familiar email to contribute — but rather improving the usability of the information that’s being communicated through email.

Just a thought. Talk amongst yourselves.