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Summaries and their friends

Scrivs over at 9Rules discusses the pros and cons of providing RSS feeds with summaries (or excerpts) versus full entries; and being the busybody that I am, I figured I’d speak up. In my case, I provide excerpts and full entries over on the subscription page, strictly because it doesn’t cost me an ounce of effort to provide both. From a political point of view, if I were forced to settle on one or the other, I’d go with full entries. Why? Because I prefer full entries when I’m reading in my newsreader. And if politics isn’t 99% about personal preference, I don’t know what is.

Here’s the scenario: I’m running through the 100–300 new news items in any of 94 subscriptions in NetNewsWire on any given day. I don’t have all day to do this, so I have a tendency to skip over anything that doesn’t look interesting. It’s a case of “win my interest, or be dismissed”, and I’ll tell you what: summaries just aren’t interesting. Lets see how my internal crap–filter turns 100–300 blips on my radar into 20–30 interesting reads:

Feeds in my newsreader are grouped by category: ‘Groups’, ‘Individuals’, ‘Linklogs’ and ‘News’. I know that I can safely skip through 100 items in the ‘Linklogs’ category and only find six items of interest… so I’ll really speed through them. Ditto that to the ‘News’ category. It helps me reduce that big, intimidating “new news item” count by as much as 80%… and that’s a good thing. I’m aiming for quality, not quantity, after all.
There are a couple of cases here: if it’s a headline from a news site or a linklog (see above) I’m pretty safe to play “judge a book by its cover” and dismiss any titles that don’t look interesting. If the same title crops up in multiple linklogs, it’s just the latest meme doing the rounds and I’ll probably check it out just to see what all the cool kids are talking about. With weblogs, entry titles aren’t so easy to judge, so I shift down to the next setting on the crap filter.
Face it, some people are going to draw your attention no matter what they write; they’re on that privileged mental list of “authors whose stuff I just gotta read”, so they get preference. Case in point: neither John Gruber nor Jeffrey Zeldman offer full–text feeds of their weblogs/soapboxes, but I’ll follow the link every time. The title of their article could be mind–numbingly dull and the summary might match, and I might even be disappointed by what I see when I follow that link, but I know that 92% of the time I won’t be disappointed. They’ve earned that rank, so I trust them even though they only offer summaries. Moving on…
Article/Entry content
Now that we’re done judging books by their covers, we can get into the meat of the argument. RSS entry content is usually one of three things: an entry summary, an entry excerpt, or the full text of the entry. It depends largely on the CMS, a little on the author, and a little on the geopolitical climate of the period, but the sentiment remains the same: they want you to read their stuff.
A summary of any weblog entry or news item is likely going to be a one–sentence description of the content. For instance: “Dunstan discovers why some Safari users find browsing his blog such a slooow process” describes Dunstan Orchard’s weblog entry on, well, why some Safari users find browsing his blog such a slow process. There’s really no better way to describe that entry, which is precisely what summaries are supposed to do, but if I had no interest in Safari I’d have skipped that entry without a moment’s thought. I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again, and sometimes I’ll miss out on genuinely great content because of it; but there’s nothing that can be done to the crap–filter to allow summary extrapolation.
An excerpt, unless otherwise specified, tends to be the first twenty to fifty words of a weblog entry. The formatting and HTML is stripped, and you end up with something as unattractive as it is uninformative. Excerpts, alongside summaries, are the next easiest things to dismiss when they’re run through that great colander of information; the crap–filter. As with summaries, there have been times where I’ve skipped over a potentially–great read just because the first twenty words didn’t grab me; but such is the nature of the medium.
Full text
Even if you don’t read the whole thing, full entries allow you to at least figure out what the article is all about. You can tell at a glance just how long it is, you can scope the first paragraph in its entirety, and you can see if there are any pretty pictures to accompany. I’ll say it again: even if you don’t read the whole thing, and even if you don’t follow the link, you at least have the opportunity to judge the book by its content; not by its cover (and not by the shitty blurb on the back cover, either). If you read the first paragraph and decide to read on… it’s right there! If you want to read the entry in the context of the author’s site design… just follow the link! If you want to comment (and you are made aware that commenting is open)… just follow the link! It ain’t rocket science.

With all this in mind, you might wonder why anybody would supply anything but full–text RSS feeds; they’re a sure–fire way to get people to read your stuff, if only the first paragraph. But a preference is a preference is a preference, and far be it from me to deny anybody’s personal preference. I will say this, though, if only to assault a few of those commonly–held concerns with providing full–text RSS:

Happy feeding. Oh, and bite the bullet and give us full text.