Online publishers are wondering whether RSS is going to replace email as a means of distributing headlines.

This is understandable, as email newsletters are increasingly being thrown out with the spammy bathwater and publishers are casting about for a way to replace the audience they’re losing.

I don’t understand why anyone is talking about RSS as a replacement for newsletters, instead of as a supplement. Granted, everyone makes the obligatory note that email isn’t going away any time soon and that RSS is still in its infancy. But the normally reliable Dan Gillmor and Steve Outing both jump to the conclusion that this is a solution to the email problem, instead of an opportunity in itself.

We’re still confusing the Web with the Internet.

Until we understand that the Internet can and should support multiple file formats and protocols, we’re going to continue to think that Javascript menus and Flash belong on Web pages, that Web pages belong in mailboxes, and that RSS is going to “replace” email as a publishing medium.

RSS should replace email as a way to deliver headlines and links, with no real useful content, to your readers. RSS makes it possible for smart, busy people to browse dozens of news sites in the time it would have taken them to review a couple.

Newsletters should be readable and useful in themselves. If they aren’t, you’re not using them effectively. And, if your web site is nothing more than a newsletter, why not send the whole thing to the reader, instead of making them come to you?

It’s easy to forget that less than five percent of Internet users are reading blogs and those are the current RSS audience. The good news is that there is indeed a network effect driving the adoption of RSS by publisher and readers. Within a couple of years, most serious online news readers will be using RSS.

Thinking about RSS as a replacement for email newsletters doesn’t begin to address its potential. It’s what “push” could have been, without the overhead of Internet bubble business models and publishers’ attempts to control what their readers saw.

I challenge online publishers to come up with more innovative and useful applications of RSS than delivering headlines or replacing existing newsletters.