June 19, 2009

The Changing Subscriber Definition Points to Potential Over Actual

The dust has not yet fully settled on yesterday's news that RSS feed circulation numbers around the Web spiked, thanks to a new tie-up between FeedBurner and FriendFeed that essentially counted social networking subscriptions as equal to those who signed up for your RSS feed directly. But while more and more people find their statistics up by thousands, and in some cases, orders of magnitude, the discussion has led away from what is "right" or "wrong", but instead, investigating what a real subscriber was anyway, and if we should stop thinking the way we always did.

The worlds of blogging and social networking are numbers-obsessed, and the statistics are so full of holes, most aren't even worth repeating. I may be "following" 10,000+ people on Twitter, but I rely largely on the search tool, or browse individuals' updates in Friendfeed. On FriendFeed, the story is much the same. I heavily utilize lists to categorize people I follow and make sure I don't miss the best content, but I absolutely see a small fraction of items. And don't even get me started on Facebook. Given I practically only go there to accept friend requests, play games against my family, or respond to wall comments, I certainly didn't see the photos you just posted.

The "fake follow" is absolutely in effect - even with best efforts.

But in parallel, I've treated RSS (and e-mail) differently. I believe Google Reader is the gold standard for finding information, and the link blog I produce through sharing the best items is essential for me to highlight what I find best, and for those who follow it, relying on me as a human filter. As such, while I may read quickly, and skim often, I always, always, read every story from every feed, to the tune of 100%. Similarly, I always have read every e-mail, even if I haven't made the time to respond.

But not everybody treats RSS and RSS subscriber counts with such velvet gloves as I do - which means two major things. First, total RSS subscriber counts usually far exceed total page views on most blogs, as RSS items pile up in readers around the world and go unread. Second, the religious adherence to a subscription number in RSS that I tried to have, in the face of bundling and statistics that led me astray, is easily shouted down by reason.

I used to look at subscriber counts as a good benchmark for how much influence a blog might have. A blog with 2,000 subscribers typically reaches more people than one with 200, and less than 20,000. With the addition of more horizontal social networking "followers" or "friends" in the mix, I have to look at the number as potential. For example, the new number of about 14,000 listed on my blog (up from 8,000 earlier this week and 5,000 in April) represents the maximum potential people who would see my content if everybody who subscribed to my content on RSS or FriendFeed actually kept their subscription going and active.

And it is this "potential" that is the new reality, more so than a hard and fast number you can set your watch to. But it's also a slippery slope. If we all start signing up to RSS feeds but we don't read the blogs, and we all fake follow on Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and every other network out there, there's not really a whole lot of social going on - just blasting out data, friending and hoping that you're the exception rather than the rule.

To accept my new statistics, and those on other blogs impacted, the new reality requires a changed mindset. It's not saying one way is right and another is wrong, but instead, seeing the new data through the prism of our new world, where with so many information streams out there, we are all hoping that our data will catch someone's eye, not that it always will.