Recently I talked about the difficulty of knowing how many subscribers there are to an RSS feed. Not much joy to offer on this one, but some new information and a startling (to me) bit of sociology. Plus one last exhortation for the aggregator guys: watch out or Redmond will get ya!

Defining the Problem · Several people pointed out that the problem isn’t knowing how many people fetch your RSS feed, because a lot of those “people” are robots of one kind or another, or don’t read you any more, or generally aren’t subscribers in any meaningful sense.

That's a point, but it’s pretty easy to spot the robots (basically anything that’s not Userland or Ranchero or one of the other top ten aggregators), and as Jon Udell’s discussion shows, the population of “ghost” subscribers declines monotonically if slowly; so I continue to think that the number of unique humans subscribing to an RSS feed would be a real interesting thing to know.

Jon further argues that this isn’t really a special RSS problem, but the general problem of tracking Web readership, and we have solutions in place for that.

Well, OK, but I think that from a crass business point of view, someone who comes to ongoing because they’re subscribed to my feed is worth more than someone who followed a link from anywhere out there, in exactly the same way that a subscriber is worth more to a magazine than a newsstand sale. So I continue to think that RSS is qualitatively distinguishable from the general ebb and flow of Web traffic, and if we could track it, that would be a good thing.

Dave Winer points to the Userland Web Bug Simulator, which does statistical download tracking of who pulls in RSS feeds. I was emailing with Brent Simmons of Ranchero and we’re both kind of confused; could Dave, or someone who uses this, post a walk-through of how a blogger could use this to answer the question: “How Many Subscribers?” Because on my first read it seemed that it tracked other weblogs rather than other people; but quite likely I’m missing something.

And to quote one of my correspondents: “The drawback is that this method relies on a centralized server. I'd rather just run a script on my log file to find out how many subscribers I have.” I agree; this just feels like something that shouldn’t need centralization.

For Now, Business as Usual · So I guess for now we just stumble along with a vague idea of our subscriber counts. We have a decent metric from Technorati and the other link-trackers of how we stand in terms of incoming links. I genuinely wonder whether there’s a nice simple linear relationship between our incoming link census and our reader count; because at some point I suspect a high proportion of readers are going to be non-bloggers and non-linkers. Anyone who wants to implement cookies can at least fairly reliably discover how many people read a site; maybe that’s enough.

Exhortation · Mind you, I still think my idea of the email hash is technically viable and would cleanly give us a crisp, accurate answer, at very low cost, to what I think is an important question. If they wanted to, the aggregator vendors could whack it into the code by this time next week. I suggest that they consider the idea, for a couple of reasons. First, it will improve their chances of being in the sweet spot if and when some business momentum starts building around this space. Second, if they don’t do it, when Microsoft ships their blogging tool and aggregator built-in to Office or IE or something, you can damn well bet that they’ll have the subscriber-tracking stuff there on day one. And wouldn’t you rather it was something sane that we worked out together rather than having it based on, say, Passport?

The Push-Back · What surprised me was the correspondence I got from people who are viscerally resistent to being tracked in any manner, shape, or form, and to whom the thought of providing their email address to any such facility is clearly anathema.

As an example I’ll use the eloquent Marjolein Katsma:

Who's interested in making money from websites? Website owners who have something to sell. Website owners who want revenue from ads. Not the users. Cookie managers are now built into browsers. I'm sure you can imagine why. Not because the website owners asked them for it, at any rate. Ad blockers are in wide use.

Cookies are often indeed used only for statistics - just like your proposal. Statistics, so ads can be "targeted". Are users interested? If they were, would browser manufacturers build cookie management tools into their software?

So you want statistics to make money from your blogs? And use something else than a cookie? I see absolutely no difference from cookies, same thing, just implemented differently.

I absolutely refuse to *store* any cookies on my computer that do not benefit me, but some web site owner or advertizer. I absolutely refuse to *use* cookies on any of my own sites - *unless* they're cookies that actually benefit the user (such as for storing configuration options for a bug tracker). And it would be nice if I sold enough books through my associationship with Amazon to cover the cost of hosting - but I don't. Even though I provide a lot of extra information and short reviews. But NO ads, and NO cookies. NO RSS-user ids either. Not ever. And that's a promise.

If this would ever get off the ground, I'll make a The Proxomitron filter for it, and publish it. I'm sure there will be people who want to use that, just as there are people who want to use cookie management softeware and ad blockers.

If you want to make money from writing, I think blogging is simply the wrong medium. Choose a better one.

I suggested that this line of thinking was a little on the solipsistic and receive-only side. Marjolein wrote back:

Receive-only model?

I add a lot to the web; have several sites of my own - which only cost me money! in addition to a LOT of time - and contribute to a number of on-line forums, mostly by helping others rather than asking for help.

My model is a give-first and service-first model rather than a receive-only model. I just don't force on *my* users what I don't accept myself. I value and protect my privacy - and respect the privacy of my users.

OK. This is what Marxists label “primitive communism” and some believe was the economic basis of hunter-gatherer societies. If Marjolein and her tribe can make a go of it, more power to ’em.

I’m just trying to see if, and how, we can fit this into an economic framework that learns some lessons from the current publishing business. The basic bargain I’m proposing—I’ll write stuff for you, and in exchange, you let me count you—feels pretty fair to me.

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colophon · rights
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June 01, 2003
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