I love Bloglines. It's a browser-based RSS feeds aggregator that almost singlehandedly proves the case that web applications can be better than desktop-based ones. I say this in the context of Joel Spolsky's already classic essay on why web browser apps are winning the war against so-called rich or smart clients. "The new API is HTML" quoth Joel. There were some good follow-up articles too, including one by John Gruber that I read today called The Location Field Is the New Command Line. The pros and cons of both sides have been hashed out often before, including by me. In a nutshell: browser-based apps are easier to use, don't require installation, and probably most importantly of all are accessible on any computer hooked up to the Internet. Rich clients can offer better (richer/smarter) functionality and are not constrained by the limitations of the browser. So there are trade-offs both ways.
The other pro for web-based apps is that you can access your data from any device hooked up to the Internet. As we use our PDA's and mobile phones more and more to create, communicate and collaborate (the 3 C's as far as I'm concerned), we'll see increased benefits to having our data available in one location - the web server.
Bloglines Subscriber Stats: Some Analysis
Bloglines has recently undergone a facelift and added some more features to its service. One of the most interesting to me, because I requested it back in February, is that you can now view how many people subscribe to your RSS feed. I'm surprised nobody has said much about this, because it's potentially a launching pad to a community-based stats network (read my Feb post for more details). My own subscriber stats have jumped from 32 in February to 79 as of today. And I hasten to add it's not just my stats - Mark Pilgrim's subscriber number was 839 in February, but now it's 2100! So in both cases our number of subscribers has more than doubled in just 5 months.
I think this is a reflection of how much Bloglines the service has grown - it's undoubtedly the number 1 browser-based RSS Aggregator out there and possibly even the top aggregator overall including the smart clients (that's debatable). But I think it's also a reflection of how popular blogging is getting among "normal" people - i.e. not just geeks. And in this respect, one of Bloglines' best features is a "one-click" method of signing up and getting started in the blogging world - there's no software installation required. Incidentally, that's why I added a "Subscribe with Bloglines" button to my menu last week - to make it as easy as possible for normal people to subscribe to my RSS feed. I'm sure normal people don't want to see my ugly XML code and Bloglines hides those details as much as possible (except it doesn't appear to have RSS feed auto-discovery yet).
Putting Numbers on the Power Law
On the subject of subscriber stats, we can also start to put numbers on the so-called A List phenomenon. It's pretty much accepted now that blogging popularity is distrubuted as a power law - whereby a small number of bloggers get a large number of readers, while the majority of bloggers get a small number of readers. So let's check out the Bloglines subscriber stats of the A-Listers that I subscribe to:
Jason Kottke: 2184
Dave Winer: 2652
Mark Pilgrim: 2100
Anil Dash: 884
Tim Bray: 1517
Mitch Kapor: 924
Lawrence Lessig: 2794
Jon Udell: 1619
Those are just web technology A-Listers, nevertheless it seems that 1500 Bloglines subscribers is a good cut-off point. This would mean Anil Dash and Mitch Kapor wouldn't be classified as A-List (I'm kind of surprised Dash doesn't have more subscribers, maybe it's because he doesn't post that often and when he does it's usually not techy stuff...certainly not like the good old days when he wrote about microcontent clients and so forth). Of course this figure, 1500, will steadily increase over time as Bloglines and blogging both gain popularity.
For research purposes, I decided to briefly subscribe to the 10 "most influential reporters and bloggers on the web" according to Blogrunner back in March 2004 . Here's what I found:
001. Glenn Reynolds instapundit.com --> 1737 Bloglines subscribers
002. Andrew Sullivan www.andrewsullivan.com - daily dish and The New Republic --> No RSS feed!!?
003. Kevin Drum Political Animal (ex-Calpundit) --> 742
004. Joshua Micah Marshall Talking Points Memo: By Joshua Micah Marshall --> 1964
005. Tim Blair Tim Blair --> 164
006. Dana Milbank The Washington Post --> couldn't find an RSS feed
007. Michele A Small Victory --> 52(!)
008. Kos Daily Kos --> couldn't find an RSS feed
009. Eugene Volokh The Volokh Conspiracy --> 125 + 50 (headline and full content feeds)
010. Atrios Eschaton --> 1361
Well, some surprises there! Only 3 of them have over 1000 Bloglines subscribers. Not being familiar with any of the above 10 weblogs, when I did a quick browse of them this evening I came away with 2 impressions: 1) RSS feeds were either hard to find or in 3 cases non-existent; 2) they mostly blog about politics.
Pros and Cons of Subscriber Stats
I don't want this to seem like I'm obsessing over subscriber stats. There are drawbacks to knowing how many subscribers bloggers have. And funnily enough this was one of the themes I explored in the short story I published last week, called Sylvian and The System. It's a futuristic look at what blogging may be like in 20-30 years time.
Basically my story was a glimpse into a world where people operate avatars that contribute content/information into a Web-like structure called The System, which is ruled by popularity/reputation. The dominant ranking method is a tool called "Popster", which I likened to a Billboard Top 40 of the Blogosphere. Now to my mind, this is not far from the "A-List" phenomenon that we currently have right now in the blogosphere. My story was in a sense cranking that idea up a few notches and exploring the possible consequences. If you're a regular reader of my weblog, I'd encourage you to read Sylvian and The System. As pioneer bloggers at the beginning of the 21st century, I'd genuinely like to know your reaction to the ideas I explored in that story.
Which brings me back to the possible drawbacks of Bloglines' subscriber stats. One is obviously that popularity (or number of subscribers) may become the main goal for bloggers. But does a need for popularity affect your content? Will we strive to produce "mainstream" content to appeal to a large number of readers?
For example my publishing a 2700-word work of fiction to my weblog is likely to alienate some of my subscribers, those that don't like to read fiction ("just the facts ma'am"). I think it was a risky move for me to publish Sylvian and The System, because it's not the type of content that some - maybe even a majority - of my readers signed up for when they subscribed to my RSS feed. I'd go as far to say that if I continued to publish just fiction on my weblog, my Bloglines subscriber count would decrease pretty quickly.
I myself enjoy reading "risky" (or perhaps non-conventional is a better term) content in weblogs. Often those blogs have low subscriber stats - but then they're not "mainstream" in content. Perhaps that is the point I'm trying to make - that getting popular does require some mainstreaming of your content.
There is good to be had in Bloglines subscriber count too. Here's a revelation: community and collaboration are more important to me than I let on. I often say that publishing and creativity are the most important aspects of blogging to me. While that's still true, I enjoy being part of a community of like-minded people and I think we can make some interesting deductions about who is influential in our little communities by looking at Bloglines stats. Notice I didn't say important, I said influential - which is to say, these are people that I consider to be on the same 'level' as me intellectually but often have more influence than me in the community. e.g. Marc Canter has 417 subscribers, Sébastien Paquet has 563, Lilia Efimova has 744, Dina Mehta has 134, Paolo Valdemarin 149. There are many others I could mention. I don't mean to embarrass anyone, but these people are pretty influential in the social software/new school tools community - a community which I like to think I'm a part of.
There are some people who have fewer subscribers than me who I'd consider to be influential in the quality of their ideas. So don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying subscriber count is a good indication of quality. But it is one measure of influence in a community, although the list of supposedly influential political bloggers I analysed above perhaps refutes that.
What's your take on all this?