Home Analysing Bloglines Subscriber Stats

Analysing Bloglines Subscriber Stats

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
on why web browser apps are winning the war against so-called
or smart
. “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
, 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

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

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
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 –>

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

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.

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?

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