The RSS hotlist: quantity vs. quality

For several months now, I've been trying to move people from my old RSS feed to my new one. According to today's RSS hot list, there are 251 subscribers to the new feed (rank 48), and 145 to the old (rank 77). In theory, if everyone moved over, that would add up to 396 subscribers (rank 23) -- and indeed, 23 is about where I used to rank before the split.

I've mentioned the issue of RSS redirection a few times [ 1, 2, 3]. And I've tried two strategies. First, I posted an RSS item whose text was a message asking subscribers to switch to the new feed. That got some people to move over. A month later I refreshed the message, and that had a further effect. More recently, I've been trying Dave Winer's technique, which Sam Ruby says is "guaranteed to make existing aggregators go Huh?" It had an additional, incremental effect.

The upshot is that there's no good way to redirect an RSS feed. Despite that, moving my feed hasn't been a disaster. In fact, it's been kind of instructive. As the weeks have gone on, I've wondered about those 145 "subscribers" who keep hitting my old feed and coming up empty-handed. They've got to be robots. There are a number of places where my feed is aggregated into a composite display. Those aggregators don't know, or care, when a feed goes dark. Quite a lot of what we call "activity" on the Internet is like this. When I wrote about the Netscape aggregator still soldiering on somewhere in the bowels of, I likened this to the problem of space junk.

As technicians, we tend to want to think about solving the redirection problem cleanly. But suppose we had done so in this case. I'd have gone on thinking that I had 396 active subscribers. I wouldn't have known that in reality, I had 251 active subscribers (actually fewer, since some of those must be robots too), and 145 pieces of space junk. As RSS continues to move into the mainstream, the distinction between list quantity and list quality is worth pondering.

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