RSS, Collage, and the Art of Disappearing

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Everything I know about RSS feed readers I learned from my referrer logs.

I’m admittedly fairly new to reading blogs through an external reader. Fairly new, though I have had a livejournal for a few years now, and the friends page that livejournal provides is a de facto feed reader. But that only offers the content of other users inputting into livejournal’s database, and those other blogs who have been siphoned through livejournal’s database (like my own livejournal feed).

For the last couple of years I’ve been too busy and too complacent to shift over to reading new blogs through feeds, and to be honest a lot of my blogging friends from days of yore have dropped off my radar. Nostalgic about that as I am, I didn’t cultivate new blog friendships again until recently. I just kept checking the pages of my friends through the traditional method; type in URL in browser, hit enter.

What made me finally decide to have a look at feed readers was my referrer logs. In particular, the user agent strings. There was a time when you would get a unique hit for each person reading your content, but no more. Instead there are all these feed readers showing up in there.

A regular day in my referrer logs, using today as an example:

Something called Twisted PageGetter nips in for content. I have no idea what that is, but it’s pulling the .rdf file. I scan past someone’s Google search for “fitting men for bras” (why Google’s brilliant technology leads these people to me I’ll never entirely understand). Something called rss bot (http://rss-bot.com) grabs the .rdf file. The everyfeed spider drops by for the .xml file. Then two different bloglines bots swoop through, one for the .rdf and one for the .xml. Then livejournal updates its feed, and like bloglines helpfully tells me in the agent string how many subscribers they’re getting that information for. Then there’s pubsub, an online reader popular among the librarian crowd. The unfortunately-named Terrar makes an appearance.

Then netnewswire arrives for the .rdf file. Pulpfiction, used in its (free) ‘lite’ edition by someone in the US. Drupal pops up as a user agent. I’m jealous of anyone using Drupal for their blogging software, since Drupal attempts to do for a regular blog what livejournal does with its friends page. Then I see Newsfire, my current RSS reader of choice. This is exactly how I discovered it; seeing it sitting in my referrer logs.

I read blogs through feeds, and I wouldn’t switch back to the regular way. This is much quicker and I can even glance over the posts if not read them in their entirety while offline. (An important consideration now that I’m back to skimpy dial up.) But it does make for strange referrer log reading. I tend to learn less and less about people who frequent my blog than I used to. What operating system, what version, what browser. I see all these other user agents instead, so in some ways I learn other things about the people reading my blog; I know that they are consistent readers rather than drop-bys, I know that they care enough about what I’ve got to say to actually add the feed to a reader. I know that they’re technologically savvy enough to understand and make use of RSS, and that they probably read many blogs. I know that my blog has become part of a larger collage for them, nestled between posts by others, probably on similar topics. I can’t get a look at what they see, but I know that’s the context I find myself in. It’s the TiVo of the blog world.

I’ve always seen web browsing as more of a conversation than a static, solitary activity; when you look at a webpage, you leave a note telling the content producer that you were there. This is my browser, this is my operating system, here’s what time I was here. Here’s what I looked at. Here’s what brought me here. But the feed readers, the online ones that seem to be so much more popular, are anonymizing. Even with livejournal and bloglines, who kindly tell you how many people are reading your blog through them, don’t tell you who or why or when. They leave a note but it’s a generic one; we’ve picked up your content for our users, but that’s all we’ll tell you. The online feed reader brings the world wide web a step closer to what people think it actually is; a private, secret, anonymous place where no one knows that you haven’t upgraded from Netscape 4.7.

I love my feed reader, but I’m sorry to lose a piece of that conversation. I love the idea of being part of someone else’s collage, but I wish I could have a look at what’s around me.

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