Yesterday’s Thoughts

May 29, 2005

Here’s a Bad Idea

Robert Scoble is putting forward a rotten idea for RSS aggregators. He suggests:

I want to be able to “clean up” my feed subscription list. I want to remove any RSS feed that hasn’t published in the past XX days (default to 30).

If people start using start using this feature routinely it will be a problem for the net as a whole. A major advantage of RSS feeds is that I don’t need to constantly check a site that rarely changes. I decide that I want to track the site, or some other unit of information, put it in my aggregator and forget about it until the day when I am notified that something changed.

Scoble’s idea reduces the signal-to-noise ratio on the Internet. If people routinely purged all feeds that hadn’t changed in 30 days, writers (and other content providers) would start posting whether or not they had anything to say, just to preserve their readership. On the principle that less is better, this would degrade the quality of what they were posting.

For bloggers, following Scoble’s suggestion to “post and post often” this works fine (this is the more is better school of thought), but there are other types of bloggers. From my public blogroll: Martin Fowler last updated his site 8 weeks ago, Mitch Kapor updated his blog today, but the last update was 6 weeks ago, Mark Dery’s Shovelware hasn’t been updated in 5 weeks, and Improv Everywhere Missions, which is never going update often, hasn’t been updated in over 3.5 months. It would take a little more research, but there are other bloggers who have gone on extended hiatus over the past year or so.

I want to read these writers, even if (or should that be especially because?) they don’t post very often. When they do post, they have something that I consider worth reading.

That just covers the use of RSS feeds to track blogs.

Besides blogs, there are other sorts of information that I track in my aggregator: search feeds from Technocrati, and de.licio.us, job searches, news searches and technical information sites.

Consider for instance, the search feeds from Microsoft’s Knowledge Base RSS feeds. There are feeds for almost every software product that Microsoft currently supports. Looking more or less at random (it’s a hassle because the feeds aren’t full text and don’t carry the date of the most recent post, so I had to copy/paste the urls to see the articles, which then shows only the “last review” date) there seem to be many feeds which haven’t been updated in more than a month.

Well, if my business or product depends critically on one of these products, I want to follow any changes in the Knowledge base. I don’t care whether the last posting was yesterday, or last month, or last year. I want to be notified about any change.

Also I might want to use a news search feed to track mentions of something in the press. Obviously if I were tracking a search on mentions of Microsoft, there would be something in the feed every day, but I were tracking some small company, it might be months between mentions. I wouldn’t want that feed closed down because it came up empty for 30 days in a row.

Some people in the comments to Scoble’s post show UIs that allow the user to see feeds which haven’t changed in more than XX days. This would allow the user to make the decision on whether to delete the feed, or not. This makes some sense, if you are cleaning house, but I don’t really understand why you would want to stop reading somebody because they don’t publish very often.

The only issue that I can see is if you have to look at every feed every day, it could get tiresome. I don’t have this problem. I use Bloglines as my aggregator. Bloglines has the feature that I can hide the feeds that don’t have any updates. I used the show all functionality in preparing the above table of rarely changing blogs, but normally I just see a smaller list.

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