Wednesday, February 4th 2015
If you regularly read a number of blogs, the chances are that, rather than visit them from time to time on the off-chance that they have been updated, you use some automatic system such as an RSS reader or “aggregator” to keep in touch with them. Another way to do it is to subscribe to the blog if the particular blog’s platform allows this. Subscribing to a blog usually entails entering your email address and results in you receiving an email alert each time the blog is updated.
This process is properly known as “subscribing” and those who subscribe as “subscribers”. However, under the influence of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which provide the means for members to “follow” other members, blog subscribers are also increasingly referred to as “followers”. Does this change of nomenclature matter? To be honest, I don’t know but it is something I shall discuss below.
To avoid even the least shadow of a misunderstanding, let me declare here that I like having subscribers. Genuine subscribers are valued by a blogger as they show that there are people who like what he produces and this encourages him to continue and to do his best. They are second in importance only to those lovely people who visit the blog often and leave interesting and encouraging comments though, of course, subscribers may also be writers of comments. You may notice that I slipped in the word “genuine” in the second sentence of this paragraph and this too is something I shall return to below.
When I first started blogging in 2006, there was much more of a community feel to the activity than there is now. I soon became a member of a group and we visited one another’s blogs regularly (without RSS) and we appended comments to one another’s posts. In those early days I accumulated perhaps half a dozen subscribers and the number remained at that for several years, though a new one might appear every now and again.
I suspect that some of those subscribers’ email addresses are no longer current and that although their owners ceased reading my blog years ago, WordPress goes on emailing my posts to them like a robotic postman delivering mail to an abandoned house. This introduces an important point, namely that WordPress provides no mechanism by which a blogger may disconnect subscribers. Once a subscriber subscribes, you are stuck with him or her. This doesn’t usually matter but in recent years there have been complaints of undesirable subscriptions being made – by porn sites, for example – which, despite the embarrassment or annoyance that they cause, cannot be undone by the blogger.
For a long time, as I mentioned above, my small number of subscriptions remained more or less fixed. Then, more recently, I began to notice an increase in the number of subscriptions and the rate at which they were appearing. This puzzled me because, while a few of these subscriptions looked genuine, a lot seemed rather unlikely. They might belong to SEO sites, to commercial blogs or to blogs specializing in, say, fashion, or other topics I never deal with. These subscribers never left comments or contacted me.
I looked online (the modern equivalent of “asking around”!) and found that other bloggers were experiencing the same thing. The rate of subscriptions had increased everywhere and the bloggers experiencing them seemed as puzzled as I was as to the reasons.
This is where I return to the word “genuine”. It may be difficult to define what a “genuine subscriber” is as opposed to one that isn’t genuine but I suspect that you, like me, have some sense of what is meant by the description. Subscribers who show some continuing interest in the blog, for example, are obviously “genuine”. What about the others?
My searches online and my thinking about this matter have so so far formed no firm answer. I suspect, though, that the word “followers” comes into it somehow. “Subscribing” seems like an act with serious intent behind it while “following” doesn’t. People “follow” one another on Facebook, for example, more or less as a matter of course. You automatically “follow” your friends and anyone else who has some claim on you because not to do so would be seem like a deliberate rejection.
This goes along with that other mis-named activity, “befriending”. I rarely visit my Facebook account which must seem dead to the outside world but, even so, I get “friendship requiests”, almost always from people I have never heard of, who have never shown the least interest in me and have never contacted me. Why, then, do they want to be my “friend”? At one point I started messaging them to ask. I would receive either no answer or a vacuous one such as “Sorry, I mistook you for someone else”. Yeah, right.
When I was on Blog Catalog (theoretically, I still am, because despite many requests remove my blog, it is still there), I received a friendship request from a woman who had 3,000 friends. Yes, three thousand. I was not about to become friend 3,001 and turned her down. How can you possibly maintain 3,000 relationships deserving of the name “friend”? You can’t: it’s a scam.
The above two paragraphs may seem like a diversion from the topic but I think there is a connection. I think there are people who actively seek to acquire large numbers of “friends” and “followers”. Why do they do this? That, as Hamlet said, is the question.
I am ready to believe that there are some people who think that having a large number of Facebook “friends” or Twitter “followers” enhances their reputation and makes them look good. I don’t know whether it does or not but they think so. The way to get friends and followers is of course to befriend and to follow others in the hope of being reciprocated.
Is this, then, also the reason for the increased activity in blog subscriptions? Do these subscribers subscribe in the hope that I, and other bloggers, will subscribe to their blogs in return? If we did so, then the increase in the size of their own followers’ list would make them feel good and perhaps impress others of their ilk.
There is another side to this and that is that at least some of the suspected non-genuine subscribers run commercial or quasi-commercial sites. Businesses are increasingly creating a presence on Facebook and Twitter and it might seem to them that creating a presence also in the blogosphere is a positive move, especially as it costs nothing. So, are these subscribers hoping that subscribing to many blogs contributes to creating an online presence? Even if each subscription produces only a small effect itself, perhaps subscribing to hundreds or even thousands of blogs produces a bigger one. As the proverb says, “many a mickle makes a muckle“.
Is this the answer or am I clutching at straws? Does anyone know? If so, please tell this Hamlet because the question is weighing on my mind.
Update February 6th 2015: See my follow-up, More on followers.