Recently I was filling out an OSCON feedback survey and arrived at a question that stumped me:
Which of the following industry publications and/or blogs do you read on a regular basis?
Following it was a very long checkbox list, starting with ARS Technica and ACM Queue and ending at ZDNet:
I started going down the list, answering as best I could, but what I really felt was: “The world doesn’t work this way anymore!”
As far as subscriptions go, the main thing I subscribe to these days is Google Alerts and other filters for the topics I care about. Things just float through my alerts, or my Twitter feed, or whatever the catchment du jour is. Subscribing would feel like over-commitment to a single source. If the feedback form had asked “Which of these do you find yourself clicking on most often?” that would have been much closer to reality.
I still have an RSS reader, somewhere around here, but the only two items from the survey list actually in my reader are, I think, Slashdot and O’Reilly Radar. Yet, I read articles from the others all the time. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve read more ZDNet articles than Slashdot articles in the last month, even though I’m “subscribed” to Slashdot but not ZDNet.
As I’m usually not in the advance guard of technology trends, I’m pretty sure I can’t be the only person who’s basically given up on old-fashioned subscriptions . Is the “subscribe to X” model on its last legs?
Active source loyalty may just not be a thing anymore on the Net. Who evaluates sources as sources now? We’re looking more at the cloud of endorsements and references around the sources. This gives us subtle clues as to whether we should go the whole way and click through. More and more, this is true even with publications that have a good reputation and that have spent effort to build that reputation. I like Linux Weekly News (LWN), but I’m not actually going to go to their front page. I’m going to wait until the generalized social waves coursing through the Net bring LWN to me.
The catchment model means that the urgent task, for those trying to get your attention, is to look enough like what your friends and colleagues endorse to fool your filters. (Of course, one way to do that is to enter into partnerships with the filters, or just be the filters. The rest of this parenthetical aside is left as an exercise for the reader.)
In the past, the sources were a destination all on their own. But as the sources become inputs into a larger filtering system, the filters are the next natural target for those seeking influence — or as we prefer to say in the technology field, the next site of innovation. When people are trawling so many sources, it no longer pays to concentrate on sources at all. It makes much more sense to start studying how the trawlers work and how to become part of the filtering infrastructure.
Perhaps this is all obvious. It just struck me because I’ve filled out similar evaluation forms for years, and only lately has that question felt like it’s based on an obsolete model. And that model doesn’t just go away: it gets replaced with something else, something in which broad data collection and pattern discernment matter far more than the reputation and branding of any individual source.
Thanks to Andy Oram for his helpful comments on earlier drafts of this post.
 Subscriptions on the Internet, that is. I’ll still get my paper copy of The New Yorker until they make it illegal to chop down trees to support East Coast intellectual elitism — a day I hope never comes.
Associated photo on home and category pages: email_subscribe by derrickkwa, on Flickr