Automatic Unsubscribe Considered Harmful

November 1st, 2005

I’ve see a couple of tools recently adding automatic unsubscribe features, options to unsubscribe from a feed which has gone silent for too many days or weeks.

This seems 100% wrong to me. Almost a betrayal of the bright and shiny promise of RSS.

As a Blogger

Part of what makes blogging a sustainable medium for personal publishing is I don’t have to publish every day, every week, or every month. I’m secure in the knowledge that when I do publish, my audience will still be there.

A TV station can’t do this, a newspaper can’t do this, and so they’re forced into a professionalization of media creation which is by and large unsustainable. (hence the poor quality of the evening news, wouldn’t it be nice if they only put out a report when they actually had some news to report on?)

As a Subscriber

I subscribe to a number of feeds that are only updated when something goes wrong. My server goes down, my page stops validating, there is an emergency weather alert. I need the confidence to subscribe, and then forget about these feeds secure in the knowledge that they’ll still be there when needed. (otherwise I’ll have nagging doubts, and might as well just check a website daily, this is what GTD is all about as I understand it, the confidence to forget)

As a Developer

I don’t get the motivation. A dormant feed is nearly zero cost. It isn’t changing so conditional GETs reduce the cost to the aggregator and the provider. It isn’t updating, so there is no cognitive cost to the reader. I don’t get the motivation.

Please if a feed goes long term 404, 410, 500, etc, sure unsubscribe, rather then pounding them forever. But a feed simply gone quiet? That would be a shame.

Wrong Problem

The real problem is some way to automatically detect feeds which are no longer interesting. And even then I usually hold on against the day they’ll swerve back to what I started reading them for. (usually I enjoy the detours, but sometimes…) One of the beauties of del.icio.us is it explicitly allows people to be multi-facetted, and I think our aggregator tools need to start being more aware of this.

caveat, I haven’t actually used FeedDemon’s feature (not being a Windows user), it merely reminded me of this worrying, dare I call it wrong headed, trend.

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