The Thinker

Google, please don’t kill Reader!

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

Google, the benevolent overlord of the Internet, last week bared its teeth and bit us. Oh maybe not you personally, but certainly those of us who depend on Google Reader. Reader is not the only product that Google announced that it is pulling. It is also pulling its user portal, iGoogle.

Unsurprisingly, I first learned about this in Google Reader, which is where I spend a good part of my day. First there was the announcement in Reader itself saying it was going away July 1, and providing a convenient link so that you can download your list of sites to import into a different newsreader. But also, my Google Reader soon became full of articles about Reader’s demise. Indeed, I used Google Reader to learn about an online petition on change.org to try to persuade Google to keep Reader. I immediately signed it, of course, as have more than 120,000 others, but the mighty overlord is likely to be tone deaf to our requests.

Secretly, I think that Google suffers from passive aggressive behavior. That’s because it now wants me to do everything in Google +, its latest social network, because it has a serious problem with Facebook envy. It has been aggressively pushing me to use G+. I believe that Reader’s demise is at least in part because people continue to doggedly use it rather than G+. It’s pretty obvious why we are still using Reader: it is a really elegant solution to reading lots of content that we care about.

Still, it is not popular like GMail. It is one of their niche products, something they threw together as newsfeeds began to take off. Newsfeeds are still all over the place. Most sites wanting to attract traffic wouldn’t be caught dead without a newsfeed, along with their Twitter account and Facebook page. It’s all part of building, promoting and sustaining a brand on the web.

With Reader, I don’t usually have to visit a web site to read its content. I simply grab its feed, which it usually advertises either explicitly with a link on its page or implicitly with HTML markup that my browser recognizes. With a couple of clicks the site’s news will be forever tucked inside Google Reader. Now I can go to one place, Google Reader, to read content for all my favorite sites and favorite bloggers. I don’t necessarily have to visit the site again, unless the publisher chooses to publish only teaser text and I choose to read more on the site. Infoword.com, one of the many sites I have in Reader, uses this approach. I can’t imagine trying to keep up with tech news without these site’s newsfeeds.

Reader saves so much time by keeping me from needlessly going to sites of interest. It’s like my own personal newspaper of the web, always topical, and always with stuff I am likely to care about. Okay, maybe 80% of it I don’t care all that much about. Most of what I read amounts to scanning headlines and then digging deeper if I find the content of more interest. I do the same thing with a newspaper. I scan the headlines but except for the front page rarely make it beyond the first couple of paragraphs of an article. That’s the whole point of a newsreader like Google Reader: to allow you to efficiently browse news and content. A good newspaper contains all sorts of divergent topical areas: national news, international news, sports, style, arts, local news, business, etc. Reader does this for the web except it customizes it based on your interests. It will even suggest feeds you might like based on what you are reading. It’s like getting the Washington Post without the sports section, which I never read, but with a bonus tech section stuffed with content it knows that I will want to read. In short, it’s brilliant!

Google Reader is certainly not the only newsreader out there; it’s just the first I found that made reading newsfeeds elegant, simple, intuitive and fast. I had tried other newsreaders before Google Reader came out and they all sucked pretty badly. For one thing, Google Reader was web-based whereas most newsreaders were client programs. So you would see stuff at home you already read at work. Reader also has intelligent search algorithms, prefetching your content. Boom! It’s there. If you see something of interest that you want to read later, you just “star” it and it keeps your list of starred items indefinitely.

Clearly Reader is not for everyone since you have to be a bit geeky to get it. A little education on the business of “feeds” is in order. It helps to know what a newsfeed is, how to subscribe to it and why Atom formatted feeds may be better than RSS 2.0 feeds. (Actually, there’s a bit of a holy war about this.) Once you “get” it, and it’s generally the geeks that quickly grasp the enormous potential of a newsfeed, then the only question is “which newsreader?” After you try a half dozen and you try Google Reader, you don’t want to use anything else but Reader, even if it is boring black type on white pages.

The argument against newsfeeds is that you can get the same stuff by other means. Everyone is publishing to Twitter now, so follow the site on Twitter. And maybe that’s okay if you live your life on Twitter and find the most elegant Twitter client to organize it for you. But not everyone publishes to Twitter and there are only 120 characters there per tweet. Typically a tweet is full of annoying hashtags and @ symbols to parse. It comes across like Spanglish. Facebook is another sort of alternative. Often a site’s Facebook page will have similar content, or not, but again you have to be a Facebook aficionado and read your Facebook newsfeed, which likely includes tons of stuff from friends and family to throw you off stride. The whole point of newsfeeds though is that they are independent of proprietary delivery mechanisms. They are about liberating content on the web. One of its chief evangelists and founder of reddit.com Aaron Swartz recently committed suicide, arguably because he was pushing too hard for the idea that information should be free.

This stuff matters. Newsfeeds matter. No, I’m not kidding. They really matter, big time! In my case it matters because it is an incredibly efficient way to read or at least scan lots of relevant content. Newsfeeds are like Cliff Notes for recent content on the web that you care about. It may be geeky and unsexy but it matters. Most likely the people you read the most on the web also depend on newsfeeds and are probably spending most of their days in Google Reader. That’s how they maintain their edge. If in part I manage at all the project an erudite manner on this blog it comes across because I read a lot, I read it fast, and I read it efficiently in Google Reader.

But it will soon be gone! Which means that while newsfeeds will still be around that I must find another way to get my news. I am experimenting with alternatives, and the Feedly browser extension looks promising, but it’s still not Reader. I was used to Reader. It offered zero latency, i.e. I just didn’t have to think about it. Feedly looks gorgeous but I want to be absorbed in the content, not the window dressing.

I wish the mighty Google would rethink this decision. The intellectual brainpower of the Internet is going to decline sharply when they pull the plug on the unsexy but remarkable Google Reader.

 

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