You probably know this by now but Google Reader service is going to be shut down and discontinued come June. On March 13, everyone who logged into the service saw a lovely notification informing them about the impending closure. Most took to Twitter and (ironically) Google+ to vent their frustrations at this move. I was one of these people:
This is not the first time Google has shut down a useful service. In fact, this is not the first time a Google service closure affected me personally. Back in the day I was a big fan of Google Notebook service which provided an easy way to “clip” quotes and links from the web. It was a great way to stash away articles I wanted to read later, or quotes I wanted to remember. Granted, it was a niche product. The public at large had no use for it, and it was mostly loved by perpetual web heads and hardware nomads who jump between 3-4 systems per day and needed a cloud based notebook before cloud was a thing yet.
When Notebook was discontinued I was pretty bummed out, but quickly learned that it could be easily replaced. Google Bookmarks service actually offered a superior way for me to manage and organize bookmarks, and services such as Instantpaper and Pocket picked up the slack in the “let me save this to read later” department. Not only that, but by the time Notebook was phased out there was a fully featured alternative already out there in the form of Evernote. So after a brief mourning period I moved on with my life and I haven’t looked back.
If anything, I have learned a valuable lesson: free services come and go, and you can’t expect niche products without a broad public appeal to stick around forever even if they are backed by a huge mega-corporation with seemingly endlessly deep pockets. Eventually an unprofitable and unpopular service will get closed, even if you happen to love it dearly.
The case of Google Reader is little bit different because it has never been seen as a niche product by its users. Back in 2005 when it came out, RSS was the new shiny thing. It was the hottest acronym and the most sought after buzzword. The internet was all about glossy Web 2.0 icons and feeds on everything. RSS aggregation was a booming and competitive industry with actual premium fee based services. It was a place to be.
Naturally Google noticed it, and wanted a piece of that. So they created their own cloud based reader service that was fast, clean and convenient. Back then I was using Bloglines which was serviceable, but not nearly as polished and shiny as what Google was offering. So I immediately switched, ported over my OPML file and was relatively happy user ever since. No one was really sure how Google was going to monetize this service, but I guessed that Google saw a value of collecting OPML’s from millions of people, analyzing what they subscribe to and using that data to deliver personalized ads or something. So it made sense, and at first Google was 100% behind this product. They were determined to keep it running and keep innovating.
The interesting thing happened when Google decided to add “social” features their service. It was a relatively new thing, because previously reading your RSS feeds was mostly a solitary experience and “social media” as we know it wasn’t in the business of aggregating content. I believe Myspace was still the king and Facebook might have still been for college students only. So we shared links the old fashioned way – by copy and pasting links from our RSS reader into our email and forwarding to the people we liked.
Note: we all had Gmail, and most of us used Reader because it was not only the best service around, but it also managed to stifle and push out all competition. No one could really compete with the software giant on performance and man power, so all the other readers were sub-par in comparison and they slowly dropped off. Reader became the de-facto industry standard for RSS reading, and adding direct sharing features between users made absolute sense. And then something magical happened. The RSS aggregation service suddenly became a social network. Simple aggregation and organization of news was transformed into peer to peer news curation system. That all happened before other social services got onto this bandwagon.
Last December, around the time Google+ rolled out Rob Fishman wrote an excellent piece about the rise and fall of Reader as a social platform and the sharebro phenomenon. It’s actually quite ironic that Google had this small, but vocal, beloved and intensely productive emergent social network already in place, and they decided to kill it in order to make way for their Facebook killer that never amounted to anything other than “third best” (if we are being generous). But in a way it makes sense. Google is a large company and their decisions are (and should be) based on economics of scale. They are in the business of making big things happen, and catering to a small niche interest group is justly lower on their priority list than conquering new markets and such.
Google Reader never had the numbers – it never had the critical mass of users to survive. And perhaps the “social network” of sharebos was exactly what kept it at that. It had value to a small but devoted community, so wisely Google never really messed with the formula. They didn’t want to burst that bubble by changing the service too much. But I think that a change was necessary. For most people RSS aggregation was still mostly a solitary experience. Not everyone who was subscribed to feeds in Reader was actually sharing anything or watching shared feeds. And while the emergent community of sharebros was booming, connecting to your real life friends via Reader was not always simple.
Here is what my almost decade long experiment with RSS has taught me: RSS is not actually the best way to consume “news”. It is a good way to keep up with a dozen or so favorite blogs that you really, really like. But if you want relevant news you don’t really go to Google Reader anymore. You probably go to Reddit or Hacker News (and Facebook/Twitter maybe) and browse the front page. Those services provide something even the emergent community of Reader could not; real time news curation. On news sites, relevant and interesting stories bubble up based on user votes and your subscription preferences creating a very dynamic and democratic content aggregation. Facebook bubbles up stories that were liked by the friends whose posts and profiles you view often allowing you to stay in your subjective “bubble” of feel good links posted by like minded people. Reader just gives you list. An ever growing, never ending list with no sorting or prioritization baked into the equation. Even worse, it nags you about your un-read items all the time.
Right now, I’m subscribed to over 400 feeds. I didn’t add all of them overnight – they sort of accumulated there over many years. I started with maybe a dozen or so, but you know how it is – you stumble onto an interesting article so you subscribe to the blog. Sometimes that article has 3-4 interesting links, and you subscribe to these too. This shit adds up. My Reader gave up on counting my unread articles long time ago – it usually just tells me I have 1000+ of them.
Early on that counter was actually stressing me out. When my list of subscriptions was close to like a 100 and I was subscribed to some high post volume blogs that would vomit out multiple articles/links per day I would have to struggle just to keep up. It was like reading email. When you have unread emails in your inbox, it’s annoying – so you feel compelled to go there, prune out the spam, reply to the important stuff and file the rest for later just to reset the counter. It was the same for my RSS reader list. Eventually I learned to ignore the unread counter. Once I had few hundred blogs on the list it was simply physically impossible for me to actually zero-out that counter within a day. New entries were coming in just too fast.
This was doubly true for the shared feeds, which while often yielded a stream of wonderfully curated links that pertained to my interests, usually had very high post ratio and simply would clog up my feed with endless stream of information I simply never had time to weed trough. In the recent years I basically separated my dozen “must read every new entry or I’ll die” blogs onto a separate folder and I just zero out that one on most days. And I’m very picky about what gets on that list based on topic selection and/or post frequency. If you are too productive, you’re off because “nobody ain’t got time for” multiple posts per day.
Don’t get me wrong – I like Reader. I use it every day. But I would like if I said I use it as much as I used it in 2006. Or that it provides me with the same value. It does not. The web has moved on, and while RSS as a technology is still relevant and important, the straight up aggregation may no longer be the best paradigm for news consumption. Other than the brief flirtation with the social features, Reader haven’t really changed since it’s early days. It has not adjusted to the ever increasing torrent of information we are accosted with every day. It is great at collecting and amassing links but doesn’t help you to filter out the interesting from the mundane, and the awesome from boring. You have to do that manually, and the more blogs you subscribe to, the more difficult that becomes.
Could they have saved this service? Could they have improved it? Yes, I think the current news aggregation paradigm could use some changes:
- Unread counts are evil, and they need to be banished. Once you subscribe to enough feeds they are an instant guilt-trip immediately after you log in. It’s like a passive aggressive nag. “Look who just showed up… Hey don’t mind me – I’m just sitting here holding your 1000+ unread posts in a queue, but you are a busy guy so take your time…”
- Filtering and prioritization should be a major focus. News feeds should be ordered with respect to objective popularity of the posts, and your subscription preferences.
- The social features should have been kept and expanded upon. Sharing a link from your feed should bump it up on your friends front pages based (weighed on mutual relationship and reciprocity) and shared posts should be starting points for discussions such as they are on Facebook or Twitter for example.
If you think about it, a lot of I just written above is essentially what Google+ offers to us right now. Or Facebook. Or Twitter for that matter. In the last decade we all have suffered from information overload, and social networks became one of the channels through which we learned to filter this torrent. So to remain viable in modern times “news aggregators” must transform themselves to “social news curation platforms” which is just a different name for social networks. But what is the point of building a social network if you know it will be small, underutilized and always in the shadow of the current market leaders. I think Google has learned a lesson or two from the Buzz fiasco which clearly illustrated you can’t just side-line a social network onto an existing service and expect it to conquer the world, no matter how well established said parent service might be. Side-loading social network onto Gmail did not work, then why would making Reader more social do any better. You have to go big or go home. Hence Google+ got the focus and resources and Reader got the axe. And in a way G+ is I guess one of the replacement options for Reader. Too bad it is actually failing at it so hard.
I think Marco Arment is exactly right when he says that the death of Reader might actually be the best thing that has happened to RSS in years. Google more or less ravaged that market. No one could competed with something that was subsidized by the company that is commonly believed to have infinite amount of money (and infinite number of servers powered by unicorns). The only development that was taking place with respect to RSS was in the mobile field – but even there, Google Reader sync was a must-have feature, and the designers were bound by limitations of Googles stagnant but dominating presence.
Death of Reader is opening up a market niche that can and will be filled up in the next few months. As we speak, the existing RSS aggregation services are scrambling to beef up their servers and write adequate “import from Google” routines so they can welcome Reader refugees in July. Many of them are already getting more traffic than they have ever anticipated to get. For example Feedly which a lot of sites mentioned as the “closest of kin” to Reader went down hard the day after the big announcement:
So while I’m bummed out that I’m losing Reader – a service that I’m used to and that I like, despite it’s glaring flaws and parental neglect of it’s creators, I’m actually a bit excited for what lies ahead. The next few months should be really exciting. We will likely see some new RSS aggregation services to crop up shortly. Most will probably try to replicate the simplicity of Reader, but some might actually offer new and exciting features. Perhaps we will even see some new standard taking place. What we could really use is some decentralized way of syncing OPML files and associated data (likes, reades, discussions) across different readers. Because that was really the killer feature of Reader – it was the easiest way to keep your phone RSS reader in sync with your browser based one regardless of OS or platform you were running.
For me personally, this will also be an occasion to clean up my subscription list. Before July I will have to sit down and purge out all the defunct and abandoned blogs and really try to narrow down my subscriptions to the stuff I really, really enjoy reading. So wherever I will end up next, I will start of with a new, clean and lean list.
How about you? What service are you looking at right now to replace Google Reader? How do you feel about the shut down? Let me know in the comments.