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Thoughts Prompted by Google Reader’s Demise

I’ll be the first to admit that I never particularly used an RSS reader. Sure, I have NetNewsWire on my Mac, with a couple dozen subscriptions, but I launch it only a few times a year, usually when some question about our internal RSS feeds comes up. I also have a Google Reader account, but log into it roughly as often. What little I do with RSS, I funnel into my email via the Blogtrottr RSS-to-email service. (I’m thus translating the serial medium of RSS into the serial medium of email — see Internet pioneer Brad Templeton’s take on the issue, where he makes some wonderfully astute distinctions between
serial, browsed, and sampled media

Thus, Google’s announcement that the company would be shuttering Google Reader as of 1 July 2013 doesn’t affect me much, but it’s impossible to ignore the plaintive cries from the many loyal Google Reader users. “Why are you abandoning us, Google?” they ask. “What are we supposed to do now?” For some practical answers to the latter question, see “Explore Alternatives to Google Reader” (17 March 2013), and as to the former, all we have to go on is Google’s public claim that “over the years usage has declined.”

But what’s behind this move, and what does it mean more generally? It means, for one, that while it’s increasingly impossible to avoid relying on cloud-based tools, anything out on the Internet can disappear without warning. It also points out some interesting distinctions between tools and platforms, and the increasing tension between publishers — a role occupied by anyone who produces content on the Internet, which is just about everyone — and the massively powerful distributors like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. And finally, Google Reader is yet another casualty in the silent war being waged against us by the infinite amount of information on the Internet.

Up in Smoke — It’s said that change is inevitable, and that we should get used to it. But I’d argue that’s not actually true — for most adults, life is more the same than different every day. Throughout their lives, most people have only one or two spouses, one or two children, a handful of houses, and a small number of jobs. At age 45, Tonya and I have owned only five cars in our adult lives, and only three in the 22 years since 1991, when we bought our first new one after several used models. Although we have more Macs than most people due to our business, we still go 3 to 5 years between new computers. Day in and day out, we live our lives much the way we did
last week and last month, and in the broad strokes, each year tends to recapitulate the previous years.

All this is by way of saying that we — and I’m talking generally here again — get used to things being the same, because they usually are the same, and that applies just as much to the tools we use and the ways we become accustomed to working. In the past, change came less frequently, but in today’s hyper-competitive world where massive companies are playing for unimaginably high stakes, an insane rate of change has become a competitive necessity. Apple and Google and Microsoft all need to keep rolling out updated versions of their mobile operating systems to seem fresh and hip for new and jaded smartphone customers, and Facebook and Twitter and Google are constantly revising their social networking engines and interfaces to
remain compelling to their audiences.

But a psychological toll is exacted on many people whenever something major changes. Sure, some people thrive on exciting new features and constantly having to adjust their ways of working, but for those people who rely on established habits and time-tested procedures to be productive, change can be frustrating, exhausting, overwhelming, and downright scary. At least Google is providing a few months warning before Google Reader’s switch will be thrown, and Apple gave users even more warning with the massive transition from MobileMe to iCloud. But iTunes 11, for instance, caused much pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth for many people who didn’t know in advance it was going to be so visually and experientially different from iTunes
10.7. They don’t care that iTunes 11 can do virtually everything that iTunes 10.7 can do; they care that they’ve been thrust into an unfamiliar world and must laboriously map out pathways and identify landmarks en route to that unchanged functionality (see “Redesigned iTunes 11 Brings iCloud Streaming and New MiniPlayer,” 30 November 2012).

The heart of the problem is integration via the cloud. With Google Reader, users are squawking not just because some will be forced to switch to another RSS reader, of which there are many, but because Google Reader provided a synchronization service that many RSS readers relied on. We’re not losing a single RSS reader; we’re losing what many developers had considered a building block upon which they could construct elegant software. Developers all build on the shoulders of others, but only with the rise of cloud integration have those shoulders become unsteady. iTunes 11 is relevant here too; even though iTunes 10.7 remains functional for now, it’s inevitable that integration with the iTunes Store or new iOS hardware will ring
10.7’s death knell.

I have no happy answers here. Though I may not be a major Google Reader user, I too rely heavily on a wide variety of cloud services, and if one of them were to disappear, I’d be at a loss. I’ve seen this happen enough that I wouldn’t take it as personally as I’ve seen many people (and, let’s be honest here, older people in particular) take other changes, whether we’re talking about iWeb or iDisk or Google Sync or Twitter’s elimination of developer capabilities. All I can suggest is that you think about your tools and systems and consider what would happen if one might disappear. As has been said about losing data, it’s a matter of when, not if.

Tools Versus Platforms — Introducing Twitter into the previous discussion offers a nice segue into another topic raised by Google Reader’s closing, that of tools versus platforms. Twitter became popular in large part because of its open API, which enabled developers to create all sorts of Twitter clients and Web services based on Twitter data. But the company has been limiting what is possible, largely because Twitter’s business model relies on selling ads, and it can guarantee display only if Twitter controls the user experience. In essence, Twitter moved from being a tool to being a platform, and in the process is causing to rise up to fill that void (see
New Social Network Aspires Beyond Chat and Ads,” 28 August 2012).

Google has long been a purveyor of tools as well, and Google Reader was one of them, particularly in terms of its synchronization service. Many of Google’s tools came from its vaunted 20-percent projects, where engineers were allowed to spend 20 percent of their time on anything that interested them. The result was a flowering of tools and services, but nowadays, those flowers look more like weeds distracting Google from its core businesses. Most notably, Google has focused a vast amount of its effort on Google+, thanks to the realization that if it didn’t do something, Facebook’s social approach might one day become a more-compelling platform for ads than Google Search. But like Facebook and Twitter, Google+ is a platform, not a
tool, and while Google may open up aspects of Google+ via an API, it’s unlikely ever to be usable in the background without users noticing, as Google Reader was.

This trend of companies moving from tools to platforms isn’t surprising, and makes sense for both users and providers. Platforms provide coherent user experiences, making things easier and more understandable for increasingly non-technical users. And platforms are largely self-contained, ensuring that the company in charge doesn’t have to share control or worry about competition within the platform. Platforms are also harder to leave — if you become accustomed to the look and feel and content of Facebook, you’re less likely to jump ship for Google+. It’s exactly the same strategy Apple is employing with iOS to prevent users from switching to Android or Windows Mobile (and, of course, Google and Microsoft are using this
approach as well).

But the loss of tools is disturbing, for the same reasons it would be disturbing if there were no more tools available for carpenters to build houses, just pre-fab structures trucked in and plopped down. Tools enable creative people to build things that no one else can even imagine, and just as a hammer and saw can be used for far more than building a house, so too can digital tools be used in ways that were never intended initially. I don’t have time to use as a microblogging service like Twitter, but I wholeheartedly support’s role as an infrastructure service for others to build upon. It’s a shame that Google is increasingly getting out of the tools business, much as it may make sense for them, but we can hope
that other companies will fill the holes left behind.

Publishers Versus Distributors — Though Google said nothing about Google+ in relation to the shuttering of Google Reader, many pundits have suggested that Google Reader’s time has come and gone, because where we are (or should be, for holdouts) now getting our news is via Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. And certainly, social marketing mavens will tell any company that will listen that it is doomed — doomed, I say! — unless it starts tweeting or maintaining a Google+ page or garnering “likes” on Facebook.

But there’s a problem with social networks. OK, there are a vast number of problems with social networks, but the one I want to focus on ties in with the platform point I made above, which is that we’re all publishers, whereas social media platforms — Google+, Facebook, and Twitter — have become our distributors. They rely on us for content, of course, but we rely on them much more, and that should set off warning bells.

Sure, if all you post is what you had for lunch and cute cat pictures, you probably don’t care that you have no permanent control over your content. If you’re a company and need to get the word out about your products, though, you’d be nuts to rely exclusively on a platform you don’t control and that could disappear or start charging usurious fees tomorrow. If you have a company blog and associated RSS feed, you might lose readers due to the loss of Google Reader, but at least you still have complete control over your content and your readers can find it again easily. (Me being old school, I’d suggest that better yet is having your own mailing list server and maintaining contact via email, since then no one can trip you

Worse, social networks are streams. From what I’ve seen, most people don’t monitor social networks non-stop, especially if they follow a lot of sources that aren’t close personal friends. With the volume of posts being what it is, most people don’t go far back in time to catch up after being offline for a while. So any post you make, if it doesn’t happen to appear in a window of attention, is likely to go completely unnoticed. Contrast that with an RSS reader that, while it requires specific attention, is more than happy to hold on to headlines until they’ve been read or marked as such.

At War with the Infinite — Lastly, and I hope to explore this more in a future article as well, I think Google Reader is largely a victim of the war we’re fighting — and losing! — against the infinite amount of information on the Internet.

To recap, first there was email, and not long after, Usenet news. Email is the unstoppable cockroach of Internet technologies, but Usenet news grew so expansive that it engendered highly sophisticated software for dealing with subscriptions before losing its place in the limelight to the Web and slowly crumbling under its own size. In the early days of the Web, there were few enough Web sites that when we made our home pages, we all made lists of our favorite sites. When the number of Web sites grew too large, human-built directories like Yahoo sprung up to categorize all the sites on the Internet. Before long, those directories were kicked aside in favor of search engines, again because there were too many sites and too much content on
any given site to categorize. Then news hit, in a big way, via professional publications and blogs alike, and everyone who had previously made lists of Web sites started a blog. With so many blogs to check regularly, RSS became necessary as a way to make it possible to scan hundreds of headlines per day. Curated aggregation sites like Slashdot and Daring Fireball weren’t far behind, because even keeping up with an RSS reader was too much for many people. With the rise of Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook, it became too hard to justify the effort in maintaining a personal blog, when it was so much easier to post short messages and interesting links.

Google Reader, like other RSS readers, was an attempt to maintain control over the amount of information on the Internet, but like all such attempts, it was doomed to failure. The amount of information on the Internet is now, for all practical purposes, infinite. Actually, it’s even worse than that, since even just the information that interests us, or the daily news about the information that interests us, is essentially infinite, in the sense that we live finite lives and stand no chance of ever reading it all. (Yes, I realize there are people whose interests aren’t terribly broad, but it’s nearly impossible even to keep up with a sports team or two, or a few celebrities.)

Those pundits I mentioned earlier who claim that they’re getting all the news they need from social media instead of RSS readers are basically saying that they were overwhelmed by their chosen RSS feeds and consider Twitter or Facebook or Google+ more manageable. And indeed, if you follow people who share your interests, you’ll be rewarded with worthwhile posts and links. But there are some perhaps unanticipated issues with this approach.

What you’ll get is highly selective, but it’s selected by other people, not you. Perhaps that’s good, perhaps not. You will also miss posts — go offline overnight to sleep, and catching up the next morning is likely to be too much bother. Again, that may be good, in cutting down on the amount of information in your life, or it may be bad, if you miss something you would have deemed highly important. The good stuff may stick around in conversation anyway — I’ve long joked that I’m interested only in mainstream news that’s going to still be in the news two weeks later.

All that said, it’s easy to follow another person here and another company there, confirm a few new “friends,” or add someone to a circle, and before long, I’m willing to bet that social media services succumb to the soul-crushing power of the infinite as well, just like Usenet newsgroups and Yahoo’s Web site directory and now Google Reader. For many people, they already have.

To be fair, Joe Kissell had it right in “It’s Not Email That’s Broken, It’s You” (23 February 2013). Just as email isn’t broken, RSS readers aren’t broken, and social networking services aren’t broken. We’re broken, because we’re both finite and hardwired to be interested in a wide variety of things: other people, tribes, power, sex, social position, and — of course — kittens. Our only weapon in the war against the infinite is self-control. Subscribe to too many mailing lists, read too many newsgroups, track too many blogs via RSS, follow too many people on social networking services — regardless of the specifics, if you overindulge in information, no matter how
good your tools, you will eventually be crushed by the infinite.

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