On the demise of Google Reader.
After a generally successful eight-year run, the well-known RSS feed reader Google Reader disappeared into the ether yesterday. The only public rationale that Google has offered for the decision to retire the much-used Reader was that "usage has declined," though the real reason seems to be that the free service wasn't making money for the company (which isn't to say that Google is hurting financially: the company raked in over $3 billion in net profits in the first quarter of 2013). In truth, as TechCrunch writer Sarah Perez commented shortly after the plan to phase out Google Reader was announced, Google "is now systematically shutting down products which don’t fulfill its core missions: search, social, ads. On these fronts, Google Reader just doesn’t deliver."
The demise of Google Reader leaves a void that will not easily be filled. Over the last few months, I have heard some tech industry types try to spin the decision to kill Google Reader by dismissing RSS feed readers as passé and claiming that Twitter and Facebook should be seen as adequate substitutes. In truth, Twitter and Facebook are not substitutes for Google Reader because the services that they provide isn't even remotely similar. As the aforementioned Sarah Perez writes in a quasi-obituary for Google Reader published yesterday, there was a lot that one could do with Google Reader that one cannot do with social media sites like Twitter and Facebook:
. . . Google Reader was special because it was one of the last remaining places on the Internet you could really call your own. In every other way, the nature of news reading on the web these days and the social services that now dominate your attention are crafted by others who dictate what you will read and when. Whether browsing through an editorially run news site, parsing your Twitter stream or reading your Facebook news feed, the links before you are those that others have deemed important.I started using Google Reader daily in the fall of 2009, after one of my students at Saint Joseph's University mentioned it to me and suggested that I give it a try. Google Reader greatly simplified the task of keeping up with the few dozen blogs that I then had bookmarked in a 'favorites' folder on my Internet browser, conveniently aggregating them in a single feed. Google Reader quickly became an important means of organizing and digesting the mass of data that appeared before me each day, especially as the list of blogs on my daily reading list grew longer. I also discovered that Google Reader had become the preferred means by which many others chose to read my own blog, as Google helpfully informed me of the number of subscribers that I had at any given time.
There’s value in this signal, of course — a sense of what’s trending in the larger world allows for serendipitous discovery. But it’s also a relinquishing of control. Oh sure, you can choose who to follow, but it’s not the same as choosing which news sources’ feeds you will subscribe to, why, and how often you will read them.
In Google Reader, I’ve gleefully stuffed websites into collections like “B-List” and “C-List” and “Can’t Miss” and “Panic Button,” instead of more proper names like “top tech sites” or “Apple bloggers.” It’s my decision which headline collections get scanned with a glance, and which writers will see me devouring their every word.
Meanwhile on Twitter, every missive is as important as the one that preceded it. A photo of your cat. News from the war. A beautiful sunset on Instagram. A government overthrown. It’s a real-time firehose of information that you dip into as you can. There’s no unread count. You just refresh and refresh and refresh for more.
Practically speaking, what does one do after a service that was an unobtrusive but significant part of one's daily life disappears? A fair number of alternative feed readers have appeared to try to take the place of Google Reader, and it seems that some of them are already struggling to meet demand. From what I can tell, the most popular of the Google Reader alternatives is Feedly, which I took a brief look at in March and decided not to adopt (at this writing I'm unable to visit the Feedly website because of apparent capacity problems, so perhaps I made the right decision). The RSS reader that I'm currently using is CommaFeed, which looks and functions enough like Google Reader to make for a relatively easy transition; CommaFeed has its fair share of difficulties - for example, it seems to have trouble with embedded video - but perhaps these will be resolved in time. I am also thinking of giving The Old Reader a try, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. Readers with opinions on such matters are welcome to share their thoughts on the various Google Reader replacements if they wish. For my part, I wish erstwhile Google Reader well as we make our way through the brave new world that has been foisted upon us. AMDG.