Google Reader: Google Giveth and Google taketh away. Keep Calm and Carry On

Google has recently announced that they will take Google Reader offline. "I won't miss it. Never used the damn thing. Didn't trust the idea of a big company like Google's interests being so aligned with mine that I could trust them to get all my news." said one the inventors of RSS but to feel the pain online of those will miss it is to see that many do not agree. I'm not one of them.

Bad day at blackrock?

Fellow FSM contributor, Dmitri Popov asked me, on Google Plus, how jumping ship from one fickle third-party RSS feed provider (Google) to another one (Feedly) solves anything. The short answer is, it doesn't. It was a temporary fix but while Feedly is very nice and prettier than Google Reader, it's still web-based third-party software. And there are many alternatives to Feedly and they all suffer from that same problem. To understand why Google is sunsetting Reader is to gain an insight into their business model and the relationship between them and their end users.

It gives the lie to the oft repeated canard that RSS is so last century and has been utterly eclipsed by the poster boys of the internet like Twitter and Facebook

It is a tragic irony that Google announced the imminent demise of Reader not that long after Aaron Swartz committed suicide. Swartz of course was a member of the working group that developed RSS web syndication specification. That feels like a double hammer blow. It also gives the lie to the oft repeated canard that RSS is so "last century" and has been utterly eclipsed by the poster boys of the internet like Twitter and Facebook. But, that is to compare apples to pears. They are radically different beasts. I won't deny that for discovering stuff you're interested in, the social networks can be really useful even though your usage patterns and personal profile leak information about you that can potentially compromise your online security. RSS feeds, by comparison, don't blab as much.

The same of course can be said for search engines (which effectively means Google) which is why I use, overwhelmingly, DuckDuckGo. Ditto the excellent Google Plus. I use it. A lot. I regard it as much better than Facebook by a country mile but I use it in the full knowledge that it too "leaks". Very much a case of caveat emptor. Besides, even if you set up Google Plus as a research tool by subscribing to Circles and Communities (and I do) you are faced with a potential tsunami of information which can tend to overwhelm, even if you pro-actively manage the data flow. RSS feeds, on the other hand, can be more focused. Feeds can be more manageable providing that you don't run amok and install too many. Managing the data flow is a good rule of thumb for all media. Less is sometimes more. RSS feeds are a more focused research tool than social media like Plus and Facebook. Fewer distractions focus the mind and it was interesting to note that many of the people bemoaning the demise of Reader were professional researchers who found it an indispensable tool for their chosen field.

You might need Reader. Google doesn't (anymore)

Of course, all of this means nothing to Google. It's a giant. It has deep pockets and can afford to start projects and abandon them at a whim. Google Wave. Remember that? Admittedly, it had a learning curve but Google Reader did not. Using it is really easy. It's a one trick pony and integrated well to other services and has lasted much longer with a faithful user base. But that has not saved it. Unlike Gmail or the search engine, it could not be monetised (0ne of the reasons why I use Thunderbird with IMAP to read my e-mail. It's ad free.). Ironically, given my use of and liking for Google Plus, I may well have been one of those who helped to put the knife in Reader. How so? Well, some of the features of Reader grew more organically from users, bottom up, rather than being directed by Google, top down.

As more people use Google Plus, Google wants to redirect users to Plus, away from Reader and , if one report is to be believed, to paid subscription via Google Play (which means smartphones and tablets). Personally, I'm not convinced that this would be the same as an RSS feed. It is also true that Google Reader was driving more site traffic than Plus and its closure therefore could mean that bloggers relying on Google adsense for income will experience a hit. Not that Google will mind at all. A few thousand sites falling off a cliff will not dent its capacious pockets.

Google Reader in effect sucuumbed to what one of its development team described as "the share-pocalypse"

It is also true that Google Reader had a more restricted user base which could reasonably be described as "geeky" compared to Google Plus where sharing is much more widespread and "popular" (but still more geeky than facebook). Google Reader in effect sucuumbed to what one of its development team described as "the share-pocalypse".

Google doesn't own the RSS protocol. It's open

RSS doesn't belong to Google They are only killing off their web-based implementation of it. It's not the end of the world. Don't waste your breath, or digital ink, bleating with an online petition. I won't be signing it. Begging is so unseemly. As with life generally, it's better to rely on your own resources if you want to survive the coming perfect storm: proprietary hardware, closed software, tied-in-services, the cloud and the cunning eye candy of siloed smartphone and tablets apps. By contrast, RSS is an open format. Google can't kill it because it doesn't own it. What might kill RSS is that it doesn't really have the social interaction which characterises proprietary formats like Twitter and Facebook, but that interaction comes with a hefty price tag if you value both your freedom and privacy.And, predictions that RSS won't survive Reader's demise are, to borrow Mark Twain's phrase, greatly exaggerated. RSS might be on life support though if blogs and websites decide that RSS subscriptions aren't worth the candle if Google Reader is no more after 1st. July.

One area for concern though is for those amatuer bloggers whose readers subscribe to their content via RSS. Dire predictions are being that readership will fall but that there has been some repositioning by bloggers encourage more e-mail subscriptions (and so you see those popups on your visit to a website asking if you wish to subscribe to their e-mail newsletter. It's never a prompt to subscribe to their RSS feed). That would work of course but my inbox is already big enough and that feature does not integrate as well as a dedicated RSS feed reader on the desktop. RSS has been described as nerdy hard core that pulls down content where Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook pull and _push content. But where do you think much of the sharing on these social networks comes from? I doubt that too many people have twenty or thirty browser tabs open for that. They are using RSS feeds for many of the shares. (It will be interesting to see if site traffic/postings dip on social networks after 1st July.) To quote one disgruntled commentator on a website:

RSS. It's the most useful web technology that nobody knows about. If only someone had given it a less geeky name and found a way to make it user-friendly to non-techies, it would have become as popular as email- it's that useful.

Couldn't have put it better myself.

The coming storm

Some time ago Cory Doctorow gave a speech about what he called "the coming war against general computing". Listen to it (or read the transcript) and you'll agree that, ultimately, it's either programme or be programmed. In that spirit Google's announcement about Reader was the final push I needed to start coding my first Python project: a simple RSS reader client for the desktop over which I will have complete control and that will not rely on the disinterested largesse or business models of third parties. If my RSS feeds are to be killed off I'll be the executioner, not Google, Apple or Microsoft. Thank you.

Learn to programme and assert your independence or resign yourself to being incarcerated in a digital prison, albeit one with wall-to-wall carpet, television and central heating..It's an open prison but it's still a prison. Google Reader is dead. Long live RSS.


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