a eulogy for google reader

So, Google rolled out a lot of changes to its Reader product in the last couple of months. A lot of this has been said already, but I feel the need to say it myself.

Google has gutted and abandoned the one source I relied upon heavily to get information. Poof, gone. It hurts. First, a review of what they gutted, and why the Google+ equivalents as implemented thus far are no substitute:

Prior to the changes, Reader let you add friends like any other social network. Anything that they shared by clicking the “Share” button was thus published: both via the Google Reader interface itself, as well as an RSS/atom feed and webpage you could use in various ways. This was an incredibly valuable resource. I have a lot of awesome friend that read a lot of awesome things. I relied on this heavily not only for the interesting articles that they share, but as a source for finding new blogs/sources I should be subscribing to myself.

Then there was the recommendation engine. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. When (should it ever happen) you ran out of subscribed items to read, you could always peruse the recommended items (and recommended sources) for new stuff. The first indication I had that Google was flushing Reader as a priority was when the recommendations suddenly broke: one day it just suddenly had nothing but Lifehacker and Engadget articles. That is, the typical popular bullshit that I guess they thought they could pass off as recommendations, even though I’ve never read anything close to that.

But I digress. The combination of these two features was powerful: It was the modern equivalent of reading the morning papers, and now it’s gone. Google’s replacement for this was to implement “sharing” to Google+ being either a +1 (“like”) or an actual share. But the latter only posts it to your G+ stream – the digital equivalent of pissing in the wind. There’s no way to go back retroactively to see what you’ve posted, and there’s no way to aggregate and view what your friends have shared at all, much less in Reader itself (an awesome and powerful reading platform).

I have a friend that works for Google that I have talked to throughout this entire process. When it became clear they were starting to gut the features of Reader, I asked them how they could possibly be gutting such an immensely popular product. The answer, sadly, is that it’s not. Hardly anyone uses/used Reader, in reality – that is, hardly anyone relative to google’s larger userbase – that is, the Internet. I asked him, then, if usage of Google Reader was on the decline, how did people get news? I didn’t understand it. The answer? Facebook. No, seriously. This is how most of the world now gets their news. Depressing. The other half of the equation is that the remainder of people have regressed to just going to several “portal” type aggregated news sources: huffington post and their ilk.

There was a time when RSS and Atom feeds were the next big thing. Content aggregation and syndication were an amazing new frontier. Google Reader was the shining beacon that everyone eventually flocked to take advantage of the power of this technology in a well-built and robust product. As the various e-book readers started to emerge, the potential for awesome, seamless reading experiences from the internet to the e-reader via Google Reader/Instapaper/etc seemed endless. I feel like that excitement and those opportunities are gone, and it’s Google’s fault. They’ve betrayed that frontier and those customers in a contest for the facebookization of America. I don’t blame them, entirely. As outlined in this post, they have their reasons. Google Reader just doesn’t fit in Google’s plan to sell its product (us) to advertisers.

What I don’t understand is this: Google Reader was still avidly used and relied upon by a huge population of confirmed information addicts. This market may have been small by Google’s standards, but it’s still nothing to scoff at. I asked my friend why they can’t just spin it off to a company that is interested in actually making money off of a viable product with a demonstrated and dedicated customer base? He said he supposed that it was too difficult to decouple from Google’s infrastructure in general, and I can see that.

It’s a frustrating loss, though. I was really wanting to give Google the benefit of the doubt and try out their changes with an open mind, but as implemented so far, it’s a total loss. The Google Reader that I loved is dead, and is back to being no significantly better than Bloglines (the closest competitor that Google Reader originally crushed).

So, what’s next?