Friends, Romans, Countrymen – lend me your ears. I come not to praise Google, but to bury Google Reader. And heap scorn upon Google for pulling the plug.
To be clear right up front – this is not a post complaining about how I want more free ice cream, but I want strawberry instead of chocolate. I, like many others, would happily pay for the application I want. I was never given the opportunity to do so.
You kids these days with your social media and your hangouts and your Facebook chat rooms – hello, AOL circa 1993? – maybe you don’t care about keeping up with a carefully curated list of your favorite sources. Maybe the information age really has rendered us all a bunch of ADD no-attention-span-having viral monkeys who live solely to pass on other people’s “content” – usually without much substance – instead of processing information and producing reactions or even *gasp* original reporting. But back in my day, at the dawn of the age of blogging,* we had this thing called a blogroll. It was a little list that lived on the sidebar of most blogs, and it contained links to the blogs and sites that person found indispensable. My blogroll was my first morning destination: I would click down the list and see what anyone had posted since the last time I visited their site.
The only problem with the blogroll was that it was public. Similar to the sensitive issue of Facebook friends (who you should friend, who you can block or hide), the blogroll inadvertently brought social pressures. The idea was nice: A list of the blogs I read the most, or even just the blogs I love enough to recommend. But then politics entered the picture. If a blog linked to me, should I add them to my blogroll even if I didn’t really read them? Should I link my friend’s/cousin’s/mother-in-law’s blog about quilting, even though my blog is primarily about politics and my readers don’t care about quilts? You can see the issues.
Enter RSS readers and the day was saved. See, with a reader, I could grab the posts from the blogs I read all the time and have them all in one place. Best of all, nobody but me got to see which blogs I included and which were left out in the cold. With Reader, I could categorize them into topics. I could tag individual posts so I could remember why I wanted to save them (and come back to write about them later). I could spot trends and capture a large number of links to write a comprehensive post about topics I saw as related, thereby offering some unique content to the internet.
People are telling me to get over it and get on Feedly. You people are barking mad if you think Feedly replicates or even replaces what Google Reader did. I don’t want something that doesn’t let me control my experience. If I want someone else’s recommendations, I would (A) subscribe to their blog, (B) follow them on Twitter, (C) friend them on Facebook, (D) Talk to them IRL, or (E) all of the above. If I want to get lost in random sources, I have a Google News page with a staggering variety of topics I can glance through. I can go to the NY Times, or Slate, or the Post-Dispatch, or any number of prominent sites and see what’s being promoted, what’s popular, what other users are sharing. There is a staggering number of ways I can view what’s out there on the internet.
Ezra Klein isn’t sad about the demise of Reader because he says Reader turned his internet intake into an echo chamber. Not to be rude, but that’s entirely due to his own shortcomings. First of all, I doubt he gets all of his input from Reader and if he did, he’s doing the internet wrong. Second, even if he relies on other inputs, he didn’t put a big enough variety of sources into his subscriptions. Again, his failure, not Reader’s. Personally, I want a way to systematically access what my favorite content-producers put out there. I want to do it without having to go to their site and look for it – not everybody posts every day. And I want to be able to read it in a text-only mobile-friendly format that too many modern websites STILL do not offer. I want to be able to save things for later, tag them and file them according to my own organizing scheme. I want to be able to access it from any computer and my phone. And I don’t want the application deciding how long I should be able to keep the links to posts I’ve saved. (That leaves out The Old Reader, right there.) I can still get variety, but I want – I need – that little curated space that is all my own.
I don’t consider myself a “super user” but maybe I am, and that’s my problem. Clearly I’m in the minority of internet users out there if I’m one of the few crying about Reader’s demise. What I’m asking for is control: I choose the content inputs, I choose how and when I read them, I choose when to send them away, I choose how to store and organize them, and I’m allowed to make notes on the things I think are interesting so that I can easily search for and revisit issues later. And I don’t want anyone else to know what I’m squirreling away or how I’m categorizing it. Pinterest recently had to cave and allow people to create private pinboards because – as hard as it is to believe in this era of ubiquitous government surveillance and compulsive over-sharing – some people actually want to have a space to organize their thoughts and indulge their reading habits in private.
I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Google retired Reader because it wants to force me into Google Plus. I’m not buying. I’m not tying my public persona to my not-completely-formed thoughts. Do we or do we not believe that our presence online constitutes a sort of brand? My brand, my voice, whatever you want to call it, requires that I have time to think and process and research and make connections. If everything I save or sort becomes immediately public, the result is that I will only save and sort are the things on which I am already an expert, things that require no reflection (like ha ha, look at this funny picture of a cat!), or things I have already meticulously researched and cross-referenced (but how, without the tool to do that?).
In other words, by retiring Reader, Google is making the internet worse: More knee-jerk, more reactive, less reflective; more “sharing” of viral content and less supportive of actually creating anything of value.
I couldn’t be more disappointed. I have relied on my method of making sense of the world, and creating my substantive content (what little I have actually created lately, but that’s another issue) for so long that I’m not sure how to change.
And so I mourn Reader, not because I have lost a free service but because I have literally lost one of the most important tools I use for thinking and for communicating those thoughts to the world.
RIP, Google Reader.
If you have any suggestions for a news reader or some other kind of application that would do the kinds of things I’m talking about – even if it’s just one half (managing my source subscriptions) or the other (managing the content I want to save with notes and organization), let me know. I’ve tried Evernote, by the way, but didn’t like the interface as much. Now that Reader is gone I might give it another go.
*Seriously, been blogging for more years than most of you knew how to say blog. When I started law blogging, there were less than a dozen law blogs out there.