It's all spinning wheels and self-doubt until the first pot of coffee.

The Readerpocalypse, or Occupy Google Reader

TL;DR: Google gave Reader a face-lift and removed built-in following & sharing. In exchange, they added +1 buttons and ways to share to Google+. But, the changes seem to have removed most of the value from the service for me, so I'm moving on as I was invited to do.

What happened?

Almost a year ago, I wrote about how my habits had gotten less del.icio.us. One of the main culprits that stole my sharing flow was Google Reader: I went from using a quick bookmarklet to an even quicker icon-click in my feed reader. That meant I left most things untagged, but I shared even more than before. Eventually, Google Reader released a bookmarklet for use off-site, which meant I started sharing everything everywhere to Reader.

I also found a replacement for my old del.icio.us network in Google Reader's social features. I could follow people, and the stream of things they shared and annotated turned into a great source of news curated and pre-filtered by likeminded people.

Well, as it turns out, Google's recent changes to Reader just removed all of the above. In exchange, they added a couple of buttons to +1 and share items to Google+, which streamlines things for them and encourages more use of the new service.

As I wrote on Google+, the net result is nothing to stomp and shout about, but there's nothing there that makes me happier. As I played more, though, I came to realize that most of the value I derived from the service had evaporated.

Item-centric vs People-centric, Efficiency vs Engagement

There's a big difference between the way sharing happened on Google Reader, and the way it happens now on Google+. The best way I can think to explain is that the old way was item-centric and the new way is people-centric. In other words, people seem to be the dominant social objects in Google+, whereas Google Reader used to treat items that way.

Before, we all gathered around the news. The headline and summary were primary, and our comments were collected after the item. The result was a de-duped stream of great news filtered through smart brains. Even if the people I followed never said a word, the fact that they'd clicked "share" was value enough. In fact, it was better that way most of the time, because we all got out of the way of each other and the news.

This, by the way, is what I loved about del.icio.us and now pinboard.in: It's anti-social networking. We can provide low-effort, intelligent inputs to build something useful for each other, but we're not there to assert a presence or distract each other from the things we each came to see.

But now, that filtered news stream is gone. In its place, on a different site entirely, removed from the flow of feeding on news, is a highly-engaging flood of people babbling away, which occasionally includes repeated shares of things that have bubbled up during the day.

What's wrong with that, for me?

  1. I don't want to wade through a heavily-padded, user-friendly flood of duplicated, echoed items.
  2. I don't want to engage with the people—at least, not when I'm in a mood to feed on news. I want to catch up on what's been put out into the infosphere already, and then start talking about it.

The design of Google+—which has spilled over into the Google Reader face-lift—is about engagement and not fast & efficient processing of the day's news. Engagement in general puts a drag on the task—which for me is like a GTD, Inbox Zero, headline skimming, pattern recognition zen thing that might not be everyone's cup of tea.

But, for all I know, avowed weirdo and info freako that I am, these changes may drive Google Reader growth through the roof for mainstream users. But, it's no longer a product for me. The changes in sharing have removed most of the value for me, because I no longer have the warp speed cruise through news that other people used to power for me.

Circles point the wrong way

One of the things Louis Gray touted about the new sharing features reads like so:

In Reader’s previous sharing model, as a follower of your items, I would see every single item you shared, no matter what it was about. Obviously, as I have different interests than you do, not everything you shared was something I cared about, which often led to reduced sharing of off-topic content. Now, you are more in control, so you can share sports items to your sports circles, great recipes with your foodies circle, or local news to family and friends. You can keep sharing, like you always have, but now, you can better select who sees what.

But, for this purpose, Circles point the wrong way.

Circles on Google+ are lists of people controlled by me. They're not topics—again, people-centric and not item-centric. Circles are a targeting mechanism for sharing to people, and a filtering mechanism for items from people. That is, I can use a circle to set who sees something and I can decide who's stuff I see and when.

But, things that Circles don't do include:

  • Letting me follow Circles without the Circle-owner needing to manage membership - eg. Don't make me send a message saying "I am interested in your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter". RSS doesn't work that way and it's better for it.

  • Letting me and others filter for what gets sent to specific Circles - eg. I'm in both your "scifi" and "politics" circles, but just show me what you sent to your "scifi" circle.

Google Reader didn't have this to begin with, but what I'm looking for is an equivalent to tagging on pinboard.in. For example, if you like my taste in scifi but could care less about my views in politics, you can subscribe to just the tag feeds you want.

I'm happy to tag my shares with topics; that's beneficial to me for search later, and helps interested people besides. But, the last thing I want to do is manage subscriber lists. That doesn't scale. There's no way for you to even know I have "scifi" or "politics" Circles, and you have no way to join either of them without asking for an add.

Too much coordination, not enough benefit. I just can't see the value in people-centric Circles here.

Other things broke, too.

And beyond the fundamental shift in sharing and reading, these things have broken for me now too:

  • The bookmarklet is dead, so there goes my off-site sharing.
  • No sharing at all from the mobile web version, so there goes at least half of my sharing on-site.
  • Android apps like my favorite gReader Pro still think sharing works, but they're just deluded and use an unsupported API anyway
  • No more feed to Facebook, so there goes most of my Facebook output. (Though, that might be a boon some friends over there.)

Now what?

The remaining value of Google Reader is as just a plain old hosted feed reader—one of the last of them out there, in fact. The problem here is that I'm a weirdo who wrote a book on feeds and feed readers, and so I'm perfectly capable of providing the remaining value for myself.

I'm sure most people won't want to do that, which is probably why "you're not going anywhere". But, there are alternatives even for people who don't want to D.I.Y. entirely:

  • Dave Winer's River2 (also open source, in UserTalk on the OPML Editor) runs on my laptop and lets me circle back to the code that ran my second-ever news reader, Radio UserLand. (My first was a thing called News Clipper in Perl from many, many moons ago.) And, of course, River2 is one of a suite of apps Dave's working on to build a decentrallized network of feeds and outlines.

  • NewsBlur looks mighty fine, and the guy running it only asks US$12-36 (your choice) for a year's worth of premium access. Remember: if you're not the customer, you're the product. And, if you want to try installing it, it's an open source Django site. While not yet very social, NewsBlur's creator has plans to head in that direction.

  • Tiny Tiny RSS installed on my Wordpress-capable web server in about 10 minutes, gobbled up my list of 800 feeds with no problem, and appears to have 90% of what I wanted from Google Reader. Also, it's an open source PHP site. For sharing, Tiny Tiny RSS lets you "publish" shared items in an RSS feed—kind of like the old reBlog web app—and has some experimental cross-instance sharing features.

At the end, the funny thing is that I've circled back to my old del.icio.us habits and have started tagging items on pinboard.in like never before. I'm sure there aren't nearly as many people watching me as before on either del.icio.us or Google Reader, but it's a place to go at least.

It'll probably be recognized as an illness someday, but my sharing feels compulsive at this point and I get itchy without a good outlet.

blog comments powered by Disqus