Requiem for Google Reader

This past week, Google dropped a bombshell on a certain segment of internet nerdery: they announced they were going to discontinue Google Reader. For the uninitiated, Reader was an RSS agregator - it allowed you to subscribe to the internet, and collected all that content in one place. It was awesome, I use it every day, and Google is going to turn it off on July 1. It shouldn't have been so shocking, but it was. It shouldn't have been so disappointing, but it was. And a big part of this is on me. This post might seem whiny, and I suppose it is, but I am finding this experience interesting (in the Chinese curse sense, but still).

It's hard to talk about this without seeming hysterical. This isn't the end of the world, and it's most certainly not the end of Google. All the petitions and talk of tough lessons and quicky websites (though, for serious, I love that gif) and videos... they're really just wishful thinking. It's nice to think that our Google overlords are surprised by the immediate and intense response to what probably seemed like a straightforward business decision, but I don't think they are. Outrage on the internet happens at the speed of twitter and fades even quicker. We'll find alternatives (more about this in a moment), we'll move on, and Google will too. But my view of Google has changed pretty quickly.

Of course, I'm not so naive to think that Google really gives a crap what I think, but I used to stick up for Google. Their "Don't be Evil" motto was surprisingly effective, and it looked like they walked the walk, too. That's a rare thing, to be sure, but it also molded the perception of Google to be something idealistic, something with an optimistic vision. We're drowning in information, and Google was going to help us deal with that. Their applications felt like public services. The shuttering of Reader, while ultimately not that big of a deal in isolation, rips all that artifice away from Google's image. We caught them being a business, and that just feels like a betrayal. It's completely unfair and naive, but that doesn't make it any less real. It's also selfish, but why should I care?

For the first time in years, I'm looking into alternatives. Google is forcing me to find an alternative to Reader, but if they're going to turn off something that so many people rely on so heavily, shouldn't I look for replacements to all of Google's other services? I'm surprised by how much I use Google services, and while I can't see myself replacing Gmail anytime soon, some of this other stuff might not be so necessary.

Speaking of alternatives, I've played around with a few, and the one I like the most is Feedly. It's not perfect, but then, neither was Reader. The transition was easy and seamless - I logged into Google and provided access to Feedly and boom: my entire set of feeds (and it looks like usage history too) was ported over to the new app. Once Google sunsets Reader, Feedly will transition to their backend, built specifically for this purpose. The interface may take some getting used to, but hey, keyboard shortcuts still work and it's got a much better suite of social sharing and tagging options. I'm a little annoyed by the notion that you need to install some sort of extension to your browser to get it to work, but it still seems like the best option available at the moment. Of course, nothing stops Feedly from acting like douchebags further down the road, but they're not the only alternative either. There are lots of others. Hell, even Digg (yeah, remember them?) is trying to capitalize on this whole thing.

I still don't really understand why Reader was such an anathema to Google. A lot of people have mentioned that they could see this coming for a while, and yeah, I think any user of Reader could tell that it wasn't among Google's favorite applications. It never got as many updates as, say, Maps or Gmail, and while it had some fantastic and innovative community features like sharing and commenting (stuff that you never saw much of when it came to RSS readers), Google completely neutered all that stuff in the name of pointless integration with Google+. Google did a redesign a little while back and, while I certainly can see why they did it and I value consistency, they made Reader harder to use. I mean, the point of this application is to allow you to read stuff - why are you slathering everything in grey and dedicating so much of the screen to unnecessary global navigation? Now, I wasn't a big user of their community features and while I wasn't a fan of the redesign, it was still the best option out there.

Google's stated reason for getting rid of Reader is that usage was down and they feel like they've spread themselves too thin with the number of services they support. I can sympathize with that second part, but the first part is ridiculous. The above mentioned changes to community features and the redesign were tailored towards reducing usage of the application. That was their whole purpose - Google wanted their community on G+, which is fair enough, I guess, but then it seems disingenuous to turn around and close the app because usage is down. Rather, that's not really an explanation. It feels like something else is going on here and it's hard to put my finger on it...

People have speculated that the reason for the shutdown is because they couldn't find a way to monetize it, but that doesn't seem right. At the very least, there were no ads on it, and while people don't particularly enjoy ads, they'd probably like them better than not having reader at all. I've always considered Google's strategy to be something along the lines of: Increased internet usage in general means that we can serve more ads to more people. Reader certainly accomplished that goal, and it did so for a lot of people. Usage may have been down, but it was still large and drove massive amounts of traffic. Just look at the graph on this Buzzfeed article. It's not at all comprehensive and there are probably a lot of caveats, but I would bet the general thrust is correct - far more people discover content through Reader than they do on G+...

In a more general sense, this development is reopening the debate about RSS and the relevancy of things like Blogs, here in the age of Facebook and Twitter. There are valid concerns about this stuff, especially when it comes to average users of the internet. And I don't mean that as a slight on average users. I know the ins and outs of RSS because I'm a nerd and my profession requires that sort of knowledge. But who wants to sit down and figure this stuff out if you don't have to? People are busy, they have jobs, they have kids, they don't have time to futz with markup languages, and that's not a bad thing at all. Google Reader was a step in the right direction, but Google never really developed that aspect of it (which seems to have faded away) and I get the impression that they have lost faith in RSS as a way to help us all make sense of the morass of information on the internet.

This is a generous interpretation of Google's actions, but I like that better than the cynical explanations about difficulty monetizing Reader or Google's official line about usage. On the other hand, what is Google doing to help us sift through the detritus of the internets? I don't think Google+ is the solution, and Search has its own issues. That's why the people like me, looking for ways to aggregate and analyze data in efficient ways, were big users of Reader in the first place. It's why we're so hurt by the decision to shut it down. It would be one thing if usage of Reader was declining because there was a better way to consume content (which, I'm sure is debatable to some Social evangelists, but that's a topic for another post). Closing Reader now seems premature and baffling.

So Google cut me, they cut me deep. It's partly my own fault; I let my guard down. I'm confident that this malaise will pass and that I'll stop trying to find ways to spite them, but I won't see Google the same way I did before. I'm curious to see how Google moves forward. This isn't the first time they shuttered an application, but it might be the most widely-used and beloved service they've given the axe... On its face, this move seems as stupid as Netflix's Qwikster debacle. Netflix's solution was easy, they saw the error in their ways and reversed course. The response to that wasn't immediate, but Netflix is doing much better now. Google has a more difficult road ahead. Of course, this decision isn't as breathtakingly stupid as Qwikster and like I said above, everyone will probably move on in pretty short order. But Google may face an image problem. I don't think just turning Reader back on would do the trick, as the damage is already done and it wasn't really a direct consequence of the action. The damage here is more than the sum of its parts. Can Google repair that? I'm open to the possibility, but it might be a while...