Google recently announced that it will soon discontinue the social functionality of its RSS feed collector, Google Reader. This impacts both my personal and professional life, but also has serious ramifications for content accessibility around the world.
As someone who analyzes influence and its impact professionally, my focus is on external implications. I only occasionally turn to my own online presence as a check on a theory. However, like many social media professionals, I do have Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, and Pinterest accounts. I consume and share content openly on all of those channels and, with the limited exception of Facebook, I don’t privatize or attempt to limit others’ consumption of what’s shared there.
In fact, there’s only one platform on my daily menu of media consumption and curation that I’ve kept refined to a, relatively speaking, tiny group of thirty people. That would be Google Reader.
For almost four years, I’ve waxed poetic to anyone who would listen about the functionality and organizational capability but have simultaneously only exercised the social component of the platform with a very select handful. That handful shares the best of the political, the innovative, the inspiring and even the ridiculous, culled from the RSS feeds each user reads on a daily basis. Their shares provoke candid commentary and, no surprise, additional sharing through more broadly accessible outlets. In the last two days, others have expressed a similar usage pattern, one that starts to resemble the early days of forums and message boards. It’s exactly what I, as a user, am interested in; curated and given to me fully formed by the people I trust the most.
Reader provides a sounding board with a relative safety net of privacy through a double opt-in: you need to seek out individuals because the only ones recommended to you come through your Gmail and/or gChat contacts. Even then, settings could be set so that you must have categorized the individual a second time for them to be able to both see and comment on your Shared Items. It made for a group of close friends and colleagues, fellow information collectors, each bringing an expertise set that led to great content by category as well. The update disheartens those of us that sought content solace in Google Reader’s social settings. I am not at all alone in my disappointment at its removal – there’s even a petition (shared via Google Reader yesterday, naturally) and a sit-in planned for Google’s DC headquarters.
Fundamental differences exist between Google Reader and the share functionalities of Google+. The design differences in sharing have been beautifully illustrated via great visuals from Courtney Stanton and Darius Kazemi. What was formerly a full-scale content sharing zone will now become automatically abridged summary. While this is great for the sites whose content is being shared, some argue that it is a step backward from a user experience perspective. The other big downfall that Stanton touched on is the provoked discussions that will disappear. Google Reader’s commenting mechanism wasn’t perfect, for instance, there was no notification set up if someone commented on one of your shares. However, one click to Comment View and you got a snapshot of every conversation-driver within your Shared Items community.
So yes, there will be consequences of this change on a personal level and sacrifices to ease of use but I also want to highlight a powerful consideration coming to light on an international level, thanks to Iranian blogger AmirHM. Because Reader was built within the Google https umbrella, governments who restrict the largest social platforms were unable to block it without also losing Google’s other functionality. Nestled into the bigger URL, this transformed Google Reader into a functioning hotbed for political commentary and activism in countries like Iran. Google+? Something as simple as a change in the URL ordering process (plus.google.com rather than google.com/reader) makes it much easier to restrict, thus a rare and useful channel for change is rendered null.
Google has developed a bit of a reputation for vague updates with sweeping implications (where did the Wonder Wheel for search go?) but I have no choice but to remain open-minded in terms of what rolls out with the new sharing system. As a longtime fan of other Google products, I’m sure there will be a few pleasant surprises along the way. I think the point I’m hoping Google hears since its announcement is that its users don’t necessarily need another platform to share indiscriminately with the world. The beauty of Reader was that it accomplished meaningful conversation with a trusted few, tethered to an entire world of content from other channels worth talking about.
*A note of thanks and hearty hat-tipping to Mari Huertas along with colleagues and esteemed Google Reader friends Caleb Gardner, Jim Kopeny, Dave Levy and Suzanne Marlatt who shared much of the content linked herein. See you on the other side.
Image credit: imgur