A Lament for Google Reader

After seven years, Google Reader will be closed on July 1, 2013. Perhaps Google thought tonight was a good night to bury bad news.

This isn’t the end of the road for web feed users. Services such as NewsBlur and The Old Reader still exist and there are ways to move your information across. Some have even suggested that this is a positive development, ending Google Reader’s dominance of the web feed aggregator field, and allowing a new wave of innovation and competition to occur.

My assessment of the situation is rather less sanguine. Whether or not new services rise up to replace Google Reader or not, the closure of Reader is a troubling straw in the wind, highlighting ongoing changes in the way that we read things online.

As this blog is typically devoted to the discussion of theological matters, it may surprise people that I am commenting on such an issue. I have discussed issues relating to social media from a theological perspective in the past, although this post is far more specific in its focus. As someone who believes that the forms of our reading, writing, and discourse are of great importance, and that the integrity of our thought and communication, especially on matters relating to Christian faith and thought, can be compromised by inappropriate forms, my interest in and concern with such developments goes beyond my longstanding appreciation of Google Reader’s service.

So, before proceeding, what exactly is the purpose of a service such as Google Reader? The principal purpose is that of enabling you to gather all of your major web reading together in a single place, without the need to visit sites individually. Once you have subscribed to a web feed for one of the sites that you read on Google Reader, you no longer need to visit it, unless you want to leave a comment. Doing this, one can easily follow dozens of blogs and websites simultaneously, without having to take the time to visit each blog or site: instead, everything comes to you. The amount of time that this saves is considerable.

I originally used Bloglines, but even before that closed, I had switched over completely to Google Reader. At one time I was following almost 500 blogs simultaneously, something that would have been absolutely impossible prior to the web feed aggregator, when visiting each site individually was so costly in time that one could seldom follow more than a dozen sites closely at a time. Nowadays, being busier, I only follow about one hundred blogs and websites, but the great benefits remain the same.

Given the effectiveness of Google Reader, why is it closing? Robert Scoble makes the following remarks:

What killed this? Flipboard and Facebook for me. Prismatic too. The trend line was there: we are moving our reading behavior onto the social web. Normal people didn’t take to subscribing to RSS feeds. Heck, it’s hard enough to get them to subscribe to tweet feeds.

But this is sad. Particularly shows the open web continues to be under attack. We have to come into the walled gardens of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn to read and share. Here’s a problem: a few of my friends have deleted their Facebook accounts. Dave Winer and Ryan Block, to name two famous examples.

So they will never see my words here. The open web is going away and this is another example of how.

In short, services like Google Reader increasingly belong to a past age of the Internet. The social web is the future and the place where we now ‘consume’ our information. While the gap that Google Reader leaves may well be plugged by other services, the departure of Google Reader from this area is a sign of a steady shift in Internet culture away the sort of relationship with information that such a web feed aggregator represents.

And what is this particular relationship with information? A non-social, private, and individual one. My lament for the slow passing of this relationship with information arises from my conviction that this is often a much healthier relationship with information than the typical alternatives. The larger quantity of material that Google Reader enables me to read may be its primary purpose, but it is only one of its benefits and perhaps not even its greatest. It is the way that Google Reader allows me to read that I most appreciate.

When I want to read offline, I seek out a private, quiet place, where I can be alone, where signals of the passing of time are muted, and where my mind can be clear. Google Reader is my equivalent place online. On Google Reader I can take my time over reading. I can order feeds where those that require slow and reflective reading – the equivalent of a main course of a meal – are placed in particular folders, while other fast-moving feeds that are for occasional snacking and grazing are placed in others. I can leave things unread and return to them at a later point, sometimes days later.

No one sees what I read on Google Reader, so I can read incredibly widely, without fear of anyone presuming that this implies agreement. I just like to read smart people who disagree with me. No one is looking over my shoulder, so I am free to come to my own opinions, in my own time. Or not to come to opinions on some things at all. On Google Reader I am more anonymous and my reading habits will not be tracked by anyone in the same way. Google Reader has a very simple layout, without the distracting ‘noise’ of the colourful, ad-ridden, and distraction-filled social networks. This makes it easier to think.

On Google Reader, I can read things without the clamouring reactions of other readers asphyxiating the texts. One of the problems with the social web is that texts are almost always embedded in or surrounded by shallow reactions to them and often push readers for such reactions. I don’t ‘like’, ‘+1’, ‘up-vote’, or ‘down-vote’ anything on Google Reader. I don’t perform my reading for an audience. Nor does my reading conclude with an invitation to cast a cheap and fairly mindless vote of approbation or disapprobation. Instead, I can chew things over, reflect upon their ideas, interpret them critically, and arrive at a nuanced and multifaceted judgment that does not have to be distilled into the binary form of an impressionistic reaction.

On Google Reader, I don’t see other people’s comments and know nothing of the reaction of other readers, which makes it much easier to arrive at a thoughtful and balanced assessment of my own, one which is unswayed by and independent of other readers. On Google Reader, the texts that I read are not embedded in social relationships in the same way. I do not see my friends’ recommendations, shares, or ‘likes’, relieving a lot of the peer pressure that surrounds our thinking and reading online. On Google Reader it is much easier to read and to think at my own pace, without being driven by the onward flow of my Twitter, Google+, or Facebook timeline, stream, or newsfeed.

Reading patterns on the social web are especially determined by popularity, by levels of likes and shares. However, levels of likes and shares are powerfully determined by the material’s ability to evoke an elevated emotional response. The material that dominates in the social web is material that makes a strong emotional impression, whether one of outrage, excitement, ‘squee’, shock, inspiration, etc. Unfortunately, writing that demands careful and thoughtful engagement will typically struggle to operate in such a reading environment, whereas non-social reading environments produce very different dynamics. I have consistently observed this pattern with my own blog: anything controversial or creating an emotional impression has a good chance of being widely shared, but if I post a much more thoughtful post on an issue that doesn’t provoke an emotional response, the sharing is minimal. I’ll let you into a secret: the committed readers who don’t just read the posts leaving an emotional impression get the best of me.

The social web can also tend towards creating an echo chamber for our reading. Material that challenges our preconceptions and which forces us to think unpopular thoughts will be suppressed on the social web, as sharing such things doesn’t win you friends. Even when not suppressed, it will be surrounded by such a maelstrom of outrage that its voice of challenge will no longer be heard. Peer pressure becomes more integral to our thinking and reading processes.

On Google Reader, my reading is not primarily determined by whatever is making an emotional impression in the social web right now (although that will come through in certain of the feeds that I follow). Rather, I have the more difficult task of discovering and committing myself to certain reliable and thoughtful sources, sources that I will read consistently over the course of a number of years, whether they are posting material that produces a strong emotional reaction or not. Such a form of reading forces you to choose your interlocutors and sources carefully, to invest over a long period of time in the most worthy and rewarding of conversations, to get to know certain voices very well, and not to be too distracted by the latest wildfire of controversy. It encourages you to read the sort of thoughtful and challenging material that forms deep understanding, even though it may provoke little in the way of an emotional reaction.

My lament is for the loss of private and silent reading.

Private reading encourages independent thought. When you are surrounded by other people who are forming assessments about why you are reading certain things, what you think – or, more typically, feel – about them, in contexts where you are exposed to lots of external time pressures, and where your reading is powerfully determined by considerations of popularity and is embedded in personal relationships, it can prove very hard to think carefully, slowly, with concentration, and for yourself.

This blog is written for the sort of people who read privately, who think patiently, and who respond thoughtfully. For many such people, Google Reader has proved a secluded and peaceful reading room on the web for several years. I am sure that they will join me in mourning its passing and the ailing of the habits of reading that it represents.

UPDATE: Christianity Today has published a piece of mine in which I develop some of the themes raised in this post. Read it here.

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44 Responses to A Lament for Google Reader

  1. reading says:

    Thank you for these remarks. Much agreement; the Social Media future in no way appeals to me.

    That said, this move, I think, can be boiled down to one primary reason: RSS feeds don’t give the ad hits that Google and those who live off of them crave.

  2. I have never seen Google Reader in this light before, but you’ve given words to my experience. I see a petition has been started to keep Google Reader afloat. We’ll see what eventuates.

    Thanks for the reflection time spent on this post.

  3. *sigh* I’ve really only just got into following blogs (and writing them) in the last 12 months or so, and I’ve used Google reader for that, so I’m sad to see it going. I love the perspective you bring to the issue – one I hadn’t really considered before. As anonymity is so important for my blog, I don’t link it to any other social media sites, or connect it with my other profiles, so the passing of a relatively anonymised way of sharing, collecting and storing just makes it that much harder to reach new readers and get them to stick with me.

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  5. Drewe says:

    RNews.

    Obviously you need to host it somewhere, but it can host multiple users so you can get together with some friends and set it up. I set mine up today, and while not as instantly awesome as google, it has categories, and feeds, and images, favorites, all that good stuff. And now I control my ‘rss future’, not someone else, and like you said, my private reading time remains mine.

  6. Well said. The idea of anything private is becoming a thing of the past…

  7. A(nother) great post, Alastair. As a long time Google Reader user, I concur with your lament. Now I’m looking for a replacement. You mentioned NewsBlur and The Old Reader. Are you willing to offer any thoughts on these, or other, available readers?

  8. Ah, I see that you commented on Mark Goodacre’s blog that you will probably move to NewsBlur. Any reason why NewsBlur over any other reader then?

    • It was recommended to me by a couple of users, it allows me to move my Google Reader information, and it is open source, which means that it is unlikely to be shut down. It is the first one that I am trying, so I may not finally settle there.

  9. Just checked out NewsBlur and I’m not too enamored with the 64 site restriction.

  10. ReaderReader says:

    How fitting that I would discover your blog this morning when searching for articles related to the death of Reader, and as I read this entry, my only thought was, “I want to add this guy to my Reader subscriptions!”

    Agree completely about reading privately. So tired of every interaction being tied in some way to a “social network” — I can’t get a seven letter in scrabble without being asked if I want to share it on facebook!

    Thank you for your insight, I look forward to reading more of you…without the network looking over my shoulder.

    • Thank you! The subject matter of this post is not really typical for this blog, which is mostly devoted to theology. However, I hope that if do you choose to follow, you will find it worthwhile.

  11. Phil says:

    Google is also retiring iGoogle this year which has me bummed.

    I’ve been rolling my eyes for the last decade at libertarian types who couldn’t shut up about the web’s promise of enlightenment, liberation, and empowering democratization. The evolution of the web (in spirit, not tech, of which I’m rather ignorant) has been pretty much what I expected.

    • Yes, the expectation that the cacophony of human interactions will gently dissolve into a perfect symphony in the age of a free Internet or that every popular new form represents an improvement on all that has preceded it is not a belief that I share. Not all change is progress and not all growth is maturation. Unless we develop a self-conscious and reflective approach to shaping our online environment and using our technologies we can easily find ourselves moving in unhealthy directions. The web gives us immense potential for enriching our lives, thought, and interaction, but it won’t realize this potential for us if we would only just let it be feral.

  12. MemeGRL says:

    Feedly is getting some good reviews from friends. Thank you for this much more nuanced reaction and giving words to some of my thoughts.

  13. John Gleich says:

    Well said Alastair.

    Your thoughts echo my own. In fact, I have two different Reader accounts… one for daily consumption and one that I go to every week or so when I have more time.

    I can see another downside of this. I use Reader as a podcast aggregator as well. I follow the feeds from several churches, radio broadcasts, and chapel messages from universities and seminaries. There are other ways I can aggregate these (such as iTunes) but I find it easier this way… and now I’ll have to adjust that too.

  14. Allison says:

    I understand this sentiment completely (as I read your post via Google Reader then click through to comment!). I have frequently declined reading articles on FB that my friends post b/c the site wants me to “log in” — and I purposely refrain from sharing certain things I read. I don’t want to be THAT transparent! Though posts such as the following http://www.rabbitroom.com/2013/03/what-has-come-to-us/ have helped me see that there is some good in social media, I much prefer the more thoughtful format of blogging, and I fear the end of Google Reader may also signal a shift away from a more thoughtful influence. Facebook is fine, but it can’t communicate everything.

    As for alternatives to GR, this article suggests a few – have you heard of Prismatic? I hadn’t. I’m considering it now as one of many options.
    http://slant.co/topics/what-is-the-best-alternative-to-google-reader/opinions/prismatic

    • Thanks for the comment, Allison. Yes, there is much good in social media, provided that we approach it wisely. Thoughtless celebration of more sociality, speed, flash, choice, and number of features irrespective of the context is much of our problem. Sometimes these are empowering and helpful, whereas on many other occasions they get in the way of what we need to do. We need discernment to know when and where certain media can be helpful, rather just presuming, wrongly, that they always empower us.

      I have heard some good things about Prismatic, but don’t know enough about it to be able to recommend it.

  15. There’s a strange irony about the shift in the web your detecting. Many virtues of the “open web” (freedom of form, access, and content) are simultaneously what kept many people away from the the web. Blogging, for example, was originally something of a hobby for tech-savvy folk that sold itself as a grassroots level media, while in truth it primarily addressed other tech-savvy folk.

    The introduction of micro-blogging technology such as Facebook and Twitter, by restricting user-control of form (all text subsumed into a single master template, created by a non-participatory third party), access (all content restricted to subscribers), and to some extent content (content regulated by a non-participatory third party) has, at the same time, allowed non-tech-savvy folk to feel comfortable engaging in internet media, and thus has radically increased the popularity of the media.

    Even Google Reader requires an understanding of basic web fundamentals such as RSS and feed readers. It’s going paleo- the way Blogger likely will one day: eventually it will be fully integrated under the umbrella of Google Plus. As one who used to dedicate many hours into template formatting and the production of poetry-like html code, I’m sad to see how Google has increasingly complicated the process in order to make template modification more “user-friendly.”

    One significant development that you may have not noticed was a couple years ago, Google revamped Google Reader and stripped out the function that allowed you to share your Google Reads as an RSS of it’s own. Instead, users are now forced to “share” exclusively through Google Plus rather than sharing into a publishable RSS feed. The deletion of this feature has significantly reduced my own use of Google Reader and has caused me to loose respect for Google as well. It’s simply a fact that the majority of the people I see on Google Reader are those “tech-savvy” folk mentioned above which means all of my “normal” friends don’t have easy access to things I want to share with them.

    • You raise some really good and important points. I have wondered about a number of these things myself in the past. In particular, I have wondered whether it is the complexity of the open web that puts people off, or whether the typical online user feels psychologically drawn to the huddle, where one stands out less and where forms of usage are fairly normalized. Is it just an accidental feature of the current situation that ‘broad’ forms of networking that are less intimate, more outward-looking, object, activity, and creation-oriented tend to be dominated by tech-savvy individuals? Google+ seems to have this character in many respects, pushing you outward into relationships beyond your immediate group of acquaintances: none of my non-tech-savvy friends stuck around.

      Most popular sites seem to be consumption, sharing, and close connection-oriented. Is there a way to shift people in the direction of creation, publicization, and networking? Even if tools of creation on the open web were made readily available to people, would (or could) they be motivated to avail themselves of them? This situation didn’t seem to be the same in the past, where even extremely popular sites like MySpace seemed to have a much stronger emphasis upon creation, publicization, and networking than their contemporary counterparts.

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  17. This was rather prescient for me in many cases. I think our approaches to reading are quite similar, and I’ve always wante to figure out a way to do with a screen reader what Google Reader offers. It is disappointing that it will be gone, as I agree that private reading is a discipline that is worth cultivating.

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  21. Vega says:

    Hello Alastair, I read this post via Google Reader.

    Out of all the commentaries I’ve read of Reader’s retirement, you have articulated my feelings the best, and I share all your sentiments and those expressed in comments.

    Commenter Scott Schultz mentioned the irony of the Internet’s shift. I think it’s simply reflective of human nature. Templates are familiar, safe, a comfort zone. It’s easy to have your Net consumption dictated by what the hive mind thinks is most trendy, in vogue, sensational, etc… But it’s much harder to go out and find your own “food” that is most beneficial to you. And most people are content to just consume what’s in front of them.

    On the same note, I’ve also noted that “surfing the Web” seems to be a thing of the past, as the Net landscape becomes more centralized. We no longer surf where links take us (what website has a “links list” anymore? perhaps they’ve morphed into “blogrolls”), but visit portals to tell us something new, be it aggregate sites, blog networks, news hubs, social networks… Again, I think this is just indicative of the human desire to huddle, and the lazy comfort of having “food” come to you as opposed to you going out and finding it.

    Subscribing to an RSS feed may not be as simple as pressing a “Like” button — but honestly, it’s not rocket science. Once you’ve figured feeds and readers out, it’s easy as. But perhaps even being at one or two steps removed from ease is already too difficult for most people. I think that’s a tragedy of modern mindsets, and so the technology we use rises and falls by such prevailing mindsets.

    Speaking about “private” in private reading. The morphing of Net landscape into “hubs” and “clouds” means that it’s harder and harder to maintain anonymity and privacy — Google not only receives my email, but my RSS feeds, my daily calendar, my bookmarks, etc etc etc. I am using a pseudonym to write this comment, which I’ve used for the entire ~15 years of my online life, and which is also a relic of Internet past. Who uses pseudonyms these days? Again, “cloud” centralization has its advantages, but this breaking down of technological barriers threatens to also break down privacy and anonymity and an individual’s right to solitude and personal boundaries.

    After my initial dismay at the news, I suppose Reader’s retirement is a blessing in disguise. Google’s centre of gravity is decreasing, so I can escape its orbit somewhat and decentralize my Net activities. I’d rather spin out, than get sucked in — which, I’ve found, is a rare sentiment these days.

    I’m a quiet follower of your blog and love what you’ve written. Thanks for posting the metaphysical ramifications of Reader’s demise. :)

    • Thank you, Vega! I have also wondered why people seem to be put off by RSS feeds. As you say, they are extremely straightforward to set up. However, it is not uncommon that I encounter a reluctance among some people online to attempt even some of the most basic tasks that involve sorting something out yourself, rather than just following a process where every step is explicitly dictated. Is there a mystification surrounding some basic online functions that discourages many people from doing things for themselves? If there is, is it something that will gradually pass in a more digitally literate age, or is something more than mere literacy required – a sense of independence, curiosity, and experimentation, perhaps?

      • Vega says:

        Hello Alastair,

        “Mystification” is the right word! I think part of that reluctance stems from the nature of technological progress these days. The more complicated technology becomes, the more specialized knowledge is required to understand it. So a layman needs a simple interface to even begin to use the technology in a meaningful way, if he is not to devote all his energies in becoming a specialist.

        Technology is very “black box” these days. We are already conditioned to use an interface to interact with another entity — the Internet, in this discussion. So that interface already forms a barrier between the layman and the bones of our current technology. It is getting increasingly difficult to understand the magnitude and extent of the foundation that our technology is built on. Couple that with the pace at which new tech is developing… why even bother to understand it?

        I won’t be surprised if the simpler (and more visual) the interface gets, the more reluctance there is for the average layman to attempt to understand the deeper foundations. So even a system a few steps away from “dumbed down”, such as RSS, is already viewed as way too complicated — especially since it doesn’t have a pretty UI like, say, Flipboard does. I think this is somehow intertwined with your commentary on superficial, social news consumption — we can retreat from attempting to understand the complexity of the technology that powers our lives, even as we retreat from meaningful conversation and rigorous thinking. It all comes down again to comfort and ease.

        One more thing. You mentioned in earlier commentaries about how technological forms (especially the visual interface) is now governing our cognition and perception. RSS has always struck me as the perfect tool for a reader to collate information on the Net, because I don’t need to force my way through a dense interface to get to the information I want. Whereas I’ve never paid much attention to visual-heavy products like Flipboard, because I don’t want to *look* at distracting images — I want to *read* headlines. My own response indicates to me how technologies subconsciously govern the layman’s perception towards how he interfaces with information. Google Reader’s retirement is simply an indicator of this paradigm shift away from reading to watching/viewing.

        So I think we need much more than digital literacy, in this world of increasing tech complexity and black boxes. Until we, as a technological society, can reach a paradigm where information is valued over interface, I think we’ll always be reluctant to take that step further to understand the technology that rules our lives — and thus break out from its rule.

      • Very helpful, if rather depressing, comments, Vega. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The movement from reading to viewing in various contexts online is definitely something that has struck me.

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