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Summary:

A lot of die-hard RSS users are upset that Google has decided to kill off its Google Reader service, but for me Twitter and other platforms based on social news are far superior to any RSS reader and have been for some time.

There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled this week about Google’s decision to “sunset” its Google Reader RSS service, including a post from my paidContent colleague Laura Owen about how much she relies on her feeds — a sentiment I know Om shares. Unlike a lot of my fellow news junkies, however, I’m not really that concerned about Google’s decision, mostly because I stopped using my RSS feeds several years ago and haven’t looked back. For me, socially-powered news from Twitter and other services like Prismatic has not only taken the place of my feed reader but improved on it.

I should note that this isn’t the only reason I’m relatively unconcerned about Google’s decision: I also think there will be plenty of alternatives for those who wish to continue using RSS feeds as their main information diet, including Feedly — which says it has cloned the Reader API and created its own back-end for other services to use — as well as NewsBlur, and a proposed reader client that the new managers of Digg say they are working on for release later this year. Instapaper founder Marco Arment says he remains optimistic about the future of the RSS reader market for much the same reason.

An RSS reader is no longer enough

For me personally, however, the reality is that RSS feeds have ceased to play a key role in my news consumption. I still think RSS is a crucial part of the plumbing that underlies the web — and I hope the death of Google Reader isn’t the beginning of an attack on RSS, as some suspect — but for me it lacks a certain something, and that something is the element of social interaction.

Like Laura, I used to have hundreds of RSS feeds from different blogs, websites and traditional news sources in my Google Reader, and I used apps like Reeder and Feedly as a front-end for those subscriptions, and also imported them into Flipboard and other apps when that was available. But as I built up a number of Twitter lists — separated into different topics and focused on both blog sources, news feeds and individual users in those subject areas — I found I was spending less and less time in my RSS feeds.

The key difference, as New York Times editor Patrick Laforge (and others) have mentioned, is that social news distributed via Twitter and other networks is just that — social. It has a human element that automated RSS feeds simply can’t duplicate (at least not yet). This isn’t just a touch-feely thing either: From a purely informational point of view, social news carries a ton of meta-data along with it, by virtue of the fact that a specific human being chose to tweet a link, or re-tweet one, or comment on one.

That social element makes a link more valuable

The nature of my relationship with each of the hundreds of people who are in my Twitter lists is almost impossible to quantify — although I’m sure that data scientists like Prismatic founder Bradford Cross are desperately trying to do so. But my knowledge of them and their interests, and their background or behavior, and the activity in their Twitter stream, all combines to make a single tweet from them with a link in it far more valuable to me than a simple RSS feed.

So it’s not just that Twitter is good at delivering real-time news — where it is, in my experience, as good or better than an RSS reader. It is also particularly good at attaching meaning to that news, by the combination of people who tweet or re-tweet a link or a piece of information. That does as much to help me appreciate the significance of a story as a single post or scoop, and likely more.

That’s why services like Prismatic, which uses the social graph I have developed in Twitter and elsewhere as a foundation for news recommendations, are so much more powerful than my old RSS reader — because they show me things that I didn’t already know I was interested in, and that is the holy grail of information consumption. And it’s why, despite my love-hate relationship with Twitter as a platform, I continue to rely so heavily on it.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Promesa Art Studio and Arvind Grover

  1. Of course it’s an attack on the news flow that you depend on for your livelihood and the rest of us depend on to be informed.

    Here’s an analogy. I live in NYC and water comes out of the tap whenever I want it. So I don’t really care about the reservoirs in the Catskills. That’s not the way I get my water anymore.

    As you say here, you’re still getting your news via RSS, and my water is still coming from the Catskills. The delivery system has a different interface, but the pipes are still buried under Broadway, long-forgotten by everyone but the people who maintain them. But if one of them burst, you’d get to know about it very quickly when you go to take a shower and there’s no water there.

    Free flow of news, for a guy in your profession, is essential.

    And providing the interface of Google Reader is a trivial expense for a company the size of Google. But they can make more money if they have tighter control over what people can subscribe to. The same way Apple controls what apps you can buy for the iPad. And the way Twitter decides what clients can have access to our tweets.

    We’d better quickly build an open infrastructure for feed reading. But of course that’s very unlikely. The VCs are going to fund a dozen companies to try to be The Next Google Reader. That means they will all have strategies that require them to dominate. Too bad, because that’s not a good overall strategy for the rest of us. And it’s not likely to work for them either (they tried it in 2005).

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    1. That’s a good analogy, Dave – and that’s why I am hoping that the death of Reader doesn’t mean an attack on RSS (although I guess it does in a way) because that is some crucial plumbing for the open and social Web.

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    2. Tom The Nerf Herder Friday, March 15, 2013

      Dave, you’re absolutely correct, but you’ve missed a vital point.

      RSS readers don’t have to be web based. In fact, the first RSS readers were desktop applications. The beauty of a desktop application is that nobody can pull it out from under you. It is always there, and you can use it even if you’re not connected to the net at that moment.

      This is what bugs me about all the “alternatives to Google Reader” articles out there right now: they have all ignored the stand-alone RSS reader that doesn’t rely on a centralized back end like Google.

      Maybe the solution here is NOT yet another web site or another app that lives in the cloud. Maybe the solution is to get out of the cloud and back to the desktop, where no one can one day simply tell you your favorite application is going to simply disappear.

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      1. Tom, would you recommend a couple of desktop-based readers?

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      2. Am using Vienna and very happy with it.

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  2. Gabriel Chapman Friday, March 15, 2013

    I find twitter to be highly inefficient when it comes to news aggregation. I use both for different purposes, with both having benefits over the other, that still doesnt make me happy that Google has dropped reader support, especially given the trivial amount of resources that are required to deliver the service from a company that has 48 billion of cash on hand.

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  3. Trying to consume news through social interfaces is like trying to read a book while a dozen people weigh in on the page content…way more opinion than fact and definitely more noise.

    There are a lot of us who prefer to just have the news and not the noise.

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  4. Twitter (Scott Stein) provides an excellent counter point to your assertion: https://twitter.com/jetscott/status/311992784334749701
    “Google Reader is to Twitter as a well-labeled filing cabinet is to a bag of insane cats.”

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  5. Steve Harbor Friday, March 15, 2013

    What I find curious about all these “Here’s why I don’t care Google Reader is shutting down” posts is this: why do you think we care that you don’t care?

    Hey, last night a restaurant in Dallas TX closed shop for good. All the people who dined there are bummed and they’re talking together about where they should eat now.

    I live a few thousand miles from Dallas TX. Maybe I should write a blog post about why I don’t care that restaurant closed.

    If you don’t use a service OF COURSE you don’t care that it is shutting down. That’s not news. That’s just egocentricity. This post feels like it should be on TechCrunch. Disappointed in GigaOm for stooping to their level.

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    1. I was thinking Business Insider…

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  6. As Dave noted, your Twitter experience will suffer because many of those links derive from Google Reader. Given the importance of Google Reader to journalists who create the web articles that Google indexes for its search engine, this shut down is currently a head scratcher for me. There must be a strategy but I haven’t figured it out yet.

    Also, I’m kind of surprised that Larry Page apparently doesn’t use it — or maybe Google just wants to use it internally for its own forthcoming move into journalism. Who knows? I think there’s more to the story than a small number of users given the power of the software, especially the integrated search.

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  7. Sérgio Carvalho Friday, March 15, 2013

    As with most intelligent texts, you are both right and wrong. Your error boils down to painting the problem black and white. Feed readers and social sharing complement each other. They are not direct competitors, although some competition exists. Take one out, and the ecosystem is worse off.

    Have you ever asked yourself how do links get on social networks? How did the original sharer stumble upon the content? Most of the times, I’d guess the origin is a feed reader. Someone used the raw feed, and curated the content by sharing on twitter/fb/whatever.

    Now, take feed readers out of the equation, and suddenly original sharers have much more trouble finding original content. Now, you’d get only content from manually checked sources. Manually checked sources skew towards sites that produce content frequently and regularly, so you’d be silencing those who write infrequent, unregular, great posts.

    In the end, you, who only consume curated content, will be worse off. You are an indirect user of feed readers, even if you don’t really notice it.

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  8. Ricardo Bilton Friday, March 15, 2013

    The main problem I have with this argument is that it implies that the most shared news is the most important news. The human element is fine, but the beauty of RSS is that it lets you decide for yourself whats important from the sites that you personally follow.

    The social layer is really just a filter, and if you’re a news writer trying to find underreported stories, a filter is the last thing you want.

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  9. I fleshed my comment here out into a blog post.

    http://threads2.scripting.com/2013/march/wakingUpToTheWorldAroundYou

    Dave

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  10. Ithaca Independent Friday, March 15, 2013

    I still do not understand the advantage of Twitter over Reader as the best way to review headlines. As a journalist, I prefer going bare metal: scanning for the hed then the source. No reviews or ancillary “social” commentary. The hed tells me if the piece is connected to my area of interest and the source indicates the level of reliability. While I have begun culling news sources from ocean of social media commentary, it is like carpet-bombing a country to kill one bad actor. For that reason, I’ve converted to Feedly.

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    1. I agree with Ithaca. I seldom get on twitter because I can’t just scan it. It is like obtuse code written by someone who doesn’t get why x and y and myStr (etc) are horrible variable names.

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