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Why the death of Google Reader doesn’t bother me that much — social news has won

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There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled this week about Google’s (s goog) 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

31 Responses to “Why the death of Google Reader doesn’t bother me that much — social news has won”

  1. Nathan Jones

    The biggest problem with using Social Media for your news content is a phenomenon called the “Social Bubble,” in which you only hear about news from people/groups you agree with, which skews your perception of the world.

  2. Very interesting article, and it gave me hope. I had a clean-out of blabber-mouths in my Twitter account, Follow’d a few of you insightful writers, reviewed the resulting news feed and was bored after a couple of minutes. There’s just so much mindless dross compared to a good NewsRob offline cache hooked up to Google Reader. I am not converted.

  3. I for sure wouldn’t read that without an RSS reader (netvibes).
    Although true I might stop reading MI anyway, not because of social, but more for him being such a prototype of the boring pseudo intellectual media optimist half blind analysis crowd.
    Better stick to a few sources for things that matter, and for this RSS is indeed very practical.

  4. Mark Mascarenhas

    News news news – is that all yiu care about ?? I read blogs for long form commentary, essays etc. RSS and Google Reader helped me receive and organize 300 feeds-not one of them was news! And the few ads that I ever clicked on were on those blogs. Google Reader should have been monetizable. (And damn ‘Social’ btw)

  5. Quasar_

    I looked at using something else other than RSS for feeds back when Flipboard first appeared, and it showed me just how many sites I follow that don’t have twitter feeds and do have rss feeds. And trying again today I still lots of sites without a twitter feed of articles.

    That said I imagine people like me, who just use reader for the back end and never use the actual google front end, are part of why its being shut down. I’m certainly concerned now that if Google can’t keep the reader api going how can i really trust the small companies like feedly (who I love – I’ve use their front end for years – it made reader usable for me) and digg to be able to keep the their clones of the api running.

  6. Jeffrey

    Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

    The folly of we humans… good grief.

    What does one get when one filters out all of the content that is supported by either advertising or an institution?

  7. I have a number of news sources in my rss feed and I also look for new sources of information courtesy of my Twitter follows.

    The RSS feeds are completely indispensable. These are the sources that I rely on and I want to check every day.

    Twitter is more or less haphazard for news delivery. I might pick up a new source. I’ll also have to deal with a lot of redundancy. There are also a lot of people who recommend things that they haven’t read themselves. It’s a bit like fishing. If I spend a chunk of time going through Twitter feeds I might get lucky and hook something. But the RSS feeds are my own secret spot where I know that I’ll get a bite as soon as I throw my line in the water. Much more efficient.

  8. You have not used the google reader that much. “Tags” in google reader plays a very criticial role in organizing and fetching the content from various blogs/websites.

    Don’t know how I am going to import tags . Google does not provide any export mechanism for tags right now.

    Google Reader is the one that I use almost every 2 hours.

    If any one knows any mechanism to export tags, pls let us know.


  9. So, the author needs the assurance of his twitter buddies to let him know what is worth reading or writing about. That’s called an echo chamber, and it’s called lazy. RSS let’s me read what I want because I know what I want to read, not some algorithm stuffed down my throat, or a bunch of likes and retweets. If it’s interesting enough, I’ll be the one to push it out to twitter or facebook (what’s G+?). Sure, I still like to see what others in my circle read – but I’ve got to get around photos of their kids, pets, food they are eating/cooking, etc etc to get to it. Give me my good old reliable RSS reader and I’ll set the tone in my social circle thank you very much. I guess the author prefers crowd sourced links/news versus original content. Well good for him.

  10. brown_te

    I see Mathew’s point about having a list of (trusted?) curators in your Twitter sources – but for me — Reader/RSS is an already trusted source of stuff that I’m interested in. Stuff that frequently valuable enough to me that I don’t want to miss or lose it in the instantaneous and barely searchable river that Twitter is. I enjoy both for different purposes.

    Bigger topic: I’ve been an enthusiastic cheerleader/user of Google services forever. Still am, but this is a stark reminder not to expect that free Cloud services will always be there.

  11. realjjj

    1.There is no reason for RSS readers to not be social.
    2, How does one acquire that link that ends up on social media?

    Maybe most users don’t need a RSS reader but that doesn’t mean RSS doesn’t have it’s purpose.
    Here Google just didn’t made any effort to make the best news reading product they could make and promote it.
    Reader has recommendations , had a social part, there is also Google Currents ,Google Alerts and w/e they do in G+ (not a user so no clue) but Google seems to be badly managed and instead of making a single product that offers everything one could want they have a bunch of different products. One single, very flexible, product is easier to market too and if it has to be part of G+ so be it but they need to offer us options, We need something efficient like Reader even if it’s just a folder/tab inside something else.
    Without RSS the internet would be a lot poorer , many small sites would be dead and most sites would have less content.
    Google is thinking short term or not thinking at all lately , Page has to change or go before it’s too late.

  12. Ithaca Independent

    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.

    • 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.

  13. Ricardo Bilton

    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.

  14. Sérgio Carvalho

    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.

  15. 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.

  16. Steve Harbor

    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.

  17. 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.

  18. Gabriel Chapman

    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.

  19. 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).

    • 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.

    • Tom The Nerf Herder

      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.