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6 Ways The Pundits Are Dazed and Confused About Google Reader and RSS

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 14, 2013

mainstream-mediaOne of the you-betcha-surefire Pundit strategies is that when something is getting a lot of heat, like the current flap over Google dropping Google Reader, you can get a lot of attention by disagreeing with the crowd.  You want to do so in the most colorful possible way, in fact.  It’s a common form of link baiting and mild trollership.  So long as all that’s happening is they’re family the flames of emotion for their own benefit and to gain attention, I couldn’t care less.  But, along with this behavior, comes the risk that someone will actually take some of what’s said seriously and be confused about it.  That’s to be avoided.  Hence my list of 6 ways the Pundits are confused about Google Reader and RSS:

1.  Just use Twitter

There are so many problems with Twitter as a replacement for Google Reader that I’ll only list a few of the most important:

-  You can only search 140 characters when looking for meaning, whereas with RSS/Reader you get to search the title and the full contents of a blog post.

-  The signal to noise ration on Twitter is terrible.  Save one silly article where the ZDNet writer said he had failed to organize his RSS feeds but had very carefully tended to his Twitter followings, this is not something many disagree with.  Twitter is overrun by chittering twirping bots.

-  What signal that does exist on Twitter is largely coming from people who use RSS Readers to curate what they pass along.

-  Twitter is the poster child of a company that frequently upsets and destroys its ecosystem in its own self-interest.  If you think that is bad while it’s been private, just wait until it is under the publicly traded spotlight to show growth to sustain its ridiculous multiples.  Why would you trust that whatever you value about Twitter has any permanence at all?  Particularly after watching the Google Reader-you-are-products-not-customers drama unfold?  As the saying goes, fool me once…

-  Twitter has all the problems of the River of News Metaphor, which is next up.

2.  The River of News is a Better Metaphor

I can’t avoid addressing the “River of News” metaphor when RSS inventor Dave Winer says that’s the better mousetrap and when so many who prefer Twitter think they want the River of News.

My problem with the River of News is not that it isn’t a good metaphor.  Rather it’s that Google Reader could function just fine as a River of News (you don’t have to care about unread vs read or put anything in folders, just reader the latest arrivals as you wish) and that the River of News doesn’t solve the problem Google Reader is ideally suited for.  More on that problem below, but right here, let’s focus on what problem the River of News does solve.  It’s the problem of Finding Something Current of Interest Right Now.  That’s a useful problem to solve for many people.  If you just want to be on top of the latest industry gossip so you don’t feel silly at lunch, it works.  If you just need to kill a little time and want to learn something new, it works.  However, if you actually want to solve the Real Problem that Google Reader was the best at solving, the River of News is useless.  The River of News is what True Google Reader Users spent their time trying to get past.  Let me illustrate.

I used Google Reader in some specific ways precisely because I was trying to avoid the River of News.  The River views that the most important dimension is arrival time.  The more recent, the better.  Consequently, I used Reader’s folders to group noisy sites under a category I called “Bulk Feeds”.  These were the general purpose news sources like Techmeme, ZDNet, GigaOm, or (back when I cared) TechCrunch.  Every single day I would start the morning by marking all read except today’s entries in the Bulk Feeds folder.  I wish I could’ve automated it by saying, in essence, “For this folder I only care about what came out in the last 24 hours and you can delete the rest.”

I had a second group of folders I called “A-List”.  This was a group of very very good bloggers who were more likely to be worth wading through more articles than the Bulk Feeds, but who were still extremely general in terms of their content.  Seth Godin would be a good example.  It would’ve been nice to be able to mark these as read if older than a week.

Every thing else went into a folder by subject, because these were blogs that were highly focused on deep areas (outbound marketing, seo, UX design, etc.) and that wrote content that was essentially Evergreen.  Any blogger or SEO marketer knows what Evergreen content is–it’s content that is not perishable and that you’ll get value out of for years.  This is content that I explicitly do not want to see lost in a River of News, that I do want to be able to read through over time so I will not mark it as read without at least skimming it.  This is the content Google Reader is really the best tool for curating, and it is the content that River of News substitutes are the absolute worst at helping me acquire, manage, and consume.

3.  Google Reader Was Preventing Innovation

Mark Masterson gets my award for silliest and most confused outlook on Google Reader.   His long and bizarre rant against it seems to boil down to it being bad for any software to be around for too long, apparently because it stifles innovation.  Apparently it is some sort of impediment to evolution.  Baloney.  There’s been plenty of misguided evolution going on and none of it has solved the problems Google Reader solves.  There are cases where there isn’t any particular benefit to be gained by trying to evolve further solutions to a particular problem.  When that happens, it’s a good thing if the solution has commanding market share and is allowed to stand while others see clearly the ecological niche related to that market is now filled.  Aside from a desire to keep enough competition to avoid monopolistic price gouging, there’s no real evolution needed.

One of the biggest risks is that in their effort to fill the gaping Google Reader void with something new, New, NEW, we will lose sight of what Google Reader did well.  By deciding to fix its shortcomings, we’ll get a magazine like Flipboard, a way to read something later like Instapaper, or an ambient noise generator like Twitter.  These are not innovations on Reader, they’re different eco-niches entirely.

4.  RSS is Dying Because It’s Not Social Enough

We’ve all met people that approach “friends” in one of two ways.  There are those people that form extremely deep and long-lasting friendships.  Then there are those who will refer to anyone they’ve met as a friend.  Certainly there are possibilities between these extremes, but on the whole, people tend to fall more at one end or the other than not.  Those people that argue RSS is not social enough are from the “If I’ve met you, you’re my friend” extreme.  They have a zillion follows on Twitter, a zillion friends on Facebook, and a zillion more connections on LinkedIn.  Or, perhaps their bipolarity is a function of type of relationship, with a zillion business-related connections and relatively few personal connections.

But here is the thing–RSS is for those people that want to form extremely deep and long-lasting connections.  That’s what the RSS experience is all about–I don’t want to miss anything you’re saying so I will subscribe to you in my Reader, and once there, you’ll probably stay there for quite some time.  The River of News crowd thinks that because they’ve exchanged the occasional Tweet with someone they don’t really know and may never Tweet with again, that’s being more Social.  No, not at all–they’re different kinds of Social and we’re losing essentially half of the Social spectrum when we walk away from RSS.

That same ZDNet writer who never organized his RSS feeds but carefully curated his Twitter and then complained RSS was too noisy claimed:

SS readers don’t exactly lend themselves to conversations either — the sorts of conversations that happen quite naturally on social media (including social bookmarking/linking sites like Reddit).

Yet, he has 33 comments on that post as I write this, and I’m sure there’ll be many more before people quit commenting on it.  Many of the comments are more thoughtful than 140 characters can support.  Ironically, so far this year he has had exactly one post (on why the cost of the 128 GB iPad doesn’t matter) that had more comments.  I’m not going to bother counting how many of his Tweets had more conversation as the point is made that he couldn’t hope for a more social medium than RSS and blog comments.  There isn’t one that exists.  I doubt even Fred Wilson could claim otherwise given how his blog comment ecosystem works even though he is an investor in Twitter.

5.  Since Google Reader Was Never Profitable, It’s Best To Shut It Down

This is a popular refrain:

Google is a business it has to make money and it has every right to shut Google Reader down because it wasn’t making money and you have no right to complain about it because it was free.

Bollocks.  If Google was Walmart choosing not to carry some product or other that I used to be able to buy there cheaply, that’d be one thing.  But here is the difference:  Google is igniting real negative sentiment towards the Google Empire as a result of this decision.  They’re making a mockery of their business motto of, “Do no evil.”  In fact, I would argue that very root of the Evil they claim to want to avoid stems from the idea that most of the people who use their software (I am carefully not calling that software “products”) are not their customers.  Google’s Customers pay for advertising and give them money.  Rather, those of us who use their software are in fact the real “products” Google has to sell.  When you look at it that way, any massive sentiment issue among the “products” is a defect that is ultimately bad for the business.  You can only mistreat the “products” for so long before they revolt.  Unfortunately, these “products” are fickle and don’t have to stay with Google.  They can be “products” for lots of others.

Closely related is Google’s Valuation.  It is unnaturally high for a reason–because people believe in them.  Actions like sunsetting Google Reader damage that belief right at its core.  This is a grass roots problem that ultimately leaves only the role of commoditizer open to Google, and this is not good for their long term valuation prospects.

6.  RSS and Reader Are In Decline and the Average Consumer Never Used It, So Why Bother?

Let’s leave aside for the moment that some of the folks who worked with it say this has little to do with decline and everything to do with trying to prop up Google+.  While I find that notion entirely plausible and painfully Microsoft-like in its execution, it’s worth musing about the “decline” of RSS.  It’s a bit like saying that since so many Prius’s have been sold Porsche’s are in decline.  Porsche’s were never meant to take the place of the Prius.  It is not unusual for the power tool to come along first followed by the tool the mere mortals can use, but that does not in any way diminish the value of the power tools.  Look, we started with HTML and people had to know it and deal with it to have a web presence.  Then we got some better tools such as blogs.  Eventually we made it all the way to things like Twitter and Facebook, where anyone can have a web presence very easily with absolutely no need of technical knowledge or even the creative ability to write more than 140 characters or so of text.  That’s great, but it in no way means that since we can create 140 character messages easily we’ve no need of static HTML pages or blogs.  It’s fuzzy thinking.

I have no problem believing the number of people who engage in use of the power tool may have declined a bit, but as I mentioned on the Twitter note above, these other tools remain vitally dependent on the power tools users who are curating content.  It’s less a decline and more of a saturation.  This is the same fuzzy thinking that leads us to declare that since people are buying smartphones and tablets like there is no tomorrow the desktop PC must be dead.

The idea that the only thing that matters is what appeals to the lowest common denominator is what’s wrong with the news today in general.  It’s why there’s a more enlightened crowd out there that very much wants to seek the Long Tail, needs Google Reader to do it, and couldn’t care less about USA Today, Fox News, Huffington Post, or Techcrunch.

What Google Reader Really Was:  Super High Octane Page Rank

Laura Hazard Owen’s, “Google Reader, Please Don’t Go — I Need You To Do My Job” is one of the best takes on what Google Reader really does I have seen.  She makes her case well:

-  Twitter is no substitute for RSS:  The best thing about Google Reader, from my point of view, is that it allows me to scan a lot of information quickly, with the assurance that I’m not missing anything.  Exactly what I’m saying about Twitter and the River of News metaphor.

-  Neither is Flipboard:  Services like Flipboard are great if you want to see the most popular stories on a given topic. But as someone who really geeks out digital book publishing, I don’t just want to see the stories that an aggregator recommends for me because they’ve reached a critical mass.  Amen, sister!  I want to lever myself as far out onto the Long Tail as possible because that’s where the real action is.  Everything else is processed and homogenized for mass consumption.

Let me go beyond what Laura has to say to cut through to essence of what I think Reader is.  Laura talks about it being for someone who wants to, “…keep track of what’s going on at the roots of my beat” or to “…really geek out” on some subject or other.  It solves a very deep Search problem by facilitating a connection between the consumers of the information who want to get it in as dense and pure a form as possible, uncut on the street with the baby laxative the various aggregators use to define what will be popular.  It is information curation in its purest form.  If we once manage to find the true experts in the subjects we thrive on, the very wellsprings from which the best ideas flow, how could we not want to establish a permanent pipeline into those cognitive reservoirs?  How else to do so than by use of a tool like Google Reader.  This is the Super High Octane driven by true Human Intelligence alternative to Page Rank.  It’s Quora done more deeply than a single question at a time.  It’s more deeply Social than anything seen since for those who genuinely want to be a part of a select community of Thinkers.  It is Ernest Hemingway and all of the others in Paris.  It’s plugging directly into particular cyber-cognitive neighborhoods the way only Gibson and Stephenson could imagine before it came along.  And Google wants to burn it down.

Try asking Ernest Hemingway to communicate with his peers 140 characters at a time while anyone who wants can crash the party and conversation.  Writing is a lonely business, but it doesn’t have to be that lonely.

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5 Responses to “6 Ways The Pundits Are Dazed and Confused About Google Reader and RSS”

  1. schlafly said

    I switched to Google Reader when Ask.com shut down Bloglines. My guess is that the problem with these products is that they give the user too much control over what we read. Google wants to push stuff on us. Maybe there is a conspiracy to kill RSS. Look at what happened to Aaron Swartz.

  2. […] don’t use it the same way I do. Bob Warfield, of the SmoothSpan Blog wrote one of the best articles on the subject. But for me, the point of this little article isn’t just the eminent loss of Google Reader. […]

  3. Fabulous post. I think the bit I like best is “Google’s Customers pay for advertising and give them money. Rather, those of us who use their software are in fact the real “products” Google has to sell.” I’ve been saying this about a variety of services, such as Klout, for a while.

  4. This is the first article I have read where someone “gets it right”. You hit every point and I was a huge Google fan boy. I am really now considering if I ever want to trust an Android or Chrome device. Aren’t they selling the idea that the cloud will always be there? Not if they shut it down.

  5. […] Scott Buffington (@s… on 6 Ways The Pundits Are Dazed a… […]

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