Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Death of A (Google) Reader, and the problem with the mutable web

They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the reader over close to a pile of dead products. Brin had the halter and Green had the gun, shaped like a giant plus symbol. This symbol he placed, the crowd silent, on the reader's forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Green, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the plus. There was a short, sharp sound and the reader toppled onto his left side, his comments unread, his friends gone, the free feeds quivering.

"Aw, ----" someone said.

That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two techs removing the broken comments as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the internet, leaving alone on his side near a pile of deceased products, the rain running off his sharing settings, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Google Reader, son of Gmail, full brother of Google Docs.

Apologies to the great W.C. Heinz (who none of us damn bloggers have read anyway), but it felt appropriate. Google's bizarre decision to kill off the social functions in one of its best products has led to outrage from Tehran to Washington, for excellent reasons. Whether you use it for undermining a totalitarian state, exchanging political or social commentary or merely just hanging out with friends and laughing about DogFort or 3eanuts, Reader's an amazing tool and one that be can adapted to just about any purpose. It's much more than simply an RSS feed of blogs; it's one of the best things on the web.

For some of us, this feels more personal than just the demise of an Internet product, though. Blogging isn't an inherently social workplace; sure, I interact with people all day, but it's generally over e-mail and Twitter. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's nice to be able to have something deeper, and the Reader community has built itself into that. Reader works on a more profound level than something like Twitter or Facebook, as it's all about people sharing pieces that appeal to them, and the comment view conversations host some of the most interesting and nuanced discussions on the web. There's a reason so many ShareBros are bummed out about this; for many of us, this is a genuine way of maintaining existing friendships and building new ones, and a company whose motto is "Don't Be Evil" is out to take that away.

On another level, it speaks to a common problem in the world; things aren't defined by how good they are or how much people love them, but rather how many people can tolerate them. It's why Two and a Half Men persists while Firefly is canceled, why Leno won out over Conan, why Bill Simmons and Rick Reilly are two of the best-paid writers on the Internet and why Dan Brown's always near the top of the best-seller list. Reader obviously didn't have the adoption rate of, say, Gmail or Docs, but (to borrow from Alexander Keith's), those who liked it, liked it a lot. For those of us who like small sports, indie bands and lesser-known writers, this is just another stroke in the consolidation of everything.

It's also a disturbing pattern in the Internet world; things are built and adopted, but then frequently altered or shut down, to the detriment of the communities using them. I was already there for one of those (the old Deadspin commenter apocalypse), and it sucked. Sure, we all found ways to move on and new ways to connect with some of the people who mattered to us (I still keep up with a lot of those types through Twitter, Skype, etc), and that will undoubtedly happen with Reader; ShareBro Francis Cleary is working on a great backup solution, and we'll certainly find ways to interact with each other in the meantime. It won't be the same, though, and we'll probably never quite get back what we lost. Still, there's hope out there as well as despair, and it's always better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness. To that end, two videos.

Namárië, ShareBros. See you on the other side.


  1. i guess i never used reader for what it was intended to be. ill miss it just as an rss feeder. more i read about the tool, sounds like replacing it isn't quite so simple. good stuff andrew.

  2. Anonymous12:50 PM

    Do you have a spam issue on this blog; I also am a blogger, and I
    was curious about your situation; many of us have developed some nice
    methods and we are looking to swap strategies with others, please shoot me an e-mail if interested.

    My blog post; how to stop hemorrhoids