Google Reader gave me the illusion of both connection and containment. I could read every last post, I could ‘read’ all of it. The End of the Internet wasn’t a punchline anymore, I could get there — usually every other day. If I got too far behind, I could mark everything as “read”, go to bed, and start over again fresh in the morning.
I didn’t use the sharing feature on Google Reader (and then later, Google Plus) at all, because then as now I’m in Twitter as my network-of-choice — and I’m a snarky bastard so I often prefer to spin something, pull a quote, or leave a commentary: not just a flag and a link that says, “this is cool, I read this, you should too” but rather “this is cool and I am clever, ho ho!“
So a like button, or a +1, or a simple share wasn’t for me anyway.
I did appreciate the ease of subscription in Google Reader (just drop the URL in the box) as well as it’s flexibility: at various times I was subscribed to news websites, personal blogs, various specialized feeds (Wired and Smithsonian magazines, in particular, do a good job of maintaining multiple topic-based feeds) — as well as other RSS magic, like subscribing to Flickr groups or lumping a bunch of Tumblr feeds into a folder marked “distractions” — to be enjoyed at leisure or skipped, as a group.
RSS seemed so important to me (at the time) that I delayed launching my own “official” blog in May/June 2008 until I had it straightened out. (note to self: RocketBomber has a 5th anniversary coming up) (and the web hosting bill – more important, that: we’ll need to budget for it in May). RSS was also great for how invisible it was: feeds are baked into Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, and many other packages/services/platforms, so individual writers didn’t have to think about it, and we could all follow their output, seamlessly and as published. Even for that One Great Really Interesting Blog that only updates once a week and where the author neglects to post something for months or years at a time, with properly functioning RSS feeds and a decent reader, each new post shows up like an unexpected present. [note: Eric and Wednesday are on a tumblr now, at new.websnark.com — their posting schedule & frequency are as random/nonexistent/capricious as ever]
Much of my web consumption was taking place in Google Reader; I’d say that by the time Google announced its imminent demise, I was spending 85% to 90% of my web-reading-time inside of Reader. It was only in January or so (of this year) that I’d added the last of my bookmarks (those sites with RSS feeds) to the carefully-maintained-and-organized feeds and folders. I was caught. This is a web experience that was “sticky“ in ways other sites and services would kill for, perhaps literally — especially when one considers that Google didn’t have to write any of the content (the users picked their own) and except for a few RSS feeds that only offered a “digest” or teaser or headline view: all of the content was viewed in Reader. Total captive audience. Instead of launching Google+ — Google should have added features and “improvements” to Reader until it was the same thing, basically, as Google+ but with an installed, committed user base that had been building for years. We would have complained (we always complain) but damn, Google: serious missed opportunity here.
My point in visiting this topic wasn’t actually about me waxing nostalgic about the web 5-years-past — or giving free business advice to Google:
We’re discussing alternatives, now that Google Reader is destined for the scrap heap and we’ve only 82 days left to make the transition.
First: yes, go ahead and use the Google Takeout functionality to “export” your GReader settings and links. It’s easy (much easier now, at this date, as opposed to the mass-refugee-flight that occurred right after the announcement and bumrushed the servers). I would also go to your Reader page, open up ‘Settings’, click the 2nd tab, ‘Subscriptions’ and then select the whole damn page [ctrl-a] and copy it all [ctrl-c, ctrl-v] into a text file using the editor of your choice. (obviously you Apple folks are used to the clover-looking-cmnd-thing and figuring out equivalents)
The resulting text file has a lot of cruft in it, and is by no means elegant, but this handy maneuver not only gives you a 2nd backup of your current Google Reader feeds: it also lists folder assignments, and a plain-text URL that can be copy-pasted into any application or later service, whether they choose to use Google’s formatting or not.
(In that eventuality: why, yes, it is a lot of hassle and work. But a plain-text backup will be much better than relying on memory in that worst-case-scenario. Unless one enjoys fresh starts: I can see the appeal in declaring link-bankruptcy and starting all over again. We were all new to the internet once.)
I briefly tried Feedly, and The Old Reader, and nosed around NewsBlur enough to realize I’d have to pay their annual fee to get the use out of it I would need.
The Old Reader is… not adapting to the new user load well. They may quickly fix that problem (indeed, may already have fixed the problem) but there were enough other issues with their interface that I’m not going to follow up: as stated, I don’t use an RSS reader for one-button sharing, and The Old Reader’s primary claim to fame is they’re just like the old Google Reader with all that sharing intact.
Feedly is clean, polished, geared towards skimmers and just-give-me-the-headline readers, and obviously an iPhone app that reluctantly admits some folks use a pc/laptop to use the web. They default to a ‘magazine’ style view, with images given precedence over content, and Feedly is going to be the option most-if-not-all Google Reader refugees are going to use. Feedly is already committed to reverse-engineering the Google Reader API so, yeah: anticipating no new roadblocks or speedbumps and given the 90-day time frame, This Is Your Solution.
Except: I don’t like it. [*ahem*] “Feedly is clean, polished, geared towards skimmers and just-give-me-the-headline readers, and obviously an iPhone app that reluctantly admits some folks use a pc/laptop to use the web.”
That wasn’t praise.
Actually, the one reader that I liked was so feature-poor and clunky, the raw clunkiness of it was/is its most endearing feature: http://www.purplegene.com/reader
Where do I start? The awful-1994 design aesthetic? The one-lump-fits-all user interface? The obviously-tacked-on ever-present sidebar with its incomprehensible buttons?
What the PurpleGene Reader does right, however, is the full-screen one-article-at-a-time reader experience, with incorporated keyboard shortcuts, easy OPML imports, and configuration options that will not only seem familiar to those used to CSS/HTML: you might just squee at the option to ‘code’ the page formatting your own damn self. I won’t call it the linux of feedreaders, but will forgive others when they make that comparison.
Eventually, my Solution to the RSS reader ‘problem’ was to ignore it. No matter how “inconvenient” this proved, I found it better to go back to bookmarks. Informed by Google Reader’s folders, and enabled by both tabbed browsers and the ability to bookmark multiple tabs: it’s a 2009 solution to a 2013 problem. If Mozilla, Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s IE, or their eventual successors abandon tabs, why: I suppose I’ll just have to code my own plain-html launch page, with the links organized however I’d like, 1994 style.
In other words: Google, by decommissioning Reader, just reminded me that I don’t need any service (or particular browser) to make use of the web. They reminded me that Yahoo, an index, predated the Google search bar: and so also reminded me that the original web discovery process was curation — not algorithms, no matter how complicated.
I now have a bookmark folder named ‘feed’ with 23 sub-folders, each of which contains 3-9 links, each of which I can right-click to open (as a group) as browser tabs. These links go direct to the sites I’ve so carefully collected, so instead of a Google-layer on top of the web (through which Google could have injected ads) I’m reading the articles as formatted as intended by their authors, and with the ads (where applicable) that directly benefit the sites.
Instead of a single timeline (collated by Google, and read only via their app) I’m free to experiment, explore, and discover: instead of merely ‘catching up’ with my Google Reader subscriptions and feeling that sense of accomplishment when I’d ‘read everything’ — once again, no matter how I try: there is no ‘end of the internet’.
As pissed off as I am at Google (and I’m still pissed off they killed Reader, dammit, the service, [*ahem*], “just worked”) I have to thank them. Dear Google, Thank You for reminding me that the internet works just fine outside your ecosystem of apps, and for giving me the kick I needed to re-assert my independence.
So, while I have reverted to bookmarks for most of my former “subscription” reading, in this wreckage I have also discovered two new sites that have a lot of promise.
[though there is nothing particularly new here either: fark, reddit, metafilter and others have made link-blogging its own thing — even BoingBoing, one of my personal favs (and a ‘daily-read’ bookmark under the new regime) is just an aggregator.]
One site I keep going back to is Prismatic. I originally found it in my search for Reader replacements: but it’s not Google Reader. It’s not even a good replacement for Reader. You can “subscribe” to “feeds” in Prismatic but what you’re going to see is a pale imitation of the news-timeline you were once used to.
In Reader, you subscribed to RSS feeds, you got exactly that, and you were glad: every article from every site in your list. Prismatic offers something different. Initially, you have to connect with one of your social media accounts: either twitter or facebook.
So — long aside: This is annoying, and problematic (in many ways), and surperfluous (dammit why does everyone want to be social, and crosslinked?), and has nothing to do with web browsing, or reading, or advertising for that matter. Lazy, Lazy, LAZY developers. My interactions with my local pub differ from my interactions with PopCap, differ from my interactions with Battle.net, differ from my interactions with Twitter, all of which have nothing to do with what I do for a living or what I blog about. NO ONE SOCIAL GRAPH CAN CONTAIN ME.
Long aside, continued — Dear app/web developers: instead of asking me to ‘log in’ via twitter, facebook, or google, so you can ‘discover’ my friends and interests — how about just asking me? Give me your own quiz, or a list of interests I can click. Build your own damn profile of me, and own it. I guarantee that after the so-called-easy crosslogin I’m digging deep into your settings to fix things, and if you don’t provide any settings for me to adjust, I’m dropping you faster than Klout.
SO. after getting that off my chest:
Yes, Prismatic asked me to log in via social media. I did so, and it auto-generated a fancy graph of my supposed interests, which was graphically impressive but useless (honestly: there were no instructions, the ‘plus signs’ I could click did nothing and while the whole thing was animated, it was quickly annoying) – and I only started to get traction after I closed it and started stumbling/mucking-about on the site itself.
Prismatic would be much stronger if they allowed you to drop URLs directly, like the subscribe button on Google Reader. As it is, the available sites I can follow seem to be limited: only to what has been previously identified/green-lighted (presumably by Prismatic). With that hefty handicap admitted, and allowed for: where Prismatic excels is the ability to follow topics, not just individual sites. I can sign up for ‘ebooks’, the ‘book trade’, ‘gadgets’, ‘comics’, ‘graphic novels’, ‘book reviews’ and [presumably] get a feed of content the same as if I’d just added a site’s RSS.
Except it doesn’t quite work that way: even when I’ve added a site to the Prismatic feed, I don’t get every article in real time. I have to rely on Prismatic’s suggestions for new topics: there is no way to pull up an index of every tag and topic to set up my new account. And also: I have to log in with social media to get started, and then Prismatic decides what my initial topics are.
Prismatic is doing so many things right — including their content algorithms — but they’re still bound by the myths and practices of the current content ecosystem: They [like many others cited above, and I hate them for it too] insist on an “app” interface, even in a web browser where it is not only superfluous but annoying, and they insist on being “social” (including the twitter/facebook login) when the service they provide obviously isn’t, and instead of giving us tools and options, they fall back on “recommendations” and “suggestions”.
It’s all very limiting, especially right after one has rediscovered the Web outside walled gardens.
What I love about Prismatic, though, is the ability to follow topics: no matter how gimped the execution nor how difficult they make it, once you’re following a topic feed: you’re going to discover new sites in a way you’d never be able to otherwise.
For example, this past week Prismatic pointed me to ProfHacker, “Tips about teaching, technology, and productivity”, Women in SF Month, as advocated by Fantasy Book Cafe, A Book Club Brunch (all me, twice over), and even a way to earn academic credits while attending Comic Con.
None of this would normally be in my feed. All of it is of interest. I had to ‘game’ Prismatic a bit, peel it back from what it thought I was about and redirect it. The controls are neither easy to find, or really, all that easy to intuit [you guys have a lot of work to do] and once again: my primary complaint is that is is a phone app adapted-ever-so-slightly-and-grudgingly to also work on the web — but of the many services I tried: Prismatic has the most potential.
I’m also keeping an eye on Newsana, which I would describe as a cross between The Global Post and Reddit: we’ll see how it works going forword. I’m willing to lurk there for quite a while. Like Prismatic, this isn’t a replacement for a good RSS reader, but when it comes to discovering new content it has much promise.
what i’ll miss about Reader:
- webcomics. damn. RSS is still the best tool for following webcomics. Here’s an opportunity, folks: a “comics page” that lets you add RSS feeds of your favs to your personal “page”, updates with new strips when the sites update, revenue-shares with the linked artists based on subscribers/views/included-ads/added-advertising, or even: includes the ads from the original sites in the combined feed. WOULD BE AWESOME. for business reasons: WILL NEVER HAPPEN.
- “everything”. No matter what RSS feed reader I find, there is no sense of completion, no sense that I’d “read everything”. Not sure what it was about Google that made me feel that way: maybe the interface?
- ease of subscription: drop a URL in the box, if it was possible, at all, Google made it happen.
- formatting. So if Google Reader had a full-screen option like PurpleGene, I would have been all over that, but the balance between articles & necessary navigation was fairly fine: This is something Feedly (for browsers) needs to work on.
- all-in-one: This is the one thing I really miss. With Google Reader, I didn’t feel the need for multiple websites, work-arounds, or more-than-one reading experience. This is, as previously noted, Google’s loss. They had a solution but for whatever reason chose to discount it, ignore it, and eventually: discontinue it.
Good luck getting that back, Google.
My recommendations for other Google Reader refugees?
1st. if you were going to consider NewsBlur, you’re likely already ahead of me and are already using NewsBlur. I still balk at paying a fee to read free stuff, no matter how good you are.
2nd. Feedly works, and for most, will work well. If they reverse-engineer the Google Reader API as advertised: well at that point they are Google Reader, moving forward.
3rd. Go back and wallow in primary sources, rediscover the sites that excite you, determine your own reading timetable, roster, schedule, and catalogue, and keep reading.
4th. Determine what you “need” to follow daily, and set these up as bookmarks, perhaps even bookmarks that auto-load when you open your browser. Don’t rely on ‘feeds’ that might stop, if these are Truly important to your business or interests.
5th. Consider sites that not only allow you to “follow”, but give you opportunities to Find the Leader. Prismatic has many faults, but they’re on the right track.
6th. An overall survey of your “information diet” will likely be illuminating: Do you over-rely on just one or two news sites? Do you ignore the news and skip directly to fan sites? Expand your horizons, either by using new sites, or paying more attention to the links in blogs you follow.