My Twitter feed just exploded with the news that Google was sending Google Reader to the executioner on July 1. The tweets were mostly negative but since everyone on Twitter is a comedian, the responses were snarkily over-exaggerated. What struck me as odd is that most of these outbursts were coming from tech bloggers, journalists and other figures connected to tech sector. I understand that our inner geeks have a special connection to Google Reader, but I thought they would be the first to dance on Reader's grave.
I was a long time Google Reader junkie up until sometime last year. I would check Google Reader more times a day than I would care to admit. The first thing I would do when I would open my eyes in the morning is open my Reader app. The last thing I would do at night is open my Reader app. It wasn't necessarily a byproduct of sedentary lifestyle or an addiction, it was just how I received and digested information. Twitter was there too, but Twitter has the downside of being saturated with a lot of noise and I didn't feel it to be efficient to create a separate Twitter account or list that would serve as an alternative RSS aggregator.
So what changed? Sometime last year I began to realize that Google Reader was making me dumber. Not dumber as in it was detrimental to my education, but dumber as in limiting my scope of exposure to what was out there. Google Reader had no way of showing you items that you actually wanted to see. There was some degree of customization involved but it was an additive process that was either a burden bestowed upon you or a burden bestowed upon the sites you subscribed to. You would add a feed and you would be enslaved to all the articles that feed would publish, whether they were relevant to you or not. You could add folders and filters to better siphon the feed but that was egregiously time consuming, especially if you subscribed to hundreds of sites. On top of that, you were stuck with press release recaps of the same thing from a dozen different blogs regardless of what filters you set up.
Some sites decided to throw their users a bone. Gawker Media, for instance, allowed you to customize your RSS feeds by subscribing to specific topics or even subscribing to everything but excluding topics you weren't interested in. All from one feed. Many sites had similar options. You could go to Engadget and subscribe only to Panasonic news items, for instance. This burden fell upon the site admins and it was a time and resource sink for them in order to code all this. Time and resources that could be focused elsewhere in development. Furthermore, if you did subscribe to Panasonic you were locked into everything that was tagged Panasonic. If you only wanted news about Panasonic flat screen TVs and cameras, you were out of luck and those articles about Panasonic microwaves would trickle into your Google Reader.
Essentially Google Reader was a news source with tunnel vision. You were limited by the scope that you set. If there was some brilliant article in the far corner of the internet, you would never see it pop up in your Reader. If you were lucky a link to that article would come to your attention via Twitter or another external influence, but never in your RSS. And so, you became dumber. Your ability to discover new items, explore new perspectives, and read about alternative theories or delightful curiosities was curbed when it came to Google Reader. If you ever did discover a personal blog that occasionally wrote amazing articles about various topics, you either had to subscribe to all their noise that existed in between or find some bizarre filtering process in Google Reader that would only show you those interesting articles, if that was even possible.
Last year I discovered a new app called Zite by accident. I wasn't looking for it nor was I looking for ways to enhance by Google Reader. It was one of those "at the right place, at the right time" circumstances. I wanted my RSS reader to be able to feed me information based on my interests without repetition while also throwing in relevant content from sources I've never heard of before. Zite delivered.
Zite is a news feed with an approach that is custom-tailored to your interests. Instead of adding feeds you choose topics that you are interested in and Zite compiles a kind of personal magazine that updates regularly throughout the day. But that's where the similarities with Flipboard stop. Unlike Flipboard, Zite learns.
You can attach it to your Twitter account and it will adjust what it shows you based on who you follow and who your followers are. If you follow All Things D, odds are that will suddenly start showing up as a regular news source for the articles it displays. It doesn't stop there. Zite gives you the ability to like or dislike articles. Your likes and dislikes are then crunched through a magical algorithm machine that makes an attempt to adjust the content it shows you. If it sees that you regularly like reading Android articles but dislike Android articles written by John Gruber, it will eventually detect that pattern and adjust your feed algorithm appropriately. You can also block sources and topics so you never have to see Pando Daily in your feed again.
Furthermore, Zite isn't information overload. You won't get twenty articles from different sites, all covering the same thing, as you would in Google Reader. It works in a bit of Techmeme magic of its own and usually shows you the best written article or two from those twenty. Zite isn't afraid to show you relevant content from sources you don't follow, allowing you to be exposed to content you may not have discovered on your own. I can honestly say that there isn't a day that goes by that some article shows up in my Zite that doesn't get covered by your regular blogs or magazines a good 12-24 hours later. The most prominent article of recent memory that shows up in my Zite many hours before it hit the mainstream blogs was the Nate Thayer piece on The Atlantic wanting him to work for free.
I am digressing in what sounds like a Zite advertorial (you can also try Prismatic and trap.it which are worthy and similarly functioning alternatives to Zite), so I'll stop gushing here and go back to Google Reader. This ability to effortlessly personalize your content to your interests while still leaving the door open for new and unexplored content to make its way to your doorstep unhindered is exactly what Google Reader was never able to give its userbase. Granted, Zite, Prismatic, and trap.it do require you to spend a few days liking and disliking articles, but that's a small price to pay than manually subscribing to hundreds of feeds and manually adjusting each feed to give you what you hopefully want.
It isn't just Google Reader that is archaic. It's RSS readers in general. The internet is a vast expanse of usable content and an even vaster expanse of noise. We are pretty good filters when it comes to content that is presented to us, but when it comes to discovering new content we are limited. Discovering new content is an exercise in dealing with information overload, and the noise is only going to get louder. News readers that tailor content specifically for you while filtering out the noise and simultaneously introducing you to new content are the natural evolution of RSS readers. Google Reader was an app that did something really well in an Internet that used to exist. The Internet decided to move on, footsteps Google Reader was never able to follow.