Google announced yesterday that they’re removing the social features from Google Reader. They’re pitching this as an attempt to “clean things up a bit.” They also claim that, “the end result is better than what’s available today.” They acknowledge that removing the ability to friend or follow other gReader users, among other non-specified “things like” those social features, might cause people to “feel like the product is no longer for you.” Their proposed solution: export your data from gReader. The end.When talking about this announcement with people, I get the impression that most people don’t really understand or use gReader’s social features, so I can see how this wouldn’t seem like a big deal. For me, this is the destruction of the only online space I truly give a shit about. (Sorry Twitter, Facebook, etc.) I’m actually really upset about this, as it’s eliminating a social space I’ve been participating in for several years.
I’m not going to explain how RSS readers work, as I think you can solve that part for yourself. The part that makes gReader great is that as you read your feeds, if you come across a post that you find interesting, worthy of discussion, full of kittens, whatever, you can hit “Share.” OR you can even click “Share with note,” if you want to add a little blurb at the top with your feelings or thoughts about the post you’re sharing.
But who is seeing this stuff, right? For me, it’s a small group (I think the largest it’s been is around 40 people) who can view all of my shared items, can view my comments, and can comment on my shared items. All three of those things, btw? Configurable. I have the ability to make groups from my Google contacts and control their rights when accessing my content. Those people also have control over who sees what of their stuff. You can follow people, which means you can see their shares — and if that person is super private, it means they’ll have to give you rights to see their stuff in order for that to work.
What this means is that I have several RSS feeds that, rather than a site’s posts, are items shared by other people. They have their own section, “People you follow.” When I’m in a hurry, I often mark-as-read my “normal” RSS feeds and just read and comment on the shared items of my friends.
The coolest part of gReader, for me, is the Comment View. This also lives in “People you follow,” and it displays any item, either shared by me or someone I follow, that has new comments on it since the last time I clicked on it. Not just stuff I’ve personally commented on, but anything that my friends are discussing. If two of my friends comment back and forth on a shared item, I will keep seeing their discussion, even if I haven’t contributed yet. As new comments appear on items, they get bumped to the top of Comment View, so I don’t miss anything and can jump in if a discussion works its way around to being something I want to participate in.
When I started using gReader, my community was about half the size it currently is. However, there would be people commenting on my friends’ shares, people I didn’t know, who were funny, or who mentioned stuff I liked, or whatever. And so over the first year or so, there was a lot of, “Oh hey, friend from art school who loves modern novels and hipster fashion, you should TOTALLY be friends with this friend-of-a-friend who works in the fashion industry and is awesomely intellectual,” type of stuff happening. It was, and continues to be, the only social network where I interact with people with some semblance of normal real world humanity. (And by that, I mean it’s like we’re all at a mutual friend’s house party.)
We discovered that if you click on “Shared Items”, you could write an original post and share it with the group. (Topics covered in that manner: job interviews, buying houses, getting engaged, moving across the country, pregnancy, child care, cancer scares, deaths in the family, holiday-related family drama, and the occasional “this day is the absolute worst, someone please remind me I’m a valuable human being”.)
We visit each other and go out to dinner together when we’re passing through town. We travel to stay at each other’s homes for a mini-break. About twenty of us rented a house and took a vacation together last summer. This community is the primary way I stay in regular contact with many of my closest friends, it’s the network I tell first about things that happen in my life, and it’s often the only place I vent when I’m upset enough about something that I don’t want to risk mis-speaking in highly public spaces like Twitter. I am a more sensitive person, a more aware person, a more progressive, more feminist, more sympathetic and more open-minded person because of the years spent reading things I’d never have read, seeing things I’d never have seen, and getting to discuss these “new” ideas with people I respect.
This is the community I’m losing.
One of the most important things for me about gReader is that it balances the two primary uses of the internet: information and communication. Discussion that follows the sharing of information – blog posts, news items, opinion pieces, editorial images, book reviews, pictures of Zoe Saldana, etc – is more meaningful, directed, and interesting to me than post after post of people talking about themselves. I like that the primary verb of gReader is “share” – but not about you; about content that’s meaningful to you. I like that I have to click on a specific tab in order to get the little window that allows me to post only about myself. I like that gReader provides a single interface to both read content on the internet AND discuss that content with my friends.
Google’s new alternative to Reader’s social features is Google Plus. Apparently, if I share something that I see in Reader, it will generate a post to whatever circles I select and display it on my Plus account. If you’ll recall from a few paragraphs ago, Google is pitching this as, “better than what’s available today.”
So let’s look at what’s available today. I read a post in a design blog’s RSS feed on gReader featuring a house I think looks really cool, so I share it. Here’s what that share looks like:
(Credit for the fancy numbers and images goes to Darius Kazemi)
The majority of the page (66%) is dedicated to the content the user is viewing, and you can scroll down in the pink section of the page to read the entire content of the item being viewed. Google’s using about 1/3 of the page (31%) with layout and various features. The navigation section to view other peoples’ content is 3% of the page. The mechanism for sharing items (not pictured) is a button at the bottom of every post that says “Share”, and it’s so small that I didn’t measure it.
Some things I love about this:
– Content shared by my friends is automatically collected as feeds labeled with their name, making it easy to navigate to any person’s shares quickly.
– Most of the page is dedicated to displaying information and whatever comments are connected to that information.
And now let’s look at the “better” end result. I read a post in a design blog’s RSS feed on gReader featuring a house I think looks really cool, so I click the share button and generate a post in Google Plus. Here’s what that post looks like:
The majority of the page (57%) is dedicated to layout and various features. Other peoples’ content is automatically displayed, and that takes up 25% of the page. The content I shared gets 14% of the page, and the mechanism for sharing items takes up 5%, front and center.
Things I love a lot less:
– This is an entirely different site, so in order to read items shared by my community, I have to leave gReader, go to Plus, and then I guess make a circle for the people whose shares I want to see? And then either read all of their shares en masse, or click through to each of their profiles and scroll through to see what they’ve shared since the last time I checked?
– I have no way of easily keeping up with discussions going on in my community (compared to the way Comment View currently works).
– Posting links to Plus does not display the content of the item you’re sharing. Notice that in order to read the full post, you’d have to click the link and open a new page or tab.
In short, this is not a workflow designed around sharing information and communicating about it. This is a workflow designed to make people click on things.
Taken in hand with the earlier announcement from Google that they’re shutting down Buzz (another quirky social network that didn’t achieve Facebook-level popularity), part of me suspects that someone in Google corporate looked at the Buzz and gReader communities, looked at Plus’s less-than-vertical adoption & use rates, and concluded that by killing Buzz and gReader’s social elements, these communities would migrate over to Plus.
That is, however, a ridiculous idea. Buzz operates in your Gmail inbox and gReader is an RSS feed reader. The majority of employers don’t block email or RSS feed readers. You know what a lot of employers do block? Self-described social networks like Google Plus. In addition, guess what gReader lets you call yourself? You guessed it: anything you damn well please. I have friends who refuse to join Plus because they’re worried that if they get griefed as a ‘nym, they’ll have all their other Google services (like Gmail) frozen. How am I supposed to interact with these people the way I do now?
Also, where is it written that because a large number of people form one internet community, that must be how all online communities are organized? I don’t care if Google wants Plus to get bigger, I care about me and my friends who seek to read and discuss the entire internet every day. Is there really no space for different kinds of people to form different kinds of social spaces in Google products? Are they really that fucking stupid about how communities work?
Or, as I suspect, is it just that Buzz and gReader aren’t nearly as effective as Plus at collecting data about my internet use?