Monday, July 1, 2013

Reader Rainbow

[I've neglected this blog for far too long, and have never done an opinion/ranting post before, so here goes nothing]

As I sit in a very warm living room that has just begun to cool down, light fading in the summer twilight, I browse Google Reader for one last goodbye and reflect on what this might mean to the avid Readers and RSS subscribers.

I signed up for Reader on June 30th, 2008, almost exactly 5 years ago. In quintessential Google fashion, they've done us the favor of tracking just how much we've used this service, and the analytics say I've used it quite a lot: over 165,174 items have passed through my feed and my eyes. If we assume a light estimate of casual 30 second skimming through each piece, that's a staggering 1376 hours. Spread over 5 years, that's an average of 45 minutes per day. In reality, I can attest to days where I've spent a LOT more time than that (how on earth did I ever graduate? or finish my co-op work assignments?)

Reading through my own feed was a bit like a sanctuary (I'm not the only one who feels this way), filled with news and articles on topics that I chose for myself; a feel that resonates best with few others in this world. I would never suggest RSS reading a replacement for books, but I do attribute much of my continued growth in skills and knowledge to my Google Reader feed. As one of my favorite authors famously said, "We, the human race, have not ever invented anything that can surpass reading as a way of learning." -Stephen E. Ambrose

The worst-kept secret in web strategy is Google wants to channel more traffic through Google Plus to pump steroids into its social game, and try to "catch up" with the rest of social media. The growing trend of emphasizing social media makes me rather pessimistic, because social media values don't align with meaningful, thought provoking, and educational content. Reading and synthesizing  your own thoughts requires focus, isolation, and an area free from distraction. In a world where influence measured by seeing who can gather the most followers (Justin Beiber sigh) and who can scream the loudest, the carefully crafted essays get drowned out or glossed over in favor of snappier and more "exciting" content. We don't value both sides of the argument. We never spend enough time in the same place to think critically or explore different approaches to the same question.

Now, at the 11th hour, no one was prepared to have to fill this role. RSS is no longer sexy, it can't be monetized easily, and yet so many of us will find it very hard to imagine life without it. Most worryingly, I don't think Google is ready either (barring some huge unannounced G+ feature launch tomorrow morning). Google Plus remains a mess (I genuinely try and try again to use it), and when I look at the Pages that my news sources own, they're neglected and devoid of their content feeds. Some will move on to the latest "new" thing, but others will be stranded in less than ideal RSS territory. I hope us refugees will find a proper new RSS home as soon as possible.