Last week, Google announced an impending update to its neglected online RSS reader, Google Reader. The service is soon getting a cosmetic overhaul and will see its current social features removed in favor of deeper integration with Google+. Although many TechCrunch commenters lamented alongside me about the forthcoming disappearance of our favorite “human curators,” when I asked the same question on Google+, the outcome was decidedly different: no one really cares.
Except, it appears, Iranians. According to a blog post now making its way around the Web, Google Reader served the Iranian community as a way to get uncensored, unfiltered news outside of government control. And now, that may be over.
As explained by Amir on Amirhm.com, Google Reader is not a separate domain (i.e., it’s available at http://www.google.com/reader) and it’s available behind a secure URL beginning https. This setup makes it hard for the government to directly block and filter Reader, even though many other social services, including Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, YouTube, Tumblr, Flickr and Picasa, are routinely banned in Iran, a country that’s ranked as the world’s worst oppressor of online freedoms.
In Iran, Reader is able to serve as a hidden social outlet. It even has super-users like activist VahidOnline, a user with more than 7500 followers. These folks help share and spread news through Reader with posts that become online discussion boards for a network of Iranian users.
Even though my simple question about Google Reader’s soon-to-be-removed social features got a big “who cares?” on Google+, if you look in the right places, you’ll see Iranians begging Google to reconsider (oddly, also on Google+, which has apparently not yet been shut down there.)
Some users are even going so far as to accuse Google of cooperating with Iranian governmental censors, given this move. That’s not likely to be the case – Google is just leveraging its online services to further promote Google+. But when you’re a company as big as Google, even minor changes like this can have large, even devastating, impacts in niche communities. In this case, a community that has very few social options left.
For what it’s worth, Brett Keller has created a petition to save the social features in Google Reader. It has over 4,000 signatures. That won’t be enough to get Google to reconsider Reader’s changes, we’d wager. After all, Google’s social future is wrapped up in Google+, for better or – in Iran’s case, at least – for worse.