We Were The (1000+). Goodbye, Google Reader

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“We launched Google Reader in 2005 in an effort to make it easy for people to discover and keep tabs on their favorite websites. While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined. So, on July 1, 2013, we will retire Google Reader.” – Google, March 2013. 

Today, Google Reader’s remaining users will “Mark All As Read” one last time. There are two schools of thought on Google’s decision to move on from its aging RSS aggregator, which was never adopted by the mainstream: one, that it’s pretty much the worst thing to ever happen to the Internet. Ever! And two: who cares?

Even though I count myself as someone who falls into that former group, it’s hard to argue against Google’s thinking in the matter. Following websites using RSS feeds is just not something the “normals” do. So an RSS reader like Google’s remained in the hands of the tech elite, the domain of the IT crowd, the programmers, the researchers, the journalists.

The rest of the world merely surfs the web, and now they just tweet.

But Google Reader was special because it was one of the last remaining places on the Internet you could really call your own. In every other way, the nature of news reading on the web these days and the social services that now dominate your attention are crafted by others who dictate what you will read and when. Whether browsing through an editorially run news site, parsing your Twitter stream or reading your Facebook news feed, the links before you are those that others have deemed important.

There’s value in this signal, of course — a sense of what’s trending in the larger world allows for serendipitous discovery. But it’s also a relinquishing of control. Oh sure, you can choose who to follow, but it’s not the same as choosing which news sources’ feeds you will subscribe to, why, and how often you will read them.

In Google Reader, I’ve gleefully stuffed websites into collections like “B-List” and “C-List” and “Can’t Miss” and “Panic Button,” instead of more proper names like “top tech sites” or “Apple bloggers.” It’s my decision which headline collections get scanned with a glance, and which writers will see me devouring their every word.

Meanwhile on Twitter, every missive is as important as the one that preceded it. A photo of your cat. News from the war. A beautiful sunset on Instagram. A government overthrown. It’s a real-time firehose of information that you dip into as you can. There’s no unread count. You just refresh and refresh and refresh for more.

Days Until Cancellation: 0

Having never caught on as a social network in its own right outside of a niche group of users, Google Reader couldn’t rival something like Twitter. The writing was on the wall for its demise when Google ripped out the social features in the product back in October 2011 in order to make room for deeper integration with Google’s newer social network Google+.

The move, essentially a big @#$% you to Reader’s small but highly engaged audience of users, may have come as a surprise to some, but with the internal thinking at Google, perhaps it was a miracle that Reader was being given any sort of development attention at all.

In the definitive recounting of Google Reader’s history here on BuzzFeed, Brian Shih, who became Reader Product Manager in fall 2008, spoke of how the team had to fight internally for what, in terms of Google’s scale, was a really, really, really small project. “Someone hung a sign in the Reader offices that said ‘DAYS SINCE LAST THREAT OF CANCELLATION.’ The number was almost always zero,” he said.

At Google, senior execs only cared about absolute user numbers, not on growth or market share.

But even though Google Reader could never compete in numbers with Gmail or other Google products, it wiped out the market of RSS competitors, while letting its 800-pound gorilla sit and rot.

Today, Google is too busy trying to change the world with self-driving cars and face computers, search engines that think for you and a balloon-powered Internet to care about Google Reader. It’s thinking of how to dominate mobile and connect the next 5 billion users to the web — lofty goals that leave no time for a silly little product from Web 2.0’s early days.

At least by shutting down Reader, Google is admitting that its stewardship in this area has failed.

Google can’t — and no longer wants to — do it all.

We’ve seen evidence of that already in the systematic shutdowns of other dated, stagnant services through Google’s “Spring Cleanings.” Google Reader was not the first, nor will it be the last, that fails to survive these cuts. Google Alerts and Feedburner are other prime candidates at this point.

Ever since Google’s announcement this spring, many new services have stepped up to help fill the void Google Reader leaves behind, but none will ever fill its shoes. None of those that now vie to become the new incumbent even have search built-in, for example. A few promise “yeah, it’s coming” but too many startups begging for a second look think that merely supporting RSS feeds makes them a Google Reader clone.

Google Reader wasn’t a list of things to read. It wasn’t a collection of RSS feeds.

It was your own, personal Google. A search engine built on top of the sites you cared about. A Google News with the stories you wanted to see. A taxonomy where you chose the labels, and drove the SEO. Google Reader was your web, your slice of the Internet.

Social media, now, is theirs.

Reader’s death isn’t the end of a product, it’s the end of an era. We have protested, bargained, begged, and cried. Now we have to accept and adapt.

Google Reader, thank you for eight great years.

Goodbye.

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