A lot of people use Google Reader as their primary RSS feed reader, so you’d think its social features would be extremely popular. But they’re really kind of lame, and extremely underpowered. And Google knows this, that’s why it’s continually shifting the way it presents the social elements. The latest change today allows users to more easily find and share with friends of friends. That is to say, if you have a friend sharing an item with you, and another one of their friends comments on it, you can now get access to that friend.
This idea isn’t really anything new, in fact, FriendFeed (aka the primary source of Facebook’s innovations these days), has been doing something similar for a couple of years now. The reason for doing this is obvious: If you don’t have a lot of friends on a service, the friend of a friend element pipes more content into your stream to make things more active, and thus, more appealing to use. But FriendFeed is doing this much better than Google Reader is, so far.
Trying the new functionality out, it seems a bit weird that I would be asked if I want to share my updates with a certain person who I probably don’t know. Instead, wouldn’t it be better to have the option to see their updates? Of course, Google Reader doesn’t work that way. Following its snafus when it first ventured into social sharing, the company made it awfully hard to share stuff. So whereas you can subscribe to anyone on FriendFeed (at least anyone that has an open feed, just like on Twitter), to see items on Google Reader, they have to share stuff with you. The problem with this is that most people don’t care to take the time to explicitly set their sharing settings to include all those people that may want to be included.
And there’s another problem with Google Reader’s social aspirations. The product from a sharing standpoint is extremely clunky. Sharing is tucked away in its own drop down menu, something which I routinely find is just about my last item to visit (and is normally relegated under the “Mark all as read” umbrella). The problem here is that all of my individual friends’ names are listed below the “Friends’ shared items” banner, so I keep it minimized to avoid clutter. I also keep it minimized because rarely do my friends ever comment on items. And if they do happen to, it’s even rarer that another person will comment as well, giving you — get this — a conversation. That’s something that FriendFeed does extremely well. Google Reader? Not so much.
It was smart of Google to tie the Google Reader profile into the newly emphasized Google Profiles — this is something we’re going to see more of across all its properties, no doubt. But what Google Reader really needs is some way to spur social usage. It needs either a main page where the most shared/most talked about items are listed, that gives you a rundown of who shared what. It sort of has a recommended area, with its “cool” feed, which shares popular items across the Google Reader ecosystem, but that’s far from social.
Or maybe it should add a list comments you leave on shared items to your main Google Profile. This would be a micro-blog of sorts with your take on stories. Of course, that would require that you allow anyone to see your shared items, which is something, again, you cannot do within Google Reader. But oddly, you can see others’ shared items if you know their public Shared Item page URL (which is a bunch of ugly numbers and letters and should be turned into their Google Profile name as well, if Google is going to go in that direction). It’s really quite a confusing mess.
As I noted, a ton of people use Google Reader as a primary way to go through items on the web. It seems natural that this would be a powerful social tool as well, but Google has effectively made it one of the most closed social networks around. It’s closed and its clunky. That just reeks of inactivity.