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No, I Don’t Miss Google Reader

I have said this before a number of times, but let me repeat it on the blog explicitly as well: I’m not missing Google Reader despite having been a very active user of it back in the days, and being a blogger for 20 years now.

But maybe I should give a bit more context on what I’m talking about, since Google Reader was shut down over ten years ago by now, and a lot of people who might be reading this post have never heard of it or used it directly. Google Reader was a feed reader: a service where you would put the address of a website (more often than not a blog), and it would regularly fetch a defined document from that site that contained either the updated content of the site or at least a pointer to that. It would then show you a list of links form that site keeping track of which one you already saw, read, or clicked through.

If you have been around you may notice I ‘m not calling them “RSS feeds” — that’s because there’s been multiple implementations of feeds in the past, and while RSS was the first widespread one and is still the most widespread one, we have had at least two big containers: Atom, back in the days, and JSON Feed in the last few years. They all effectively fit the same use case, so I’m not going to bother discussing them separately.

At any rate, Google Reader was, for many, their first and possibly only feed reader. For me it wasn’t, having started with Akregator, and using NewsBlur currently, which might be the reason why I don’t feel so attached to Reader in the fist place: for me it was a stepping stone away from desktop software into a modern world of web services (for better and worse) and mobile (which Google Reader had always been terrible on.) If anyone is going to tell you that Reader was the best feed reader, they are mistaken, or maybe they haven’t really tried any other contender seriously.

Google had shut Reader down in 2013, eight years since it was launched (which means that by now, Google Reader has been shut down longer than it had been running.) The announcement came after I signed my offer with them, and before I started working there — I felt a bit uncomfortable at the time, but I have since accepted that it had to be. At that point, ever since Google+ was released, Reader felt the odd service out, as it lost the ability to share stories with your contacts in favour of sharing them on Google+ (which has also shut down in the meantime), and had never gained a half-decent Android app.

While I had to be forced to look at alternatives, finding NewsBlur felt like a saviour to me. And for what it’s worth, I migrated my list of subscriptions in OPML format to NewsBlur and still have most of those subscriptions active today and still add them on a quarter by quarter basis. NewsBlur does not seem to be getting any significant improvement or facelift, but to be honest it’s a service that just works right now, and I can see why Samuel Clay doesn’t do anything else yet (okay I wouldn’t mind a Blurblog-to-Fediverse bridge, but that’s a nice-to-have.)

But my reason to want to yell I don’t miss Google Reader has very little to do with NewsBlur or with the way Reader was one of many mediocre products, and all to do with how, in certain cliques, it seems to be extremely fashionable to, time and time again, go and announce that one misses Google Reader, or say that after Google Reader was shut down everything started falling apart, or even suggest that the world being the hellish landscape it is is all due to Reader being shut down.

The reason why I really disagree with these takes is that the shutdown of Google Reader really didn’t impact that many people. While I can’t obviously share the numbers I know of from when I was working at Google, I can at least say that there were many fewer active users of Google Reader than people think there were. Those who were active users, and felt the need to continue following blogs and other sites, have found alternative services, including but not limited to the aforementioned NewsBlur. Many didn’t care enough, they didn’t want the service, they just took it because Google was offering it free of charge and with no friction (no small feat!) but would be just as happy without — the remaining, those who just repeat how they “miss” Google Reader, sound (for the most part) full of themselves to me.

The impression I get is that there’s a number of people who will gladly repeat how they miss Google Reader because they either want to share a sense of belonging, or want to remind their followers that They Have Been There A Long Time — they’ve been online when Reader was a thing. And this misplaced nostalgia seems to be quite fashionable still, nowadays, even with the crowd that would resent being labeled as “conservatives” in the way I usually refer to people who believe that the apex of civilization was MS-DOS. It is not very different from those who feel like they miss Usenet, or those who will keep bringing up Eternal September even when they grew up in countries where Internet access was not a prerogative of academic institutions.

I have used hedging words above, trying not to paint the whole involved groups with a single brush, in particular because I feel there is another group, that cuts transversally through the cohorts I already indicated: Googlers and Xooglers, particularly those who worked in Google before the shutdown. For them, remembering Reader is not just about the feeds, but it is about remembering the company the way it was before then.

Google Reader was shut down in what the Official Google Blog called “second spring cleaning“, and while it wasn’t the first full-fledged product being shut down, the only one other significant entry in the first cleaning over a year before was Google Desktop… which as far as I know never really gained any traction (I am not privy to any private numbers on its usage, just going by public discussions.) And while Google Wave was shut down even earlier than that, it existed for just over a year, before ending up in the limbo that is the Apache Software Foundation.

Shutting down Google Reader felt like betrayal, particularly as many engineers working at the company have been users of the service and would probably have rather spent their 20% maintaining it, rather than seeing it shut down! The business decision of dropping an internally beloved product in the face of costs with no matching revenue can be considered a watershed moment for Google’s engineering culture.

And there is a kernel of truth that even on the outside this was a somewhat defining moment. Google shut down a service that they offered for free for eight years because they couldn’t monetize it or integrate it in what at the time appeared to be the company’s sole priority (Google+.) They had done it before, but if you look at the spring cleaning lists, most of the dropped features had been specific APIs, or services provided by various companies that had been acquired over the years. It was effectively what made Killed By Google a meme.

Would the world have been a better place if Google still provided a basic free feed reader for everyone? I honestly don’t believe so. As I said before, there is no lack of alternatives to Reader, but the ecosystem of blog writing software is dying. And not because RSS feeds no longer exist – as I said earlier, most of the subscriptions that came out of my OPML feed are still active! – but rather because RSS feeds only satisfy one half of the equation in the writer/reader balance.

What appears to be working, at least for the time being, better than blogs and feed readers is newsletters. You only need an email address! The writer gets to choose their workflow, but you get to choose your consumption method. Technically speaking, the writer doesn’t even need to keep running a server, because the content is sent directly to the readers. The writers get to know how many subscribers they have (how many do I have on this blog? I don’t know!) and they can decide whether the non-subscribers can read their content or not.

Newsletter-publishing services have also provided an easy way to set up paywalls, which for certain type of writing is a significant improvement — I don’t like it, but admittedly the alternatives sucked. And even in that case most of them still also provide an RSS feed (did you know you can just add a Substack site to your feed reader? If it’s paywalled you will be told to go on the website to read, but you can still get the notifications!)

So yeah, I don’t miss Google Reader, because it did not shape the way I consume (or produce) writings: I cared enough about feed readers to pay the $40-ish a year that NewsBlur costs, and I still use it daily. I don’t believe things were better when we had Google Reader. I don’t believe that going back to 2005 would make a significant improvement to most people’s wellbeing either, despite the way things look right now.

Comments 4
  1. My reason to miss Reader was not the product per se, which as you say has dign successors. It was the community that it built, in my case of student colleagues sharing interesting (long) reads between us, that I think still hasn’t replicated since. Part is surely that blogging, or long format, is indeed dying.

    I do believe Google had stumbled onto something there and let it go without fully realizing its potential. Perhaps it was a minority niche indeed.

  2. I do miss it but Freely filled the gap for me. It did make me loose trust in Google though, I won’t be an “early adopter” with them, because I know they’ll just drop anything that isn’t working out for them – like their failed gaming service or whatever their chat services are called this week

  3. I never even used Google Reader. To hear it venerated among the nerd set, I often wondered what I was missing.

    I’ve moved through a few RSS solutions through the years. These days, I am partial to a self-hosted FreshRSS instance.

    1. I tried it when it was new. I didn’t open it for a while since I was already using a better feed reader anyway, and when I opened it again sometime later everything older than 30 days had disappeared. I definitely never opened it after that.

      The specter of the disconnect between what I’m looking for and this strangely loss-focused functionality haunts me to this day, in that it pervades the Google Reader inspired feed readers. To me the very raison d’être of something non-local is that it doesn’t miss things while you’re away for a week, and that you can read it from another device to boot.

      I suspect it may have something to do with whether you use it subscribe to very chatty feeds like the BBC or to the one we’re reading right now. I’m clearly in the latter camp. I do have some websites I visit nearly every day but I hardly need newsfeeds for those to keep apprised.

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