This isn’t the end of the road for web feed users. Services such as NewsBlur and The Old Reader still exist and there are ways to move your information across. Some have even suggested that this is a positive development, ending Google Reader’s dominance of the web feed aggregator field, and allowing a new wave of innovation and competition to occur.
My assessment of the situation is rather less sanguine. Whether or not new services rise up to replace Google Reader or not, the closure of Reader is a troubling straw in the wind, highlighting ongoing changes in the way that we read things online.
As this blog is typically devoted to the discussion of theological matters, it may surprise people that I am commenting on such an issue. I have discussed issues relating to social media from a theological perspective in the past, although this post is far more specific in its focus. As someone who believes that the forms of our reading, writing, and discourse are of great importance, and that the integrity of our thought and communication, especially on matters relating to Christian faith and thought, can be compromised by inappropriate forms, my interest in and concern with such developments goes beyond my longstanding appreciation of Google Reader’s service.
So, before proceeding, what exactly is the purpose of a service such as Google Reader? The principal purpose is that of enabling you to gather all of your major web reading together in a single place, without the need to visit sites individually. Once you have subscribed to a web feed for one of the sites that you read on Google Reader, you no longer need to visit it, unless you want to leave a comment. Doing this, one can easily follow dozens of blogs and websites simultaneously, without having to take the time to visit each blog or site: instead, everything comes to you. The amount of time that this saves is considerable.
I originally used Bloglines, but even before that closed, I had switched over completely to Google Reader. At one time I was following almost 500 blogs simultaneously, something that would have been absolutely impossible prior to the web feed aggregator, when visiting each site individually was so costly in time that one could seldom follow more than a dozen sites closely at a time. Nowadays, being busier, I only follow about one hundred blogs and websites, but the great benefits remain the same.
Given the effectiveness of Google Reader, why is it closing? Robert Scoble makes the following remarks:
What killed this? Flipboard and Facebook for me. Prismatic too. The trend line was there: we are moving our reading behavior onto the social web. Normal people didn’t take to subscribing to RSS feeds. Heck, it’s hard enough to get them to subscribe to tweet feeds.
But this is sad. Particularly shows the open web continues to be under attack. We have to come into the walled gardens of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn to read and share. Here’s a problem: a few of my friends have deleted their Facebook accounts. Dave Winer and Ryan Block, to name two famous examples.
So they will never see my words here. The open web is going away and this is another example of how.
In short, services like Google Reader increasingly belong to a past age of the Internet. The social web is the future and the place where we now ‘consume’ our information. While the gap that Google Reader leaves may well be plugged by other services, the departure of Google Reader from this area is a sign of a steady shift in Internet culture away the sort of relationship with information that such a web feed aggregator represents.
And what is this particular relationship with information? A non-social, private, and individual one. My lament for the slow passing of this relationship with information arises from my conviction that this is often a much healthier relationship with information than the typical alternatives. The larger quantity of material that Google Reader enables me to read may be its primary purpose, but it is only one of its benefits and perhaps not even its greatest. It is the way that Google Reader allows me to read that I most appreciate.
When I want to read offline, I seek out a private, quiet place, where I can be alone, where signals of the passing of time are muted, and where my mind can be clear. Google Reader is my equivalent place online. On Google Reader I can take my time over reading. I can order feeds where those that require slow and reflective reading – the equivalent of a main course of a meal – are placed in particular folders, while other fast-moving feeds that are for occasional snacking and grazing are placed in others. I can leave things unread and return to them at a later point, sometimes days later.
No one sees what I read on Google Reader, so I can read incredibly widely, without fear of anyone presuming that this implies agreement. I just like to read smart people who disagree with me. No one is looking over my shoulder, so I am free to come to my own opinions, in my own time. Or not to come to opinions on some things at all. On Google Reader I am more anonymous and my reading habits will not be tracked by anyone in the same way. Google Reader has a very simple layout, without the distracting ‘noise’ of the colourful, ad-ridden, and distraction-filled social networks. This makes it easier to think.
On Google Reader, I can read things without the clamouring reactions of other readers asphyxiating the texts. One of the problems with the social web is that texts are almost always embedded in or surrounded by shallow reactions to them and often push readers for such reactions. I don’t ‘like’, ‘+1’, ‘up-vote’, or ‘down-vote’ anything on Google Reader. I don’t perform my reading for an audience. Nor does my reading conclude with an invitation to cast a cheap and fairly mindless vote of approbation or disapprobation. Instead, I can chew things over, reflect upon their ideas, interpret them critically, and arrive at a nuanced and multifaceted judgment that does not have to be distilled into the binary form of an impressionistic reaction.
On Google Reader, I don’t see other people’s comments and know nothing of the reaction of other readers, which makes it much easier to arrive at a thoughtful and balanced assessment of my own, one which is unswayed by and independent of other readers. On Google Reader, the texts that I read are not embedded in social relationships in the same way. I do not see my friends’ recommendations, shares, or ‘likes’, relieving a lot of the peer pressure that surrounds our thinking and reading online. On Google Reader it is much easier to read and to think at my own pace, without being driven by the onward flow of my Twitter, Google+, or Facebook timeline, stream, or newsfeed.
Reading patterns on the social web are especially determined by popularity, by levels of likes and shares. However, levels of likes and shares are powerfully determined by the material’s ability to evoke an elevated emotional response. The material that dominates in the social web is material that makes a strong emotional impression, whether one of outrage, excitement, ‘squee’, shock, inspiration, etc. Unfortunately, writing that demands careful and thoughtful engagement will typically struggle to operate in such a reading environment, whereas non-social reading environments produce very different dynamics. I have consistently observed this pattern with my own blog: anything controversial or creating an emotional impression has a good chance of being widely shared, but if I post a much more thoughtful post on an issue that doesn’t provoke an emotional response, the sharing is minimal. I’ll let you into a secret: the committed readers who don’t just read the posts leaving an emotional impression get the best of me.
The social web can also tend towards creating an echo chamber for our reading. Material that challenges our preconceptions and which forces us to think unpopular thoughts will be suppressed on the social web, as sharing such things doesn’t win you friends. Even when not suppressed, it will be surrounded by such a maelstrom of outrage that its voice of challenge will no longer be heard. Peer pressure becomes more integral to our thinking and reading processes.
On Google Reader, my reading is not primarily determined by whatever is making an emotional impression in the social web right now (although that will come through in certain of the feeds that I follow). Rather, I have the more difficult task of discovering and committing myself to certain reliable and thoughtful sources, sources that I will read consistently over the course of a number of years, whether they are posting material that produces a strong emotional reaction or not. Such a form of reading forces you to choose your interlocutors and sources carefully, to invest over a long period of time in the most worthy and rewarding of conversations, to get to know certain voices very well, and not to be too distracted by the latest wildfire of controversy. It encourages you to read the sort of thoughtful and challenging material that forms deep understanding, even though it may provoke little in the way of an emotional reaction.
My lament is for the loss of private and silent reading.
Private reading encourages independent thought. When you are surrounded by other people who are forming assessments about why you are reading certain things, what you think – or, more typically, feel – about them, in contexts where you are exposed to lots of external time pressures, and where your reading is powerfully determined by considerations of popularity and is embedded in personal relationships, it can prove very hard to think carefully, slowly, with concentration, and for yourself.
This blog is written for the sort of people who read privately, who think patiently, and who respond thoughtfully. For many such people, Google Reader has proved a secluded and peaceful reading room on the web for several years. I am sure that they will join me in mourning its passing and the ailing of the habits of reading that it represents.
UPDATE: Christianity Today has published a piece of mine in which I develop some of the themes raised in this post. Read it here.