a new tablet app that launched today. It makes reading of syndicated web content easier, faster and more enjoyable than almost any other interface you can imagine. It's like Flipboard but for RSS feeds. People are going to love it. That's the nice way to describe it.Google Currents is
You could also call it the sterilization of the social web. Just like today's new Twitter redesign it makes things nice and pretty for non-technical users. Google Currents is infinitely friendlier and more accessible than any RSS reader, even Google's own Reader. Unfortunately, in the current application that ease of use comes at a great cost: Google Currents does away with many of the best parts of the social web. It sings a catchy tune, but there's far less life inside the experience. It's not just a bummer, either - it's a threat to what's great about blogging.
Back in the good old days, when you were reading a blog, it would often link to one or more other blogs that made a good point or had published a good article. You could click over to that new blog and check it out. If you liked what you'd just discovered, and you weren't scared of orange icons, you could subscribe to receive every new article that new blog ever published in an inbox called an RSS reader. It was like magic - your universe could be exploded with new people and sources of information.
Google Currents doesn't let you do that. If you've got a Google Reader account from the hard old days you can add one subscription at a time to Currents, but if you discover something new out on the web at large, clicking the RSS icon does nothing. It's like an empty smile - not a portal into a world of potential learning and fun, just a dead link. It's a violation of an important universal law to kill an RSS link, but that's what Google Currents has done. Those feeds, promises of new relationships easily entered into so easily, were awfully messy anyway weren't they? Surely you'd prefer one of the recommended feeds within the safe confines of the Currents interface.
Those untamed pioneers who subscribed to RSS feeds in a feed reader (and shaved their face with a wagon wheel) sometimes swam in what was called a river of news. A River of News is a beautiful thing. Let's say you were reading the fabulous group blog on humanities Crooked Timber (one of my early favorite blogs and still going strong!) and you looked at the sidebar of the page. There you'd find what was called a Blogroll, where bloggers would link freely to other blogs that they liked. There is no place for such frivolity in Google Currents, of course, you will read the stripped down primary content and nothing else.
You cannot do that in Google Currents.
Maybe in your feed reader you'd put all those Humanities blogs in a folder titled "Humanities." Maybe you'd click around and discover other blogs about finance, Argentina, old movies, new movies, fast cars, loud-talking women - whatever the case was, one blog would link to another blog and another and you could, with a click, fill up your universe with birds of many feathers.
Then you could open up your feed reader and say "Universe! Show me the latest deep thoughts from the world of finance! From my favorite sources on Argentina! From five loud-talking women I've never met but have grown to love because I never fail to receive their latest blog posts inside my precious feed reader!"
Maybe that day you'd meet a new one and you'd subscribe.
Then one day you'd read an article inside a feed that made you want to post a comment. You'd click through to the web page and you'd pour out your thoughts and feelings. And you'd read the considered perspectives of other people from all around the world who posted comments.
Not in Google Currents you don't. At least when reading the approved sources (called "Editions") you cannot click through to the websites the articles have come from. You cannot read comments, you cannot post comments, you can only swipe fruitlessly at your iPad wishing you could find a place to engage in the community that is a blog but instead finding that another discussion-free article from the same source has slid into your field of vision. You might feel disoriented, you might feel alone, you might feel like someone who grew up in a broadcast media world who once was no longer rendered silent and alone but who now is so again. You might cry a little, or start to scream for help. (I wouldn't blame you.)
You might try to bookmark an article with Delicious, but you cannot. There is only Pinboard. You might see the section titled "User Generated" and run there with high hopes. But you'll find that it's just a bunch of professionally produced video content posted to a site cynically named "You Tube."
Back in the old days, all that clicking around, free subscribing, commenting and reading comments - that was the stuff that gave new little blogs a reason to live. You could have ten readers and if they posted comments and new people came around sometimes and sometimes stayed - that is like the breath of life for new bloggers. Take that away from them and just put the best big blogs in a pretty box and what have you got? The death of blogging is what you've got. You've got some bloggers like me today who will have thousands of silent readers enjoying this blog on their iPads - but you won't have as many bloggers like me 7 years ago, finding my first small communities online in the network of independent blogs and their comments. That means fewer voices, less diversity, less discourse and democracy, less vigorous debate, less defense of and dignity for the formerly voiceless.
It's not all bad, of course. When you look at a trending topic there is an "About" tab, offering up expository content about current events. It's a much friendlier way to read content than RSS readers, which for some sad reason scared away most of the world.
I've got some respect for Justin Bieber - I watched his movie in 3D and learned that he's a seriously talented musician. When someone dulls their capabilities in order to reach a larger audience, though, you have to wonder what that means for the message that could have been communicated by full-throated exploration of what's really possible.
It is awfully clean looking though, isn't it?
Disclosure: ReadWriteWeb is one of many launch partners of Google Currents.