Why We Mourn Google Reader - And Why It Matters

Websites get shut down all the time. Sometimes, nobody notices. Other times, what remains of the service's community lets out one last collective cry of disapproval and then moves on with their collective lives. Last night, a certain segment of the Web's population went into a hysterical fit of rage as Google announced it was shuttering Reader, its eight-year old RSS feed reading service. 

I have to admit, I was pretty upset as well, even though I knew this day was coming since Google started lopping off the otherwise-neglected Reader's most-useful functionality in 2011. Like a lot of people, I use Google Reader constantly. It helps me do my job in a way that no purported alternative has managed to.    

(See also: Sudden Site Shutdowns And The Perils Of Living Our Lives Online.)

Reader may not have been a billion-dollar business for Google, but for the dedicated community of users addictively affixed to it everyday, Google Reader was a mainstay in our browser tabs. Like email, Twitter and a select few favorite sites, Reader stayed open all day. On July 1, it will close forever.

Ouch, Google. This One's Personal. 

Google Reader felt very personal to its users. Lots of people have spent substantial amounts of time everyday with Google Reader for many years, having hand-curated our feeds to reflect our news diets, tastes and interests. Many hardcore users can boast hundreds of thousands of read items. 

When people use a Web-based service so heavily for so many years, they take its presence for granted. Of course Google Reader is there. When we open a new tab and tell our browsers to go there, the interface will load and there will be new things to read. It doesn't even cross our minds (even if it should) that Reader will one day disappear. We don't think about the contents of these browser tabs from a CEO's perspective. We're just users. Over time, the places we go on the Internet almost start to feel as much a part of our environment as our physical surroundings. 

That's why, when faced with the prospect of such a service going away, people freak out. For those who rely on it the most, especially for professional purposes, the feeling is especially unsettling. 

RSS Isn't Just For Tech People

Drew Olanoff wrote a smart post about the failure of RSS to gain widespread adoption, thus cementing Reader's place in the graveyard of Web services. He's got a point. RSS is not something I could easily explain to my mother. Over the years, I've had the "Oh, do you know about Google Reader?" conversation with many people, to whom I then evangelized about the usefulness of RSS and subscribing to feeds. Most of them never showed up in my "Friends" list on Reader. It just wasn't for them. 

But it's not just for tech enthusiasts, either. This is the first time a service has shut down and I've received tweets, texts and emails from friends freaking out, wondering what they're going to do. These are not Hacker News-reading uber-geeks or even people who follow technology news much at all. They're journalists, bloggers, scientists, artists and people who prefer to follow local news and blogs via feeds. It's a nerdy set, yes, but most of this particular sample of people don't care all that much about tech. Yet I've never seen them so upset. 

Those same people are now scrambling for an alternative service. None of them, incidentally, are using Google+. At all. 

No Business Model? Google Never Gave It A Chance

Google brought in $50 billion last year. I don't know how much it costs to run Google Reader (which I'm sure is not trivial), but how much of a dent could its continued operation possibly have been making in Google's bottom line? 

More importantly, why did Google never even try to make make money from those hyper-attentive eyeballs? Immediately after the shutdown was announced, Dave Winer chastised Google Reader users by saying "Next time, please pay a fair price for the services you depend on." 

The thing is, Reader users were never asked to "pay a fair price." The service was as free as the rest of Google's many consumer products and I, for one never saw even the tiniest, most subtle advertisement appear.  Indeed, as Reader creator Chris Wetherell told Om Malik,  “Monetization abilities were never tried” within Reader, which reportedly "never went past the experimental phase" and didn't have much support within the company. 

That's too bad. Google makes most of its money from understanding its users intent and interests. Its search algorithm does a remarkable job at ascertaining those things, but each query requires some degree of guesswork. Reader users were explicitly declaring the things they were interested in, through subscribing to feeds, clicking headlines, sharing content and tapping the star button. We were just handing it data, all day long. Of course, the revenue potential would only grow as Google put more effort into iterating and marketing Reader, which it scarcely did. Along the way, it could have offered targeted perks to publishers, many of whom would gladly pay for any chance to stand out in a crowded online news ecosystem.

If it had been steadily improved and monetized, Google Reader could have been a pretty valuable service. Instead, it was ignored. You can't blame its users for that.  

Can We Trust Google?  

There's something unnerving about a service you use every day disappearing, even if the decision has perfectly sound business rationale behind it. It reminds us that the Web isn't ours and that the existence of these products is totally dependent on the whim of some corporation, which can pull the plug at any time. We have no say in the matter.

Shutdowns like this force people to reevaluate their relationship with their favorite places on the Web. It makes those relationships feel less secure. And as Techdirt wisely points out, it should make us all wary of relying to heavily on a single provider for our online existence. 

It makes us wonder: if five years down the road Google decides that Gmail isn't making enough money, will they kill that too? Probably not. What about Google Calendar? What will be on the "spring cleaning" list in 2017? We have no way of knowing.  

User trust is an incredibly important commodity for Google. They need it if we're going to let them track our browsing habits and host our email. And they're certainly going to need it if we're going to let them drive our cars and build computers to wear on our faces. 

Things like this make Google look less humane, less compassionate. It might not have been huge, but there was a very dedicated community of users on Google Reader. Shutting the lights out on all those people, even if they do have viable alternatives, just makes it feel like Google doesn't give a damn. It seems arrogant. 

The Bright Side To Google Reader's Death 

There are plenty of other reasons for the Google Reader shutdown outrage. For many publishers, it drives far more traffic than Google+, the social network Google desperately wants normal people to use. It could even make life harder for Iranians, who use it to bypass government censorship.  A big part of the reason Reader has that advantage is because it lives on Google's servers, which are harder to censor (although it does happen). 

But once the blind fury and tears of agony subside, most level-headed users will be able to see the upside here. As Marco Arment points out, the death of Reader is going to lead to innovation in a space that hasn't seen it in years. 

In fact, we're likely to end up with products that are even better than Google Reader, which was clearly being neglected for a long time. In the meantime, players like Feedly, Flipboard and Reeder are promising not to let the death of Reader won't mean the end of feed-reading within those services. Feedly, in particular, is building a Google Reader clone that promises to replace the original seamlessly. 

Whatever crops up may not have the advantage of living on Google's massive and speedy infrastructure, but we're likely to get some well-designed, highly functional apps with which to fill Reader's void. They just better have an export button.