I have used Google Reader as my source for RSS feeds since adopting Chrome as my main browser four years ago. The reasoning was simple: Chrome, unlike IE and Firefox, didn’t have a built-in RSS reader, and it made sense to use Google’s own service for the purpose.
Today, Google announced that I won’t be able to use Google Reader after July 1. The Internet has reacted as though it were the coming of the Mayan apocalypse. But honestly, I’m not that broken up about it; if anything, I miss the ability to nest folders I had in IE and Firefox, and I’ve complained in the past about Reader’s idiosyncrasies like setting viewing order by feed but viewing of read items globally, when the two are inextricably linked.
Why are people so worked up about Reader? Part of it appears to be that Reader was a social RSS reader, one that allowed users to share feeds and articles, and discover feeds they might enjoy based on what others are following. Google has since moved most of Reader’s social functions to Google+, and theoretically they could have integrated Reader into Google+ pretty easily, potentially gaining a big leg up over at least Facebook in the social media wars – though the lukewarm reaction to the social-function shutdown suggests it wouldn’t have been a sure thing. But Google may not have ever really known what they had with Reader, only that its team knew social and thus were a valuable resource to help them build their more explicit social pursuits. Another reason is Reader’s sheer simplicity and no-frills approach, but it’s hard to get more no-frills than IE’s RSS reader.
On the other hand, Google’s stated reason for shutting down Reader – the declining usage of the service – has introduced me to the notion that RSS is obsolete in the age of Twitter. It’s true that I’ve removed several feeds from Reader when the same feeds became available in Twitter form, if the rest of what was on the relevant tweeters was sufficiently interesting to me. But there’s quite a few where I did not and don’t expect to anytime soon. Twitter lacks nuance: if you follow someone, you’re subjected to every little thing they post on there, even if they’re the dreaded “what I’m having for breakfast” tweeters. I can’t imagine myself following more than 20 or so people on Twitter, and I’m very suspicious of people who claim to follow hundreds or thousands of accounts, or feel the need to follow everyone who follows them as though Twitter were just like Facebook. (More on this later this year.) I’ve actually added RSS feeds that weren’t even linked to by knowing the URL structure of popular blogging providers, because I only wanted to follow certain categories of a blog.
Ironically, another big leg up RSS has over Twitter is something the lack of which some people have cited as one of their favorite parts of Reader: the ability to read articles without clicking a link. Not all web sites do this, which is understandable in an age where hits are king and advertising revenue must be maximized, but I find it incredibly useful to read content from several different web sites, one at a time, without leaving a given page, only clicking through if I felt the need to leave a comment or save a page for later. As it stands, this is impossible on Twitter, and I suspect it’s a big key to the popularity of Tumblr, which could best be described as a “social blogging” platform, or Twitter without the character limit.
RSS might eventually become obsolete, but it’s going to take a number of advances in other areas to replace it entirely. On a note more related than you might think, I guess this means I’m setting July 1 as a target date to get a new computer (you wouldn’t believe the problems this one has developed) so I can move my RSS feeds to a Windows 8 app. More on both of these next week.