By Rob Walker
Count me among those who are saddened, irritated, but not terribly surprised that Google yesterday announced it would shutter its RSS reader. I’m equally unsurprised by the vociferous outrage in certain quarters about the decision: It’s animating the top thread in Reddit’s tech section and trending on Twitter (where not everyone is being civilized), and someone has launched a petition, KeepGoogleReader.com. Mashable also points out this concise response to the announcement.
But I assume plenty of people are surprised. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, RSS has never really been a mainstream thing. One news-tech enthusiast I know told me he assumed that in the social media era only “losers” use RSS. I tried not to take this personally.
Briefly, if you’re among those who don’t know what this is all about: Google Reader lets users collect the RSS feeds from blogs and other online publications, in some cases narrowed down to a particular section or even writer, so you can read (or skim and decide not to read) a huge amount of material at your convenience, across multiple devices. This is particularly useful to anyone who tracks many news sources, including smaller (but awesome) blogs that might not post often and the content of which is unlikely to go viral.
People like me, who wish to keep an eye on hundreds of sources, on my own schedule and without worrying about whether my “social network” is feeding me everything likely to interest me, depend on it. Thus The New York Times media columnist David Carr’s lament: They are "shutting down my jam.” And as Tyler Cowen points out in his post seeking advice for a replacement reader, this could have negative implications for certain blogs and bloggers who have built important audiences via RSS.
RSS fans, then, are a devoted (and I suspect highly influential) cult—but still a cult, and Google is not in the cult business. The company says that Reader use was declining, and in any case it’s clearly more focused on the potential scale of its Google+ social network efforts.
Along with wailing and gnashing of teeth, the short-term response is a scramble for Reader cultists to find a suitable replacement. There seems to be no consensus on this yet, but to me the most promising alternative sounds like it might be Feedly.com. Certainly Feedly has been rather cunning in its response to the news, moving swiftly to explicitly position itself as the easiest place to transport a Reader account, and could be a big winner from all this if its product is solid. I’ll report back on that.
The pessimistic take on this involves recognizing a sad irony: When the Web came along, its great appeal was freeing us from a certain variety of mass-media tyranny, creating a new landscape where hardcore niche enthusiasts did not have to see their favorite content wholly dependent on huge companies that would only pursue enormous markets. But there’s an optimistic take, too. Yes, a handful of huge companies now shape Web culture in ways that might have seemed unimaginable a few years ago. But they don’t control it in the way that, say, networks controlled television in the broadcast era. Clearly there is demand for a great RSS reader. And I’m going to go along with Marco Arment’s take: Someone will meet that demand. “It may suck in the interim before great alternatives mature and become widely supported,” he writes, “but in the long run, trust me: This is excellent news.”
By Rob Walker