Goodbye to Google Reader and to the shame of unread RSS items

I’m sure you’ve heard the news by now — Google Reader will be retired in July. Many are (justifiably) upset, but RSS reading has always demanded something more frictionless and less e-mail like. I never successfully integrated Google Reader (or any other newsreading app) into my day-to-day routine, rather relying on aggregators like Techmeme and Memeorandum for tech and political news, respectively. To me, Google Reader was Just Another Thing to Check which held an unread count over my head.

Twitter beat raw RSS for news because it is frictionless and a consistent experience: you can easily show someone how to follow a Twitter user with a consistent series of steps across browsers and devices. There’s no unread count and thus no impetus to make sure everything is read; you never hear of someone declaring Twitter Bankruptcy and that’s a great thing. The way Twitter works right now is great, because if it’s something important enough for you to read, chances are good the people you follow will surface it several times. (By the same token, I am gravely concerned that Twitter is moving toward a Facebook-like solution where it surfaces posts based on quality scores rather than raw feeds. If this happens, I’m back looking for alternatives.)

Subscribing to raw RSS always required several steps depending on the browser and reader you used. This isn’t a problem for power users, but I completely see how raw RSS was confusing and off-putting to most people — it took real effort to get everything set up in a consistent manner. I think Firefox had the best solution for RSS: Live Bookmarks, where the RSS feed is brought in among the rest of your bookmarks and updated periodically. This is how I used RSS feeds almost exclusively in its glory days pre-Twitter. It was very straightforward and integrated with my workflow better than adding another software package ever did.

This is not an indictment against RSS. RSS is a fantastic format, is NOT dead, and with the right packaging works extremely well. Flipboard is one example (though I don’t even use that all that much, to be honest). A lot of Twitter publishers still rely on tools such as Twitterfeed to take the RSS feed their site publishes and get it over to Twitter. I hope Google Reader being discontinued does not make people think twice about publishing a feed — it is still by far the most useful way to syndicate content (and people will always use readers, but that will continue to be a niche product).

At the end of the day, the writing was on the wall for Google Reader in every release of Google Chrome, which one would think would be the most obvious avenue for driving new Reader users. Instead, you get a document tree of the RSS’s raw XML output. How…inviting.

Google Chrome's default RSS view.

Google Chrome’s default RSS view.

I’m not sure where a lot of people would be without Google Reader, and I am sure glad I’m no longer in an industry that still heavily relies on tools like that to drive value, but even during my time at ReadWriteWeb the tide was definitely turning in Twitter and other social services’ favor. Google Reader’s shutdown is the most obvious sign of this yet. The implications for the open Web is a topic for another day, though.