In my recent post on Google+, I wrote that:
Google’s evil plan for Google Reader seems to be working. Like most long-time Reader users, I was outraged when its social features were removed at the end of 2011, replaced with a “share on Google+” button. We all kicked and screamed and swore that it wouldn’t work, that we’d switch to another RSS reader or even build a new one… but now, more than a year later, I’m still using Reader all the time, and more and more often I find myself clicking on that share button. In this respect, Google has taken the most powerful lesson from Facebook: don’t worry about antagonizing your users with manipulative features, because once they get done complaining, 99% of them will just fall in line and do what you want. I wish it wasn’t true, but it often is. And I’m sure there are lots of other Reader users like me who are (however reluctantly) starting to fill up Google+ with shared content.
Apparently it wasn’t enough, because today Google announced that they’re shutting down Reader entirely.
Killing the social features was about Google+, but killing the rest of the product is more about the death of the RSS model in general. The conventional wisdom seems to be that it just wasn’t something users wanted:
The idea of RSS was one that never quite gripped with normal Internet users. Sure, for us geeks who absolutely love consuming as much information as possible, RSS is a wonderland. When Google launched Reader in 2005, I can remember surfing to all of my favorite sites and looking for that little RSS logo, clicking on it and subscribing to the feed. So easy, so awesome to “us,” and so not easy or awesome to anyone else on the planet.
I’ve heard many smart people try to explain RSS to normal folks, such as “turning content into television stations, allowing you to subscribe only to what you want to consume.” That one didn’t work. Neither did any other explanation, because RSS as a technology is too nerdy, too behind-the-scenes and lacked general consumer appeal. Nobody ever took RSS under its wing and “mentored” it.
I think this is the wrong narrative. The RSS model is dying because it didn’t work well with advertising. As Ryan Holiday wrote last year:
The reason subscription (and RSS) was abandoned was because in a subscription economy the users are in control. In the one-off model, the competition might be more vicious, but it is on the terms of the publisher. Having followers instead of subscribers — where readers have to check back on sites often and are barraged with a stream of refreshing content laden with ads — is much better for their bottom line.
RSS never became truly mainstream for this reason. It’s antithetical to the interests of the people who would need to push readers toward using it. It comes as no surprise that despite glowing reports from satisfied readers and major investments from Google and others that it would not be able to make it. So today, as RSS buttons disappear from browsers and blogs, just know that this happened on purpose, so that readers could be deceived more easily.
I don’t think I can say it much better than that. All I would add is that if you’re a Reader user looking for an alternative, today is the worst possible day to do so. All the other RSS readers are getting barraged with new users, driven by the hype around this announcement and the ‘listicles’ appearing on every tech site (“Our Top Five Reader Alternatives”) — which, ironically, are part of the same SEO-driven linkbait model that’s replacing RSS in the first place. If you try any other RSS apps or sites now, they’ll have major server and speed issues and you won’t see them at their best. Give them a couple weeks to scale up, and the smart ones will also build Google-specific migration tools that save you even more time. And you’ll give real tech writers time to write quality reviews and comparisons, rather than these dashed-off lists from Gawker-style sweatshops. Reader isn’t actually going away for three months, and using RSS is all about avoiding this kind of false urgency, right?