07 November 2011

Google Reader Minus – the end of an era

It’s been a week from the so-called ‘integration’ of + sharing in . Like some others, I already expected the worse after seeing the original announcement about two weeks ago; what good can come from an update where users are politely reminded they can always have the option to leave and take their data with them? After the actual release, the backlash was considerable, on Google+, and in numerous articles all over the Internet – including here in Romania. As I noticed in the comments to a post from Louis Gray, it’s quite telling that the comments criticizing the changes and the way they are forced upon users got the most +1’s, while the one who were happy with it only got two-three +1’s at the most. I have no illusions that Google will go back on this decision, for better or worse. The few loyal users – or many, we didn’t receive any actual numbers about Google Reader users over the years – will just have to adapt, find workarounds or leave for the few competition that is still standing. I’m not going to repeat all the great points made elsewhere, just a couple things I find most striking:

  • First of all, the new design was discussed and torn apart in detail by a former Product Manager of Google Reader, Brian Shih: Taking the UI paradigm for G+ and mashing it onto Reader without any apparent regard for the underlying function is awful and it shows. The fact that other products like Docs and Gmail got an opt-out option and different views (‘comfortable’, ‘cozy’, ‘compact’) really sais it all about the priorities for the new ‘consistent’ design; simply put: Google Reader isn’t worth the time investment.
  • Now on to the sharing or, better said, lack of it. The former sharing options were not only easier to use – one-click-sharing as opposed to three-four clicks – but they were also more transparent. Looking back, they were very much like Twitter: you could have a public account and people would see everything you shared, or a ‘protected’ one, where you approved people. Now with Google+ sharing becomes disconnected from reading, because to read you have to leave Reader for Plus, where everything is overly complicated and gets in the way of reading. It’s not just the noise (funny images, videos and random public updates), the much-praised ‘Circles’ model actually prevents using Google+ as an information network: let’s say Louis Gray is building a circle to share tech news, like previously on Reader. Everything shared with that circle will be visible only to people that Louis added to the circle, not to all the people that have added Louis to one of their circles. It’s clearly not feasible for Louis to add all the people requesting access and even if it were, there is that 5000-people limit to any given circle…
    Google had the chance to build a Twitter for feeds, but it chose to kill it instead and build another Facebook clone.
    There are some other ‘side-effects’ after the removal of sharing and liking from Reader. Few people have noticed this, but the ability to make tags public and have an RSS feed associated with them has also been removed. So there is no way to use tags as a replacement for sharing. Also, ‘recommended items’ and ‘sort by magic’ relied on the signals from shares and likes to rank feed items; without this data, the ranking algorithm will probably fail soon. Personally I never used these two features because they never delivered good enough results for me and I wouldn’t mind very much if these would be removed instead of the social component.
  • And finally the most laughable and condescending ‘feature’: the ability to export your content, including subscriptions, your friends and followers, and items you’ve starred, liked, notes and items with comments. And what I am supposed to do with that, exactly? I doubt more that a percentage of users have the skills to easily extract valuable information from those exported files. That’s just what offers with their ability to download your data from the social network: a nice way to shut up users crying out for data portability, but at the same time completely benign to Facebook and useless to the users, since there is no tool to upload the history anywhere else.

Ironically, after hearing of the impending death of the sharing features I started to add more subscriptions, something I have rarely done over the past two years, since the people I followed offered a steady source of both high-quality and diverse content. But that doesn’t mean I will be also sharing more, not on Google+ anyway. It’s hard to think I will find the same streamlined experience anywhere else, since most apps and sites are more interested in social connections or fancy design over the basic functionality of scanning quickly through lots of feeds.

Overall, I think Google hasn’t learnt anything from its previous failures at social networking, especially Buzz. Back then, it tried to force people into using Buzz by adding it over night to the Gmail inbox. Now it’s cannibalizing their own products and communities in order to promote the new poster child for the year. The funny thing is that Buzz had an working API and third party clients before being retired; Google+ still doesn’t have a way to post other than visiting the site. I get the feeling the network is just not growing like it was expected and there are too many things at stake for it to just grow steadily. But that is sadly not the way to get people on board.

I recently saw a statement from Bradley Horowitz about the future evolution of Plus; it’s not saying much, but if this Reader release is a taste of future revelations, I don’t think I will like them:

“Six months from now, it will become increasingly apparent what we’re doing with Google+,” he says with a measure of opacity. “It will be revealed less in what we say and more in the product launches we reveal week by week.”
Bradley Horowitz on VentureBeat

If you know the saying “When You Become Obsessed with the Enemy, You Become the Enemy”, I think it applies very well, unfortunately. Google has been obsessed with Facebook for some time and now we are seeing the results: it’s becoming Facebook with each passing day; a more powerful Facebook, a more dangerous Facebook because users don’t recognize it as such, and sadly, neither does Google itself.

Update: Hmm, Google+ baked into Chrome? No, thank you!

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