October 22nd, 2011

quote - flamethrower

No. No, no, no, no. And also, no.

Google is taking all the sharing features out of Google Reader. (Official announcement from Google is here.) No more following other users, sharing and commenting on links, group link blogs, etc. The idea, I guess, is that Reader will become a simple RSS aggregator, and you'll do all your link sharing on Google+

Because we've all moved in to Google+ like good little minons, haven't we?

This, my friends, is a potential disaster.(1) Google Reader is probably the centerpiece of my online life. I depend on other people finding the good stuff on blogs that aren't quite what I would normally follow but still have awesome content. It's my curated Internet, and I will miss that, terribly.

I also have to wonder whether this is a sign that Google is planning to shut Reader down entirely at some point, and that would take us from potential disaster to an actual one. I use Reader for everything. I follow blogs for work, blogs for politics, blogs for fun. I use it to follow high-volume celebrity Twitters like [twitter.com profile] ebertchicago and [twitter.com profile] neilhimself. I use it to follow high-volume cute animal Tumblrs like [tumblr.com profile] herekittykittykitty. I literally do not know what I would do without it.

What are we up to, now -- three major Internet service redesign fails in the last month? Facebook, Delicious, now this. Not to mention all the other shenanigans Google has pulled on us lately. To quote Sarah Perez at TechCrunch:

You can’t force me into using Google+ by stealing pieces of Google Reader. That’s not how that’s going to work.

So, how is it going to work? Interesting question, at least for me. My online presence has gotten quite fractured over the last few years. It wasn't all that long ago that all of my publicly visible online social activity -- writing, conversation, link-sharing, on every topic I cared about -- was centered in a single place: my LiveJournal. But as my community has spread, changed, migrated, grown in some areas and shrunk in others, I've been adding more and more services to my plate: Facebook, Twitter, Dreamwidth, Google Reader's sharing features, Tumblr. Maybe it's time for me to rethink that, consolidate back down again, or at least come up with some coherent plan for what content I'm going to share where. One thing to consider: if I have to decouple sharing content from RSS feeds anyway, there's certainly nothing tying me to Google Reader. My options could open up considerably.

Maybe that's just as well. Over the last few years, I've been getting nervous about just how deeply my online life depends on Google, its products, and its services. Perhaps this is another sign that I shouldn't be storing so much content in the Google basket. I recently saw (via, what else, a link on Google Reader) a really thoughtful article about Google by Daniel Soar in the London Review of Books, entitled, somewhat ominously, "It Knows". His thesis is that everything Google does, no matter how far afield from search it might seem, comes back to their core value of improving search, either by giving them more data, more content, or by strengthening the tools used to retrieve that content. I tried to find a pull quote, but there was too much; I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Soar is not particularly alarmist in his conclusions, at least not in terms of the misuse of personal information, and to be fair that's not what concern me. What does cause me concern is the suggestion that Google sees its user base not as individual customers, but as its beta testers. Its content aggregators. And suddenly, some of their stranger decisions over the years start making a bit more sense.

I'm not about to give up on Google entirely, of course -- it's made itself far too useful. And that's the rub, isn't it? Even when we're angry, they've made it extremely difficult for us to walk away. And that's what worries me, as much as anything.

1. Although not the disaster it would have been a few days ago, before Google announced that they're working on a policy that will allow pseudonyms. Finally.

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