The Evisceration of Google Reader

I know that for some unfathomable reason, many people don’t take advantage of RSS capabilities — presumably such people don’t read blogs with any regularity, because I don’t know how you would do it without an RSS reader. And I know also that some ridiculously small percentage of Google’s customers use Google Reader, and an even smaller percentage used the sharing functions that were embedded within it up until a few days ago. So it’s completely fruitless to complain about the elimination of those functions. Google could care less, and most people probably won’t even know what I am talking about.

Nevertheless I will proceed undeterred, because Google Reader’s model of sharing was one I could get behind, unlike the ideal of “frictionless sharing” Facebook is trying to push on its users. In Reader, all you could share was other blog posts, glossed with a comment if you chose. And if you followed someone’s shared items, they appeared seamlessly among the content you are already using Reader to gather and access. This sort of sharing didn’t exactly make reading social, and it didn’t make me feel like reading blog posts was supposed to be a performative social activity — where I felt obliged to share cool things to try to impress anyone who was following me. It didn’t turn the space of Google Reader into something I imagined as crowded with other people, the way I visualize entering the Twittersphere; instead I felt sequestered with the stuff I was trying to read (or, too often, simply process), only there would be these additional items that wouldn’t have ordinarily been there that I’d generally appreciate. I got to read the best of many blogs I don’t follow, and I learned about many new blogs to start following. It suited my idea of the contemporary public sphere: an exchange of the best pieces of writing about the issues and current events worth deliberating over.

It felt peculiarly tactful that links and only links could be shared. I liked that the full text of these links would generally be immediately available, so it would encourage me to start reading things that I wouldn’t have clicked through to on Twitter. Links are pretty much all I care about when I am online; I don’t want to be “ambiently aware” of other people, or feel the constant pressure of the presence of a potential audience. I just want to read good posts. The limits on sharing in Reader seemed to institutionalize a respectful divide between the public and private; it helped delineate a sphere of intimacy by banishing it, and opened a space for me to connect to people online in a way that made sense, not necessarily as friends or contacts but as interested peers and fellow citizens.

By killing Reader’s sharing functions, Google is endorsing a vision of sharing as an amalgam of the full range of narcissistic impulses, as well as the idea that oversharing “friendship” should be allowed to trivialize the prerogatives of public-sphere discourse. (I am at this point making a ham-fisted attempt to transpose half-remembered bits of Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man into this argument.) With the services Google seems to want to emulate — Facebook, Twitter — you can’t just get links; you have to sort through the full garbage dump of what people put online, which makes sense for those companies because that sorting work creates valuable data for them. There is nothing for those companies in a public sphere that is cordoned off from the private self, as the dreams and insecurities and interpersonal connections of the private self is usually where the marketing action is.

Google, like the rest of the online companies, would like to destroy the idea that you would separate any of your online behaviors from any of the others. Such separation is no way to create a rich data set. So we are increasingly having this ideology foisted on us: You aren’t supposed to read online; you are supposed to live there.

UPDATE: Brian Shih, who was at one time a Google Reader project manager, offers a critique of the new Reader (via MR).