The previous post about a hassle with Google Calendar and Windows 8 was started a couple weeks ago and just finished up today, in the aftermath of the Google Reader news. The only big change is my increasing lack of love for Google …
I’ve been a Google Reader junky for years; after briefly experimenting with iGoogle, I’ve maintained somewhere between 200 and 400 RSS feeds in Google Reader. They range from the big news sites (New York Times, The Guardian) to a Google alerts feed for news about my father’s town in western Maine; from the big literature sites like The Millions and Bookslut to my favorite small presses like Small Beer and Gray Wolf; and of course a smattering of tech blogs and vendor news that have proven useful in my work life. Most mornings I start off my day with a cup of coffee, a dish of yogurt, and a quick spin through my favorite funnies (the great thing about using Google Reader has been that my comic strip reading isn’t cluttered by Family Circus and Pluggers; I can read classics from Cul de Sac and Bloom County, and mix in xkcd and Bad Machinery, without being assaulted by Not Me and Barfy).
And so it came as a very rude wake-up indeed on Thursday when I was interrupted by a prompt telling me that Google Reader will be going away on July 31, 2013. It made Tom the Dancing Bug slightly less funny to ponder how this was going to add more hassle to my computing life, after already coming to terms with a forced calendar change.
There are plenty of articles out there now about Google Reader alternatives, and about what made Google Reader–in all its stripped-down dullness–so great. I mostly agree with Kevin Drum that social media is a poor replacement for raw news, and I’m drifting back toward Feedly, a service that sits on top of Google Reader and has been anticipating the demise of Google Reader for some time; I briefly tried them out a couple years ago, encountered a few glitches that made it harder to use and which drove me back to the bare-bones glory of Google Reader, but over the last couple days, at least, the glitches have been minor, which is pretty impressive considering the amount of traffic they’re getting.
What strikes me as interesting about this is what it suggests about Google and its future, and what it tells me about how I use the Internet, which is apparently not the way most people use it (or, at least, is a way of using it that is hard to monetize).
Google is an uneasy blend of a public utility and an advertising broker. On the one hand, it has pioneered and improved many of the things that make the Internet so useful: search, both general and specific (like Google Scholar); mail and calendaring; project and code management. But its profits don’t come from those things; its money comes from its marriage of search algorithms with targeted advertising, all those “sponsored links” in search results and YouTube videos. The margins on services like RSS readers and e-mail are razor thin, if they can even be made profitable; web advertising, it seems, is much more profitable, especially if your products, AdWords and AdSense, are the most widely adopted on the Internet.
The advertisements creep into Google’s other products, not just search: Gmail’s mail and calendar pages sport little advertising banners, too, creepily based on the content of your email (until I implemented a little custom CSS in Firefox to hide them, I was offered deals on camping supplies and books whenever I checked my mail). But it wasn’t part of Google Reader, for some reason. A few of the RSS feeds I read have ads inserted though Feedburner (another Google product), but for the most part my Google Reader experience has been blessedly advertisement-free.
This is in stark contrast to both Facebook and Twitter, where sponsored posts and tweets (including some from beyond the grave) are rampant; the bar for advertising in social media seems much lower than it is for RSS readers. And that may be because of the audience: RSS is a somewhat nerdy tool, beloved by people who want a very specific and targeted reading experience on the web (even if the topics to which they subscribe can be rather broad). It’s much easier to prune your RSS feeds than your Facebook friends and Twitter follows, and also much easier to know what you’re getting into when you subscribe to a feed: I’m seldom surprised by the sites whose RSS I consume, but I find that the people behind Facebook and Twitter accounts can be surprisingly disappointing in their inanity. I have not hesitated to unsubscribe from RSS feeds that were chock-a-block with “sponsored posts” (all the more reason to stay away from BuzzFeed and HuffPo), and if Google Reader had become cluttered with advertising I would probably have chucked it as well (or done some CSS tricks to hide it).
Google would like very much to direct us away from things that don’t put advertising in front of us. (And apparently has some interest in keeping us from avoiding the ads as well.) Google+, which is where Google would like its Google Reader refugees to land, is promoting sponsored content and leveraging the AdWords and AdSense products. The future, according to the big social media players, is in targeted advertising.
Brian Solomon has a nice article that contrasts the Google model with Kickstarter, where a Veronica Mars movie was funded to the tune of over $3 million dollars in a few hours. I’d suggest that this isn’t so different from another model that I happily support every month as a sustaining member of Minnesota Public Radio and Twin Cities Public Television; because I value an ad-free source of news, information, and entertainment, I happily pony up a few dollars to keep it “free” (there being many different kinds of “free”, of course).
Would I pay for Google Reader, or a similar way of keeping up with a large and varied collection of web sites? Probably. I do, after all, subscribe to Flickr and Dropbox. Would I tolerate advertising in Google Reader if that kept it around? Probably not; I’d resent the imposition of the ads, and would either hack it like I have Gmail, Google Search, and (with varying success) Facebook, or flee to a different service. And I think it comes down to how I like to use the Internet: I’m much happier choosing my reading myself, rather than letting someone else–Google, Facebook, an advertiser, or even a social media contact–choose it for me. And in Google’s model, that’s a lot harder to monetize.