My introduction to RSS readers came around the same time as when I started to blog daily as after a little while I found myself running dry on general topics to cover and needed to start finding other material for inspiration. It’s all well and good to have a bunch of bookmarked sites to trawl through but visiting each one is a very laborious task, one that I wasn’t keen to do every day just to crank out a post. Thus I found the joys that were RSS feeds allowing me to distill dozens of sites down to a singular page, dramatically cutting down the effort required to trawl through them all. After cycling through many, many desktop based readers I, like many others, eventually settled on Google Reader, and all was well since then.
That was until last week when Google announced that Reader was going away on July 1st this year.
Google has been doing a lot of slimming down recently as part of its larger strategy to focus more strongly on its core business. This has led to many useful, albeit niche, products to be shutdown over the course of the past couple years. Whilst the vast majority of them are expected there have been quite a few notable cases where they’ve closed down things that still have a very active user base whilst other things (like Orkut, yeah remember that?) which you’d figure would be closed down aren’t. If there’s one service that no one expected them to close down it would be Reader but apparently they’ve decided to do this due to dwindling user numbers.
Whilst I won’t argue that RSS is the defacto standard for content consumption these days it’s still proven to be a solid performer for anyone who provides it and Google Reader was the RSS reader to use. Even if you didn’t use the reader directly there are hundreds of other products which utilize Google Reader’s back end in order to power their interfaces and whilst they will likely continue on in spite of Reader going away it’s highly unlikely that any of them will have the same penetration that Reader did. Even from my meagre RSS stats it’s easy to tell that Reader has at least 50% of the market, if not more.
If you doubt just how popular Reader was consider that Feedly, shown above syncing with my feeds, managed to gain a whopping 500,000 users in the short time since Google made the announcement. They were actually so popular that right after the start their site was down for a good couple hours and their applications on iOS and Android quickly becoming the number 1 free app on their respective stores. For what its worth it’s a very well polished application, especially if you like visual RSS readers, however there are a few quirks (like it not being in strict chronological order) which stopped me from making the total switch immediately. Still the guys behind it seem dedicated to improving it and filling in the void left by replicating the Reader API (and running it on Google’s AppEngine, for the lulz).
From a business point of view it’s easy to understand why Google is shutting down services like this as they’re a drain on resources that could be better used to further their core business. However it was usually these niche services that brought a lot of customers to Google in the first place and by removing them they burn a lot of goodwill that they generated by hosting them. I also can’t imagine that the engineers behind these products, many of which were products of Google’s famous 20% time, feel great about seeing them go away either. For something as big as Reader I would’ve expected them to try to innovate it rather than abandon it completely as looking over the alternatives there’s still a lot of interesting things that can be done in the world of RSS, especially with such a dedicated user base.
Unfortunately I don’t expect Google to do an about face on this one as there’s been public outcries before (iGoogle, anyone?) but nothing seems to dissuade them once their mind has been made up. It’s a real shame as I feel there’s still a lot of value in the Reader platform, even if it pales in comparison to Google’s core business products. Whilst the alternatives might not be 100% there yet I have no doubt they’ll get there in short order and, if the current trend is anything to go by, surpass Reader in terms of features and functionality.
I just don’t get books. There’s something inherently anti-social about picking one up and plonking yourself down to read a couple chapters as you’re publicly announcing “I’m doing something and I shouldn’t be disturbed”. Still the act of sharing that anti-social experience can be quite social as I’ve had many great experiences discussing the few books that I’ve read over my lifetime. Still I struggle to get through dead trees even when I make an active effort to get through them. My latest victim, The Four Hour Work Week, has been in my backpack for the past 6 months and the last 5 of that have been with around 100 pages to go. For some reason I just can’t be bothered with sitting down and slogging through page after page of the centuries old medium, but that doesn’t mean I don’t crave their content.
After I went through a long time of having not a whole lot to do whilst I was at work I discovered the wonderful world of RSS feeds. Gone was my endless list of poorly organised bookmarks and in its place was a lovely unified view of all those websites I loved to frequent. After fiddling around with a couple installed RSS readers I eventually turned to Google Reader and I haven’t looked back since. Every day I can spin through a couple hundred articles in quick succession with the better ones usually inspiring a blog post or two. I’d say that on average I read about 2~3 books worth of online content per week, possibly double or triple that if I’m elbow deep in research for a particular problem.
So the question remains, why don’t I get books? I know I have a pretty insatiable hunger for information on various subjects and the bite sized chunks I get online, whilst very well suited to my almost permanently Internet connected life, are usually too small to get a decent understanding of something. Additionally I remember one of my college English teachers telling me that my generation was apparently the last one that would have any respect for the medium as the generations who followed us would get all their information from online sources. Whilst I don’t agree with her vision completely (thanks in part to the whole Twilight phenomenon, I mean they did read the books right?) it does seem that when it comes to getting information on a particular subject I don’t even think about visiting a library, let alone picking up a book.
The answer then is most likely one of convenience. I can, on any device capable of browsing the Internet, open up a page with a dedicated stream of information tailored exactly to my interests. Books on the other hand are usually only aimed at one subject and unfortunately require me to carry them with me when I want to read them. I thought the answer would lie in eBooks but unfortunately they seem to suffer the same fate as their dead tree companions. You could probably put this down to a short attention span when it comes to absorbing information as all online content is aimed at being consumed in less than 5 minutes and trying to read a book like that just doesn’t seem to work for me (or anyone else I’ve seen read books for that matter).
There are some notable exceptions though. Way back in the middle of my time at university a good friend of mine handed me a copy of the first book in the Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. After sharing a love for the revamped Battlestar Galactica he handed me the book saying that if I liked that kind of sci-fi, I’d love this. I hadn’t read an entire book in well over 3 years so initially I struggled to get into it. The entire trilogy took me a year to read but I savoured every last word of it, often stealing an hour away from my classes to sit on the university concourse to bathe in the warm summer sun whilst my mind was firmly planted in this epic space opera. I have yet to be that captivated by a book again as my last attempt to read another of Hamilton’s other works had me 20 pages in before I was told I was reading the wrong book in the trilogy (that’s the last time I trust you, Dave).
Maybe as I get more time to myself I’ll find the time for books. Right now though my life is filled with so many other activities that getting through a book always feels like a chore that doesn’t get me very far as it doesn’t usually satisfy a pressing want or need that I have at the time. With most of my subsequent free time spent playing through an enormous backlog of games (which just spurred an idea for a post tomorrow, stay tuned! 😉 ) books are one of those things that I’ll let slip by the wayside. Watching them rush past as the torrent of the Internet sweeps them away.
There’s an unwritten rule that I adhere to on this blog that only a few people actually know about but something that you should all be aware of. For the most part any article where I’m trying to express facts and not opinions you’ll find links scattered to various corners of the web which support my points with evidence and original research. If you come across an article that’s rather link poor (which this article is shaping up to be) then it’s more than likely that it’s an opinion piece or original research. Which either way you’re going to have to take on face value since I’m just some random person on the Internet, but then again so are all the people that I link to.
For a long time I avoided internally linking back to my own posts as I thought it looked kind of arrogant to reference myself as a point of information. However since I’m rocketing towards a total of 300 posts on this blog I’m finding that there are many times when I’ve said something before and taking another paragraph to explain a concept I’ve covered in much more detail feels like I’m not doing the subject justice and I’ll provide a link back to that post. It also helps that doing so provides a healthy bit of search engine optimization for the article in question, although it doesn’t seem to matter that much since my most popular articles so far have been about the iPad and the Internet filter.
If you frequent other blogs you’ll notice that this rule seems to apply to most of them and even some popular news sites are beginning to cite references to sites other than their own. I’m a big fan of it as I’ve spent many hours of fascinated clicking through links on articles that interest me to get that deep understanding that the writer is trying to impart on me. This is coming from someone who, up until he found the wonders of RSS, didn’t read more than a couple sites a day and now spends hours consuming vast amounts of media.
There are of course assholes out there who use this rule as a means to look like they’re being authoritative when in fact they’re really just after the SEO juice that this internal linking provides, for example this Tech Crunch article I came across this morning (with links to prove my point):
Bloglines, the troubled RSS feed reader, has been down for the past 24 hours. The outage has even created buzz on Twitter (which goes to show some people still use it). When you visit Bloglines, the site has a message up that says it is down temporarily and will be “back shortly.” But with the site’s tumultuous history, you have to wonder how much longer Bloglines has before IAC will finally put it out of its misery.Bought by IAC in February 2005 for around $10 million, the site has been in jeopardy ever since the launch of Google Reader long ago, compounded by the shift from RSS to realtime news streams.
Applying my rule that a seemingly authoritative post would contain a healthy amount of links you’d think that this article was pretty up there in terms of supporting information. Couple that with the fact that Tech Crunch is a pretty big site you’d be forgiven for thinking that this wasn’t just an opinion piece. If you hover over all those links you’ll notice that nearly all of them link back to articles on Tech Crunch as well and if you actually follow those links what you’ll find is an ever inward spiralling cascade of self referential links which are supposed to be supporting arguments to the points they make. They are in essence backing up their opinion with opinions they’ve expressed in the past.
Now I’ve usually got no problem with that but when people are making claims to things, like for instance the death of RSS (really?), I’d like to see some links to some actual real evidence. Clicking through all their links revealed that someone there obviously has an agenda to push as they’ve been bashing Bloglines for quite a while yet if you look at the traffic of the site it doesn’t look like its going anywhere soon and realistically, if anything, the site’s traffic is growing. So much for that site going into the “deadpool” and the “death of RSS’.
Maybe it’s the skeptic in me but when I see this kind of bullshit on the Internet I just can’t help but get enraged. It’s so easy to make sweeping allegations but it’s so much harder to back them up. I know I’ve done it before on this blog and I’m so glad when someone calls me on it because frankly no one should be allowed to get away with it. So if you see anyone trying to make a point and all they reference to is their own material think twice about what they’re saying before you believe it. Because if all they have to go on is themselves then it all comes down to how much you trust that person.
And really, how much can you trust someone on the other side of an Internet connection?