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Goodbye, Reader

Google Reader has been dead to me since they killed off the social sharing features, but the eve of the entire product dying seems like a good a time as any to reflect on my history with it, especially since I was using it before a built-in social network was even a feature I would have thought I wanted.

I started using Google Reader during the very first design, one most people probably haven't seen (not to sound like a hipster about it or anything). I had been using a desktop-based RSS reader but found when I got to college that I was regularly using multiple computers for the first time: I had my desktop Windows machine, which was my primary computer, in my dorm room. I had an iBook I had a love/hate relationship with and sometimes took to classes. I used computers in the computer labs and while I was theoretically supposed to be working while on those, sometimes late nights working on projects demanded a reprieve from work for my sanity's sake. Having something that synced state between all the computers became necessary, and while I started with Bloglines (and hated it), as soon as Google Reader launched their Google Reader with its "lens" design, I was on board.

At some point Google tweaked Google Reader to the layout that has now become (imo) the gold standard for web-based feed readers and shortly after added the first revision of their sharing model. There are plenty of articles about that evolution but I'll just say that I found myself using it immediately. Sharing things created an RSS feed that you could link to, so I spread that feed URL among a few friends who were interested. Shortly after my friend Andrew started a thread on a phpBB forum I was frequenting at the time asking publicly if we could all follow each other. Things went kinda nuts from there.

Over the first year or two of Google Reader sharing it became my home on the internet. I went to it first. I read everything my friends shared and the comments on threads from past shares. The key, a feature that all but a handful of the people building feed readers with social components now seem to forget, was the bookmarklet. Google Reader had a bookmarklet you could use to insert arbitrary content into your "shared" stream, which would then show up for everyone following you. You could share an image, you could select specific text on a page to make sure it showed up in the excerpt, and you could leave your own comment on the item. My guess is that only half of the content in my and my friends' "shared" streams was actually content that came from our reading of the RSS feeds we subscribed to! A lot of it was stuff from the bookmarklet, and I'm not sure we'll feel at home until someone successfully emulates that feature.

When Google killed the social part of Reader, my friends and I were devastated. At that point the most active people I followed were from that original circle of people on that message board but I had also pulled in friends from work, from college, and from previous internet communities. I missed that community that had grown over time.

We tried a lot of alternatives. Some gave Google+ a shot for a while like Google wanted people to before giving up on it as not the same thing at all. Most of us tried out an alternative solution that I won't name here for reasons that will shortly become clear; it acted a lot like Google Reader and even had a bookmarklet but was built on a much looser privacy model, thinking it could unite the refugees from Google Reader's disparate social circles into one giant community. Some of the people in that community were harassing, hateful, and generally unpleasant and we ultimately left the site because of it despite the creators' attempts to fix the privacy model slowly.

Other alternatives came along; we tried a few different pieces of forum software and were pretty dissatisfied with all of them (we had all but given up on integrated RSS/sharing at this point). At this point I took matters into my own hands and created an email listserve.

I know, everyone hates email. The prospect of getting 50+ more emails every day sounds like the worst thing. But here's the thing about the listserve solution: email is ubiquitous. If you want to share something from an app, it's extremely likely that there's an easy way to put it in an email and send it to the listserve. If there isn't, you open a fucking email and put the URL at the top of it.

The other nice thing about email is that you "own" your data (as much as you choose to; if you use a web-based email solution then you're opting out on some level of ownership but a) I do and b) that's a different essay entirely). You have a copy of every message that's been a part of the group sitting in your email; you can choose to archive or delete it. You can back it up to actual files on your computer. You have it forever.

The email thing isn't perfect; the follow model is all-or-nothing and only some email clients have ways to help with that (I've been using Gmail's "mute thread" feature more than ever before, but it's not accessible from within iOS's default mail app, for example). I certainly wouldn't mind a better solution. For now I'm using The Old Reader and eyeing Digg Reader and Aol Reader to see what they do. The Old Reader seems promising; it already has simple social features (the privacy model needs a bit of work) and supposedly a bookmarklet for sharing is on the way. In the meantime, though, email is at least helping me maintain friendships that I otherwise was worried about losing when Google killed Reader the first time.