I’m pretty excited about the visual shakeup that’s going on at Google these days. Gmail and Calendar are prettier than ever, and it looks like there’s even some cues that align with Android now. Google Reader was one of the last properties to get the overhaul, and I was rather nervous about the announced Google+ integration.
I was totally unprepared for the scorched earth tactic Google employed, though. It appears that Google, after applying the new look, systematically uprooted every pretty little flower that made Reader what it was. Google then ground up all the flowers into mulch, burned the mulch, and salted the ground.
What made Reader so great? The social stuff. For every feed item you could click “Share”, and other Reader users who followed you would then get a customized RSS feed with your shares. You could even add a small comment to the top of the shared feed item. This spurned quite a lot of discussion, some of which I’ve archived here. From a “simplify your product line, focus on fewer products”, I completely understand why Google did this. Google+ already supports sharing and commenting, so why not share directly to Google+ instead of to a dedicated RSS feed? Unfortunately, that’s whiteboard philosophy at its best, and it betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of why Readers social ecosystem worked so well. Ironic, because Google+ is Googles social initiative. It’s really quite embarrasing.
I started writing a long blog post about how Google could fix reader and keep the Google+ integration. I thought long and hard about solutions to every problem introduced by the massacre. In the end, the frankenbuild that would have resulted from my advice would have been terrible. I even went in to detail as to what exactly was massacred, but most of what I had to say has already been said elsewhere.
There’s a saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Let me be clear, I loathe that saying. It’s shortsigthed, backwards and reactionary. It stands in the way of progress, and indicates the previous iteration of whatever is being referred to, “ain’t broke”. Let me tell you a secret it took me half a lifetime to learn: nothing is ever perfect, and everything can be improved upon. The notion of “perfect” is silly and highly philosophical. Reader wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Finding people to follow was a ridiculous hassle, and advertising the fact that you were sharing on Reader was nigh impossible. But once you did follow someone in Reader, once you did start sharing and commenting on shared feed items, the experience was easy to follow, highly intimate and very enjoyable.
What remains is a good feed-reader, but everything social about it has been scrubbed. Good feed-readers are a dime a dozen, and the sharing features while really well-implemented, are not that hard to copy. It is not unlikely that someone will eat the lunch Google left on the table here. Perhaps Google is fine with that. Or perhaps they’ll listen to sense:
Reader is about reading RSS feeds, so please make shared items show up in an RSS feed again. +1 buttons are fine, but “Share” and “Note” should append to your shared feed and nothing else. Google+ is also a fine way to advertise that you’re curating an RSS feed. A theoretical integration with the circles might even make sense. But keep discussions, feed items and shares in Reader — where it belongs.