Give Back My Reader To Me

I’ve been off Twitter for a while now, and I cannot begin to tell you how good I feel about it. As with all addictions, so also with this one – friends still send me links to tweets, and folks will occasionally tell me that I’ve been tagged in this, that or the other. But I don’t have a Twitter app on my phone, I don’t log in to Twitter as much as possible, and life is very, very good.

I’ve been off Facebook for even longer, and I happily confess to the fact that Instagram is a complete mystery to me. I don’t have strong feelings for or against Instagram, save for a sense of utter befuddlement.

My social media is now, in effect, Whatsapp, and even on that service I have lost count of how many messages I have not responded to. The Whatsapp application on my computer tells me that I have sixty-three unread messages, while the one on my phone tells me it is a hundred and two.

Ah well, we’ll get to it one day.

But long story short, I currently find social media and social networks overrated. With the exception of chai, of course. That I’m always up for.

But there was a social network, back in the day, that I was hopelessly in love with. Gather round, young folks, and let me tell you about a time when social networks were used to share stuff that people had enjoyed reading.

Yes, really.

One feature took off immediately, for power users and casual readers alike: a simple sharing system that let users subscribe to see someone else’s starred items or share their collection of subscriptions with other people. The Reader team eventually built comments, a Share With Note feature, and more. All this now seems trite and obvious, of course, but at the time, a built-in way to see what your friends liked was novel and powerful. Reader was prescient.

Google Reader was heaven for infovores. It was a website that used this thing called Atom, which itself was based off this thing called RSS. And what it did was that it went and checked all the blogs that you liked reading. If that blog had been updated – if the author of that blog had written a new post – Google Reader would fetch a simplified version of that update for you.

So you only needed to visit Google Reader, because Google Reader would visit all the blogs for you. And once you visited Google Reader, Google Reader would give you a nice simple list of all the new things for you to read. And you would read it, ruminate on it, and move on.

Maybe you’d star the occasional post, because you liked reading it that much. Maybe you’d comment on a particular post, because it resonated that much. Comment not on the original blog post, you understand, but on Google Reader. And maybe, just maybe, you liked a post enough to want to share it with other users of Google Reader.

Who were these other users? Well, people who liked reading blogposts as much as you! So maybe you would wind up talking about economics with a person who would go on to become a professor at Columbia University. Or maybe you would end up arguing about drip marketing with a student of computer science. Or maybe you would learn about the intricacies of indoor gardening.

Well, that last one not so much in my case, but you see my point.

There are many things to dislike about social media today, and Twitter in particular. I’m sure you have your list, and I assure you I have mine. But whatever your reasons and whatever be mine, it is this particular reason that comes at the very top for me. Reader did it the other way round, you see, compared to everybody else.

Twitter is a place you go to share, and occasionally read. Google Reader was a place where you went to read, and occasionally share.

“What are you optimizing for?” is one of my favorite questions to ask on this blog, and Reader’s answer was clear. It was optimizing for the consumption of content, not for lighting bonfires. That’s great, from my perspective. But there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, y’see:

At its peak, Reader had just north of 30 million users, many of them using it every day. That’s a big number — by almost any scale other than Google’s. Google scale projects are about hundreds of millions and billions of users, and executives always seemed to regard Reader as a rounding error. Internally, lots of workers used and loved it, but the company’s leadership began to wonder whether Reader was ever going to hit Google scale. Almost nothing ever hits Google scale, which is why Google kills almost everything.

It’s been more than ten years since Google Reader was killed, and while Feedly has been a very good substitute, it doesn’t have the same social features built in that Reader did. And as I said earlier, each of us has our list of gripes with Twitter, but top of the list to me is the fact that Twitter had to occasionally ask if you’d like to, y’know, at least read the damn link first before outraging about it.

So Reader’s long gone, and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t cut it for me. What comes next when connecting with people I want to connect with?

I don’t know about you, but Whatsapp communities are promising in my case. I’ve joined one about music, one about sports, and one about crosswords (of all things), and it’s been uniformly great. Plus, there’s Artifact, which I’m kinda-sorta hopeful about. And Threads, of course. We’ll see how these pan out.

But nothing will make me happier than the return of the king. For Reader was my kind of nerdery, with the best Easter Egg ever. It allowed me to discover fellow nerds.

And that, if you ask me, is what a social network ought to be.