Breaking the Back of the Open Web

I was surprised and disappointed to see that Google announced it would sunset Google Reader by July of this year. I understand why; people aren’t using Reader like they used to, and the product is competitive with Google+. Still Google used RSS almost to its end, choking the life out of the protocol and tossing it aside. There a lesson here about how capitalism can run contrary to the online world we need to create. 

First, some history. So in the early part of the aughts/2000’s, we all saw the rise of RSS as more and more people started to blog. RSS gave us a light-weight means to quickly check a large number of sites to see if new content was available. It was quite successful and spawned a handful of RSS sites (Bloglines, etc) and desktop apps (NetNewsWire, etc). Through these feeder sites (and the elegance of RSS), we could have any web content we wanted pushed to us. We did our own curation, we did our own filtering, and we were able to truly get to the edges of the web – it was awesome. 

Soon Google joined the feeder fray launching Google Reader. As time passed, it became the dominant player in the game. Google created a compelling experience that seamlessly integrated with all their other apps. It had an open API so partners could build on top of the app; it was all very Googley. With this evolution, most websites couldn’t compete anymore, and desktop apps moved to integrate with Google Reader. Fast forwarding to today, Google Reader has a chokehold on most simple syndication feeds. Other content aggregators have resorted to some sort of smart filtering & curating.

Now, as Google sunsets Reader, most content aggregation will be done through curated feeds (G+ included). Until someone develops an alternative (they surely will), most people will be using filtered feed and these filtered feeds hide the new edges of the web. This pisses me off. I feel like we’re all slipping deeper into our own echo chambers. Google obliterated RSS, didn’t improve it, and left it for dead. It build Reader on the back of the open web, and now it’s discarding it to move to a more private, locked-down platform. 

This is not how we create a better online world for each other.

I’m sure that developers will breathe new life into simple syndication fast. (The underlying protocol isn’t complicated, and (ironically) open-source tools will help them build it.) Marco Arment already argued that this is the single best thing to happen to RSS. Digg also announced today that they would build a reader. So all is not lost. 

Still, this is a good lesson. RSS was an open protocol that could be resurrected after weathering the storms of creative destruction. Had RSS been patented by Google, we would have been left with a web worse off. It makes me think twice about sites that I use where I have no recourse or option to eject, (Facebook and Tumblr to name a few.) Funny thing is, I would have paid to use Google Reader, and I’ll probably pay to use some service as Reader goes away. 

If we only build a web that is meant to lock users in, serving ads to make money, we’re destroying the true potential of the web.

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