Last week, Google announced that its beloved Reader was going the way of the dodo. The Reader let users subscribe to website updates (via RSS, or “really simple syndication”) to make reading the news like reading email.
And with that, one more nail was driven into the coffin of the open Web.
Google Reader wasn’t the first RSS reader on the block. It may not have even been the best (Bloglines was my favorite back in the day). In the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, when sites like Facebook, Flickr and Wikipedia were redefining our online experience (and adding “social” to the mix), there was a glut of RSS readers. Each one featured a twist on the news-reading experience. And since RSS is built on an open standard, it was easy to try them all before settling on a favorite.
So it was for dozens of new apps like online calendars, photo-sharing sites and note-taking tools. All were built on open technologies that made it easy for apps to talk to each other and share information. More importantly, it was easy to take your personal data to another service if you so decided.
Meanwhile, Mozilla was breaking into the mainstream with a fast and innovative new Web browser called Firefox that was also built on open standards and open-source code (and featured an RSS feed reading right in your bookmark bar).
This heady moment of innovation inspired a lot of people, including me. It was a McLuhan-esque time in which the medium truly became the message: Using open-source tools and websites built on open standards was part of the point of being online in the first place.
Of course, this openness was baked into the Web from the start. World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee built the HTML coding language, HTTP (the protocol governing how Web pages talk to each other), and hypertext as open technologies. This meant no one could own the code — and everyone could use it.
But now, in 2013, something has changed. People like tech pioneer Anil Dash are lamenting the Web we lost. Google Reader, which eventually won the RSS reader wars, is about to disappear in favor of Google+, Google’s great social hope (that next to no one actually uses).
And Google+ is a very different beast than Reader. Rather letting you build a portable list of your favorite websites, which is hard to monetize, it wants you to click that “+1” button on other websites to post articles to your Google+ feed (which no one is actually reading). Rather than give users the power to design their own reading experience, Google wants to stay in control — to suck up data about our reading habits into a proprietary netherworld. With Google+, you can’t simply move on to another tool if the present one isn’t working out for you. If you choose to move on, you’ll do so empty-handed — the opposite of the case with Google Reader and sites like it.
That version of our online experience is starting to feel pretty familiar. It’s how Facebook runs its playground of more than one billion users. It’s increasingly how Twitter governs its space. (Twitter recently removed the option to use RSS to subscribe to tweets.)
And it’s how more and more new apps are built — they build their own walled garden of data that can’t be freely shared with other apps — and we’re forced to click those ubiquitous “Tweet This,” Like, and +1 buttons. All the while you’re probably using Google’s Chrome browser, which itself is busy doing things like exposing your online behavior to third-party marketers and shutting down the ability to subscribe to RSS feeds.
The first couple of decades of the Web —the first webpage went up in 1990 — saw an explosion of online activity. An entire world was built out of nothing. The foundation of that world was a culture of openness that enabled — and rewarded — the widespread sharing of information across platforms.
It wasn’t just RSS; sites like Flickr and platforms like WordPress built powerful APIs (the code that determines how you can access a site’s data) that made it easy to post photos and blog posts everywhere and create wild data mashups. The result was innovation: Web users could take photos from one site, status updates from another, news feeds from another — and build something completely new.
You could even argue that the Web wouldn’t have grown at the pace it did, and wouldn’t have taken over our lives so completely, had this culture of openness not been at its core.
This was the Web into which Google introduced its Reader.
Yet now, halfway into its third decade, the Web is moving in a different direction. As Anil Dash notes, something is indeed being lost here.
“We’ve lost key features that we used to rely on, and worse, we’ve abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the Web world,” he writes. Among many examples, Dash refers to the spat between Instagram and Twitter, in which Twitter stopped showing users’ Instagram photos in its feed to make room for its own proprietary photo service.
That kind of spat wouldn’t have happened on the Web of 2005. But today, hoarding of information is the rule, not the exception. If you set out this year to build the photos/status updates/newsfeed tool described above — let’s call it FriendFeed — you would have to sign an agreement with every useful site to build such a thing — assuming they were all willing to play ball. Anyway, it’s a moot point: The whole process would be so expensive that it wouldn’t be worth building the thing in the first place.
Soon after its arrival in 2005, Google Reader became the most popular RSS reader on the block. Its ascent meant the decline of its competition. Now, as it fades into the sunset, there’s new life in the RSS reader scene; dozens of Google Reader-replacements and innovations on the RSS reader idea — Flipboard, Pulse, and even Digg among them — are already with us. This RSS resurgence recalls a time when we assumed we could share whatever we wanted, wherever we wanted, without having to click on some damn button linking to a proprietary ghost town.
It’s possible that the death of Google Reader could wake many of us up to the fact that the Web we love is fast disappearing, and could inspire us to build something new, to work with each other again, and to make the free sharing of information the inspirational, de facto standard of our online experience.
In some kind of karmic retribution, maybe the death of Google Reader will mean the rebirth of the open Web.