March 18, 2013
How the Shutdown of Google Reader Threatens the Internet (Forbes Cross-Post)
In the early 2000s, the Internet was eclipsing other mass media like print publications and broadcasting. Panicked by this development, some scholars projected a dystopian future where Internet users would create their own "Daily Me" (a term popularized in Nicholas Negroponte's 1995 book, Being Digital [affiliate link]) of customized information sources. As people relied on their Daily Me instead of traditional media sources, the dystopians feared that people would only consume information that reinforced their existing beliefs, rather than being serendipitously exposed to content that challenged or conflicted with their existing perceptions. For example, in his 2001 book Republic.com [affiliate link], Cass Sunstein wrote:
For countless people, the Internet is producing a substantial decrease in unanticipated, unchosen interactions with others.
The resulting lack of intellectual diversity may produce "echo chambers," where only like-minded people talked to each other and reinforce each others' own increasingly polarized viewpoints. This in turn jeopardizes core democratic principles.
The past dozen years have suggested that these dystopian fears aren't completely unfounded. As one example, many people now rely on social media as a primary news source. In many cases--especially with "bi-directional" services like Facebook or LinkedIn where people only connect with "friends"--social media only surfaces content from people who are likely to share common viewpoints. Plus, those posts are culled by mysterious algorithms (such as the algorithm controlling Facebook's newsfeed) that further reduce exposure to diverse viewpoints.
Still, I never believed these dystopian predictions, mostly because I believed technological tools like RSS would triumph over them. (For my more detailed rebuttal to the dystopians, see this article). RSS makes it easy and quick to keep up with dynamically changing online sources. The effectively zero transaction cost means that readers can easily monitor a smorgasbord of sources--including a greater diversity of source--than was possible with other technologies. Plus, RSS feeds bypass third parties' black-box algorithmic filtering that might suppress countervailing views; RSS enables a direct communication from the publisher to the reader.
In my case, the costlessness of subscribing to RSS feeds, plus the simplicity and reliability of Google Reader, has helped me aggregate a vast number of RSS subscriptions (over 220). With that many subscriptions, I can track developments across a wide variety of industries, topical areas, databases, and yes, viewpoints. Rather than circumscribe my worldview, the Internet in general, and RSS in particular, have vastly increased the diversity of my information consumption compared to the heyday of mass-media offline publications.
People have been predicting the death of RSS for years (see, e.g., this 2009 TechCrunch article), but the death of Google Reader moves us closer to RSS's demise than ever before. Without an obvious RSS reader alternative to Google Reader (and with heightened fears that any replacement RSS reader might exit the market, just like Google and Bloglines), some folks will simply give up on RSS altogether and rely exclusively on social media, email alerts or bookmarks. Others will use RSS less frequently because the alternative provider isn't as reliable or elegant as Google Reader. Collectively, with reduced reader demand, fewer publishers may support RSS feeds, creating the possibility of RSS's downward spiral.
The potential death of RSS increases the odds that the dystopian predictions will come true. Without a viable RSS reader, I would dramatically reduce the sources of news I consult, probably by 90% or more. It's not feasible to keep up with hundreds of sources via bookmarks (seriously?!). Email alerts? I have a tough time managing my in-box as it is. Social media? I already use it extensively as a complement to RSS, but it's scattershot and much slower to read. Plus, some sources I current track don't enable any of these RSS alternatives today. Without an RSS reader as reliable and efficient as Google Reader, my information flows will be lower-volume, slower, more heavily intermediated by third party algorithms, and--as the dystopians predicted--less diverse. And if I and others circumscribe our reading sources, publishers will get fewer readers, and the entire Internet ecosystem will shrink.
I don't blame Google. It's their choice to kill a service, especially one they offered for free. Still, I'm hoping that one or more RSS reader competitors will emerge a trustworthy addition to my daily routine. RSS may not be a mainstream tool, but for those of us who use it, its loss would be a major blow. If Google Reader's demise accelerates that unfortunate outcome, we will have lost something of significant social value.