Earlier this week, Google made some big changes to their Reader service. They radically altered its look and feel to bring it in line with the New Google Look which debuted on Google Plus; and they also removed entirely all of Reader’s native social features.
My favorite thing about Reader — and not just mine — was always the sharing, following, and commenting functionality. On each item in Reader, there were Star, Like, and Share buttons. Like worked approximately like Google+’s +1 or Facebook’s Like, but Share was a bit different. Sharing a post in Reader pushed it to a public RSS feed of all the items you’d shared. It also enabled comments on the item, when viewed within the Reader interface. Other Reader users could follow you, which meant that the RSS feed of your personal shares would appear along with all the other feeds they subscribed to, and they’d be able to comment on your shares as well.
Because it just pushed them out as RSS, though, you could also grab the URL for the feed of your shared items — as I did to populate the “Recent Google Reader Shared Items” sidebar box on this very blog. Apparently that RSS feed hasn’t been taken down from google.com yet, but Reader no longer allows me to add anything to it.
Instead, among the many mostly terrible design decisions involved in New Reader, Like has been replaced with a +1 button (a reasonable choice), and the Share button is gone.
Clicking the +1 button adds a public +1 to the item, and brings up a popup from which you can choose to also share the item to Google+, restricting it to a particular circle if you wish. If you want to share an item without letting the whole world know you’ve +1′ed it, you have to first select the item in the reading pane, then click the “Share…” button up in the top corner of the universal Google bar (as Shih notes, this is extremely nonintuitive, especially for people who are already Reader users. I think that’s on purpose: Google will let you share things without putting a +1 on them, but they don’t really want you to do that: much better to contribute to their “X people liked this” statistics database).
This means sharing items takes a bunch of clicks instead of just one, and to see others’ shares, and discuss them in comment threads, you now have to leave Reader and switch to G+ (and anyone who doesn’t have or — for example due to Google’s needlessly user-hostile “real name” policies, on which see JWZ — doesn’t want a G+ account is out of luck), where lots of screen space is taken up by stuff that isn’t the shared item or discussion of the shared item, and where there’s no way to see only Reader shared items: you see all the posts from the circle you’re currently viewing, status updates, photos, links, and all.
What Google has done is to kill off a feature that was well-tailored to its purpose and encouraged interoperability by use of internet standards, and replace it with one which is ill-suited to the habits Reader taught its users, and which operates within a more closed Google ecosystem instead of using a standard protocol. And they’ve done so with little warning (only a bit more than a week), and an apparently completely unthinking UI redesign in the name of a foolish consistency. Reader’s form and function used to complement each other, and are now at odds.
Why did they make these changes? The only plausible explanation I can see is that they want to drive more users to Google+, because it’s the identity brokerage at the center of their platform strategy. Google+ requires a public Google Profile; Reader, Docs, Picasa, and perhaps some of their other services (not Gmail yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time) require a Google Profile as well, though it need not be public. But if you use any of those services and join G+, you have to set your profile to public. And G+ requires you to use your “real name,” on penalty of profile suspension (which means losing access to not only G+ but also Reader, Docs, and Picasa). They’ve also rolled out the “+1″ button to Google search results, and as an embeddable web bug like Facebook’s “Like This”. In other words, pushing users to G+ lets them build a more or less comprehensive database of each user’s online behavior, tied to an identity they can reasonably authoritatively assert represents a single real person in the world. Across millions of users, that’s a huge wealth of minable data on browsing habits.
And that’s something of extraordinary value to advertisers. Google, I think, is making maneuvers toward competing with Facebook as the dominant identity broker and supplier of carefully targeted demographic data for ad placement. And, whether because they got spooked by Facebook and slipped up, or for some other reason, they’re doing so in a clumsy way, making bad changes for no obviously good reason, pissing off users, and tipping their hand.
That’s not something I’m eager to be any more a part of than I have to. I’m going to switch away from Reader to some other RSS aggregator. I’ve disagreed with G+’s “real name” policy from the start, and it’s clear that they have no intention of fixing that either; so I’m going to leave G+. Facebook, if anything, respects its users privacy even less than Google (indeed, it’s famous for that disrespect), and though it’s loosely enforced, also has a “real name” policy; so I’ll also be leaving Facebook. (As it happens, I barely use Facebook anymore anyway.) I’m looking for good replacements for Docs and Calendar, but if I can’t find any, I can survive a return to non-web-based solutions, no matter how much I’ll miss easy real-time collaborative editing.
For the time being I am retaining my Gmail account, due to the hassle of changing email addresses, but if they continue to push user-hostile policies, I’ll be looking to fully disentangle myself from the Google ecosystem.
I suppose I’ll leave the sidebar box up until Google kills the RSS feed for good.