Remember how the long tail was going to be the greatest thing ever? How technical innovation would let a thousand flowers bloom? How Silicon Valley’s great visionaries would lead us away from a world of few options and give us a world full of endless choices? That was then. Now?
I want to say just one word to you:
Google will unplug Reader on July 1. Google Reader was a handy tool for keeping up with news from multiple websites at once. Google didn’t invent the idea of aggregating RSS feeds. Someone else came up with it, but Google created an aggregator under their own brand and it had grown so popular it led to the previously dominant aggregator, Bloglines, announcing it was shutting down in 2010. A marketing company rescued it, and it has since been sold again. Anyone who participated in the Great Delicious Panic of 2011 is familiar with this pattern of crisis, mass migration, and rescue.
Though Google says the use of Reader is declining and they want to focus their efforts on products people care more about, a lot of critics surmise that in reality Google wants to encourage the use of Google+, Google had already removed sharing features from Reader in an effort to coax users to move to the Google+ platform, which has never caught up to Facebook in popularity, though some reports last January said it had grown half as big which tended to be framed as "Breaking: Google+ isn't a failure after all!")
I have to wonder if Google Scholar will be the next discontinued product line. It hasn’t been dressed in any spiffy new designs lately, which is fine by me, but I worry that someone at the Plex might notice it’s looking dowdy and think it should go, too, unless it can somehow become a gateway drug for Google+, self-driving cars, and dorky glasses.
Of course, my surprise and sense of outrage is misplaced. Google is a business, and it's participating in a trend toward facilitated helplessness, giving us walled gardens in which we can relax and easily share information among a socially similar circle, where our likes and dislikes and interrelationships can be coaxed into view, recorded, and monetized and where the information environment is shaped to fit our profile rather than our curiosity. After all, marketing is all about turning our curiosity into sales. The more our gaze can be guided toward productive ends, the better, and the more the platform can track what makes our eyes light up, the better it can guide us.
Facebook and Google+ replace the open web with enclosed spaces where our interactions and interests can be tracked and catered to and where the content we create can become part of the platform, useful assets that might attract more members. The proliferation of Facebook buttons on websites is one symptom, as is the creepy appearance of news stories your Facebook friends are reading on the front page of supposedly unbiased news sites. (I’m old fashioned. Populating page one, above the virtual fold, with what my friends have been reading strikes me as a form of bias that doesn’t belong in the newsroom.) The fact that, whenever I conduct a search on Google I’m encouraged to sign in so I can “share the right things with the right people” changes the act of search into some kind of self-regarding public performance. Look at what I’m up to! I want you to pay attention to me and my tastes! Marketing the self and growing our market share of attention is seen to be the whole purpose of social interaction.
Cory Doctorow has predicted a war over general purpose computing. As computers become part of the world of things, who controls the computers is a significant issue. Regulations, international trade agreements, and software that restrict users’ choices create more problems than they solve, provide bad actors, corporations, and the state opportunities for surveillance and censorship, and generally restrict freedom.
We’re seeing a similar war over the open web. This seductive appearance of simplicity (so easy to post pictures, find your friends, share links!) nudges us toward using social platforms for our reading, socializing, and information-seeking. In Google circles or among Facebook friends, our world looks a lot like us, and what we see is being shaped by what we have looked at in the past. Do you want to see the whole picture? Well, you can’t. Google has customized the world just for you. This is an incredibly anti-intellectual and (curiously) anti-social development. We no longer can see what other people see - unless they are just like us.
Google Reader users first seemed shocked by the news (why would the company discontinue something I use all the time?) followed by outrage (let’s start a petition!)
But another response, a healthy one, is beginning to surface. Maybe this is yet another sign that we shouldn’t be so dependent upon one company, or so dependent upon an industry for which our lives are their products. Maybe it's time for me to use DuckDuckGo for my searches and return to Firefox for my browser instead of Chrome. (I never trusted Google with my mail, so I'm good there.) I have high hopes that PressForward will put out an open source RSS feeder that I can use as a Reader replacement, but if that doesn't happen, I'll find another way to aggregate feeds I'm interested in.
The Silicon Valley alternative to the control exerted over our cultural consumption by old-guard media once seemed refreshingly free. No more. It's time to think more critically about what we have to lose and look for alternatives - maybe even before we have to.