On Impermanence

One of the dangers of technology is that sometimes we get used to devices, software, and platforms that go extinct. The VHS vs. Beta wars of the 1980s is often used as a prime example of this—but as personal electronic devices become more prevalent and new devices are introduced more often, it becomes ever more obvious that some kinds of technology fail even if we like them, and just how disruptive these extinctions can be to our daily lives.

Google announced last week that they will be phasing out their RSS feed aggregator, Google Reader, in July 2013. Reader follows in a long line of free Google products that have been retired—most recently iGoogle, Google Buzz, and Google Labs. (For an interesting visual, and to leave virtual flowers on the graves of any Google products that you miss, see Slate’s “Google Graveyard” at http://slate.me/10YZRQr)

There has been a lot of discussion about the impending demise of Reader. Although the stated reason for phasing it out is declining usage, a lot of fans were exchanging panicked messages over the Internet. Many of us have already migrated—I’m using an add-on to Mozilla Firefox, which is called Sage and seems to work pretty well. There are some things about it that I find annoying: it isn’t as seamless as Google Reader; I haven’t figured out how to make it email me items in the feed; and it isn’t as easy to search for RSS feeds—you have to go to a page and look for an RSS feed there, unlike Reader’s search tool where you typed “so and so at livejournal” and it gave you the address.

However, migrating the data from Google Reader to my computer was relatively fast and very easy; the Google Takeout page (https://www.google.com/takeout/#custom:reader) does it all with the click of one big, red button. Back in Mozilla’s Sage RSS aggregator, I clicked on Options => OPML Import/Export and browsed my computer to find the file subscriptions.xml. So now I’m all set up, following all the same RSS feeds that I used Google Reader to follow.

Of course, Sage doesn’t have the “+1” or “share” features, so all of that data from Google Reader is gone. I have mixed feelings about that. I don’t use Google+ a lot, so I don’t know who I was really “sharing” with—probably nobody, really. I don’t want to be internet famous or have 1,000 imaginary friends or people “following” me. I enjoyed Google Reader’s sharing applications a lot, but I’m an intensely private person and social media is not a good fit for me on a personal level. On a professional level? Libraries definitely need to be using social media to connect with their patrons and with the wider community.

James Fallows’ brief article at The Atlantic (http://bit.ly/YaidgL) points out that

[w]hen a company is charging money for a product…you understand its incentive for sticking with that product. The company itself might fail, but as long as it’s in business it’s unlikely just to get bored and walk away, as Google has from so many experiments.

Fallows isn’t worried about Google Earth or Google Maps—these services are a benefit to the public, but are also part of Google’s core business model. Likewise Gmail and Google Drive are probably safe to bet on; but Fallows won’t be trying any new free Google tech unless there’s an obvious reason for Google to support that technology.

Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo isn’t mourning Google Reader. In his article (http://slate.me/ZDe673), he admits he may have said some mean things about it on Twitter. The man has a point; Reader makes the web homogenous, which is boring from a design standpoint. But it was so convenient, and a lot of us loved it:

You didn’t just love Google Reader. No, your feelings about it were much deeper—you relied on Google Reader, making it a central part of your daily workflow, a key tool for organizing stuff you had to read for work or school. Now it’s gone, and you feel lost. Sure, there are alternatives, and transferring all your feeds to one of these will probably take just a few minutes. But that won’t be the end of it. You’ll still have to learn the quirks of your new software. You’ll still have to get the rhythm down. And most of all, you’ll still worry about abandonment. Google says it killed Reader because the software’s usage was on the decline. But Google Reader was the most popular RSS reader on the Web. If people were quitting Reader, aren’t they likely to quit the alternatives, too?

Abandonment is a huge issue with technology. In the case of physical software, you can limp along for a while with obsolete devices. Manjoo uses the example of WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 fans still running DOS. But in the world of cloud computing, we don’t have a Google Reader device; we can export our data, but not every purveyor of cloud computing will be that honest. With all the excitement over the freedom of cloud computing, not a lot of attention has been paid to what Manjoo calls “a terrible downside of cloud software—sometimes your favorite, most indispensable thing just goes away.”

Manjoo agrees that if you want software that you can depend on, “you might want to think about choosing one of those incredibly old-fashioned software companies that will allow you to pay for its stuff.” He admits that this isn’t a guarantee of longevity, given that companies can always go out of business. However, “companies that take your money are at least signaling to you that their software is just as important to them as it is to you.”

There are several lessons to draw from the death of Google Reader: don’t rely too much on free stuff; don’t invest a lot of time into something that may not last; always have an exit strategy; always look for the disadvantage; and above all, remember that nothing is forever.


4 thoughts on “On Impermanence

  1. cynthiaalise

    Sometimes we have to adjust to changes. Maybe we should find a way to support the technology we need. I just did a blog post on an academic kick starter. Things last if we support them. Maybe you should express your concerns to Google? Maybe enough communication about the need of the product will preserve its life? Technology does change and sometimes not for the better, however to eliminate change would be worse than learning to adjust to it.

  2. Barnaby Hughes

    I used to write for a website called SoCal.com, but the owner sold it for six figures and migrated the content to LifeInLA.com. I believe all of my articles are still accessible,but all of the old links are broken. I haven’t yet tried to archive all of those 50+ articles in their new location.

  3. Lori

    “Nothing stays forever” couldn’t be more accurate with the sale of GoodReads to Amazon…when is it safe to begin to fully trust a social media platform?

    So far, never seems the only valid response.


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