It feels like a particularly dark time around the Interwebz these days–I don’t think it’s just me. I’ve been studying and working with new media for a long time now, and so you’d think that I’d be sufficiently inured to bad news. For whatever reason, though, it feels like the hits have kept coming over the last month or so. There’s plenty to feel down about, but since this song is about me, I wanted to collect some of my thoughts on the changes that are happening with two pieces of my personal media ecology: the demise of Google Reader and the recent purchase of GoodReads by Amazon.
I’ve been soaking in a lot of the commentary regarding Google Reader, ever since it happened while I was at CCCC, and while there’s a lot of stuff I’m not going to cite here, there were a couple of pieces in particular that struck me as notable. I thought MG Siegler’s piece in TechCrunch was good, comparing Google Reader’s role in the larger ecosystem to that of bees. Actually, scratch that. We’re the bees, I think, and maybe Reader is the hive? Anyway, my distress over the death of Reader is less about the tool itself and more about the standard (RSS/Atom) it was built to support. I understand why there are folk who turned away from RSS because it turned the web into another plain-text inbox for them to manage, but as Marco Ament (of Instapaper fame) observes, that was less a feature than user misunderstanding. As more folks turn away from RSS, though, Ament suggests, we run the risk of “cutting off” the long tail:
In a world where RSS readers are “dead”, it would be much harder for new sites to develop and maintain an audience, and it would be much harder for readers and writers to follow a diverse pool of ideas and source material. Both sides would do themselves a great disservice by promoting, accelerating, or glorifying the death of RSS readers.
The larger problem here is that, in our Filter Bubble world of quantified selves and personalized searches, this kind of diversity is an ideal that is far more difficult to monetize (a word I can barely think without scare quotes). Most folk I know now use FB and T as their default feed readers; I’m old-fashioned, I think, in that I tend to subscribe to sites through Reader if the content I find through FB/T is interesting to me. It may be equally quaint of me to like having a space where the long tail isn’t completely overwhelmed by advertisements, image macros, and selfies. I get that.
Where the Reader hullabaloo connects for me with the recent Amazonnexation of GoodReads is Ed Bott’s discussion of Google’s strategy at ZDNet–again, the point isn’t so much that Reader itself is gone, but that Google basically took over the RSS reader market, stultified it, and is now abandoning it. It’s hard not to see the echo of “embrace, extend, extinguish” operating in Amazon’s strategic purchase. The folks at Goodreads deserve all the good they’re getting, and they’re saying the right things, of course, but this is Amazon’s third crack at this, if you count Shelfari and their minority stake in LibraryThing, and it’s hard for me not to see a lot of Goodreads value in terms of their independence from Amazon. Amazon’s interest in Kindle has kept them from any kind of iOS innovation, and it’s almost impossible for me to imagine them keeping their hands out of the “data” represented by the reviews and shelves of Goodreads members. While Amazon’s emphasis on “community rather than content” was revolutionary once upon a time, their reviews are now riddled with problems (and that’s when they’re not being remixed as admittedly hilarious performance spaces). It was the absence of commercialism and gamification that made Goodreads a somewhat valuable source of information for me–despite their best intentions, I doubt that will last.
If I had to wager, I’d guess that within a year or so, the G icon will turn into an A, and the app will be retuned to provide mobile access to the broader site primarily. GR’s model of personal shelves will be integrated onto the site with A’s wish lists, and people who liked that will also like 50 Shades of DaVinci Pottery. Startups will focus their energies on softer markets, as they did when Google “embraced” RSS, and we’ll probably be the poorer for it.
Back in the day, I remember feeling the full cycle of excitement when Yahoo absorbed sites like Flickr and Delicious, hope that they would help them go to the next level, and disappointment as they proceeded to neglect them into has-been status. I feel like we’ve been burned often enough now to be able to move pretty much straight from the purchase announcement to the disappointment. And I still don’t begrudge these folks the rewards they’ve earned. But, I’ve got to be honest–this “do no harm” stuff sounds a lot like the squeaky hinges on the barn door closing after the horses have bolted.