Unoccupy Google Reader

By Jack Shafer
November 3, 2011

As a man of habit, I resist all change, especially the change that’s forced on me. So this week I got steamed when one of the tools I rely on to do my work and nourish my brain, Google Reader, got a complete makeover and was pushed onto me whether I wanted it or not.

Which I don’t.

We users had been warned for weeks that a redesign of the popular (and free) RSS reader was in the making, so the appearance of a new version didn’t come as a shock. The only shock was how terrible the new version is. It subverts users’ needs in favor of Google’s. The company wants to fight Facebook with a uniform interface for its free suite of services—which also includes Gmail, Calendar, and Docs—that will encourage sharing of content on its newish social-networking product, Google+. But in making the whole Google product line visually consistent, the company has crippled one of its best offerings.

Seeing as Google doesn’t charge for its RSS reader I can’t complain much more than if a bar serving free beer suddenly switched from Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to Old Milwaukee. But to extend the metaphor, I don’t have to drink Google’s swill unless I want to.

Which I don’t.

I’m not the only user carping about the new Google Reader. Foster Kamer of the New York Observer collated the dissatisfaction yesterday, pointing to the critique blogged by former Google project manager Brian Shih titled “Reader redesign: Terrible decision, or worst decision?” The voices at Wired.com, Information Week, the Atlantic Wire, and Forbes all hammered Google Reader. Among the complaints: Its unique “shared feeds” feature is gone; it loads slower than the old Reader; it’s hopelessly gray; a giant, red, near-useless “Subscribe” button hogs valuable screen real estate; and there’s a lot of noise about how Google has reduced it to an adjunct to Google +. The former lead designer of Google Reader offered yesterday to rejoin the company for the three months it would take to fix his baby, writing:

Reader should not fall by the wayside, a victim to fashion. …

I will put my current projects on hold to ensure that Google Reader keeps its place as the premier news reader, and raises the bar of what a social newsreader can be.

What drew me to Google Reader five years ago was its compression. It wasn’t the ideal RSS reader, but it worked well with your Gmail sign-in and it condensed an extraordinary amount of information about publications and new posts into a single Web page. With a couple of clicks on my tiny netbook, I could catch up on the 116 news feeds that I follow, add a few new ones, or “star” the ones I wanted to save. Like an old couch, its shape had conformed to my dimensions. As a Google engineer described it in 2006, it was like an inbox for the Web.

Here’s what the old Google Reader looked like:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a view of the new Google Reader:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have you ever seen such an exercise in loosey-goosey white space? White space is wonderful when used as a design element in magazines and books, but it’s absolute crap when brushed onto a pure-data medium like an RSS feed. Adding extravagant white space to Google Reader is like adding white space to the phone book. It defeats the mission of densely packing information. Just imagine if Microsoft decided that the new default setting for Excel spreadsheets provided for extra leading between lines, and the default was unchangeable. The nation’s accountants would storm Redmond and lynch Steve Ballmer and bury him in Elliott Bay.

In the old Google Reader regime, I could see about 13 headlines on my netbook without scrolling. Now I’m down to eight, which means endless scrolling to catch up on the news. Brian Shih puts it best with his rant about the new Reader’s misplaced priorities. “When you log into Reader, what the hell do you think your primary objective is?” he writes. “Did you answer ‘stare at a giant header bar with no real estate saved for actual reading’?” If you did, the new Reader is your prize.

I’m not a fussy person. I don’t fly off the handle every time Facebook or Twitter or Microsoft Word undergoes a redesign. I don’t much like the “new look” that Google has given Gmail and Calendar, but it’s not going to cause me to dump those applications. For one thing, the new Calendar isn’t that bad and if the new Gmail interface gets on my nerves I can always use Outlook to read and send from my account.

But there are other RSS programs out there which, unlike the new Google Reader, put the reading experience first. My Reuters colleague Anthony De Rosa recommends newsblur.com and I’ve grown accustomed to reading my feeds with NetNewsWire on the family iPad.

It’s been a great five years, Google Reader. I feel a little jilted by your crazed pursuit of the social media market, but I can’t be too angry with you for providing such a fine, free service for all that time. Thanks.

But with my thanks come retaliation: Somebody must pay for this corporate misdirection. I happily occupied Google Reader for five years. Today, in protest, I unoccupy it.

Addendum, 5:45 p.m.: I missed this Atlantic Wire piece about the effort to build a Google Reader replacement.

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5 comments

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If your disgust is sufficiently intense, you could follow my lead and develop your own software:
http://www.aaabit.com/news/

Here’s an experimental RSS reading system I’ve been developing (undergoing alpha testing & calibration now). It uses a keyword-based scoring system to color-code the stories according to importance and relevancy. The RSS feeds addresses and keywords may easily be reconfigured. The page design degrades well enough to be read easily on a tiny mobile phone screen, and expands so as to use space more effectively on a larger desktop screen. Hover your mouse pointer over a title and you’ll see more detail about what the article is about.

I developed this system after finding that in my efforts to keep up with real news (including current computer security bulletins, business & travel disruptions, natural & humanitarian disasters etc.) I was becoming swamped in:
* Celebrity gossip
* Filler stories e.g. historical retrospective
* Journalistic navel-gazing
* Opinion, propaganda and advertisements disguised as news stories.

Good bye to all of that! I no longer feel like I’m drowning in information, or unduly distracted from my work. I’m no longer subverted by a nervous news-reading tic, frightened of missing something important. With the color-coding, I’m using both my left and right brain hemispheres to read the news!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

I’ve used Google’s reader for a long time too, but I like the new look.

Posted by Auchen | Report as abusive

Oh, please! Cry me a flippin’ river, dude.

The new Reader is FINE. The only sharing tool I used on the old Reader was the email button, which Reader still has. Honestly, I still don’t know where that “Share” button shared to (Buzz?).

I LOVE that I can +1 from inside reader. Believe it or not I have been going from Reader to the actual pages themselves JUST so I could +1 (the ability to curate Google search for your G+ connections continues to be massively underutilized by most people, in my opinion).

We can also share to G+ from inside Reader, which is great too. If I’m that interested in sharing something that comes to me through Reader someplace other than G+ it’s easy enough to do that on my own. We can’t reasonably expect Google to facilitate with their tool sharing to other platforms.

Finally, I’m glad Reader still has the stars. +1 can be used to bookmark pages too, but there are times when I want to bookmark something without also associating it with me in the search engine.

All of this to say I regard the changes as value added. If I were not an avid G+ user, I would probably be indifferent to them.

Posted by NickBianchi | Report as abusive

would someone please help this fellow with all the extra scrolling he is having to do

Posted by schattrton | Report as abusive

The “loosey-goosey white space?” is, in my opinion, a wonderfully modern design that i’m happy to see consistently rolled out across the board.

Posted by cappONE | Report as abusive