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Internet services I have loved and lost…

After thinking about the closure of ThisIsMyJam, I started to think about what services I truly miss after 15 years+ online. And it’s a surprisingly short list.

 

Homestead: It turns out Homestead is actually still in operation. But having used it as a free website builder back when it launched in 1998, I could have sworn that it closed down existing sites at some point fairly early on. It’s certainly changed hands a few time, whilst the design examples don’t seem to reflect modern websites. It introduced me to concepts like blogging and creating websites without learning about HTML and databases, which in hindsight probably wasn’t the most valuable way to do things. Certainly my early projects like a listing and review service for pubs might have been more viable had they evolved into something like FancyAPint, rather than an early WYSWIG rival to GeoCities. And it means I have no archive of those early days, compared to my blogging on Blogger, which was then imported to WordPress and the archives of this and my main business site.

 

The Loaded Magazine Chat Room: At the end of the last century I went to live in America to study for a year. And discovered relatively fast university internet. As a result, I suddenly became a far heavier web user than when a 56k dial-up connection was my only link to the world (and was again when I returned to the UK).

But while cool internet veterans refer to their time on Usenet, Listserv and ICQ, I somehow ended up hanging out in the chat room of the Loaded Magazine website. It was a link back home, and a place to hang out and talk about all sorts of things. I had some friends and made some great new buddies in America, but when I needed to vent, and I couldn’t think about the cost of phoning the UK, it was perfect.

I can’t remember exactly when it closed, as my time there slowed down a bit when I relied on an AOL dialup account at home. But it introduced me to the concept of online communities, which informed my work at places like MCN, where managing the chat rooms and forums were an early task. And a couple of years ago, I spotted a familiar username on a videogame forum, which turned out to be one of the Loaded friends from 10+ years earlier.

 

Internet_Services_We_Lost

Possibly a little too melodramatic, but still…

Google Reader: Now we can finally jump to this century. Plenty of time and services had been and gone – but although losing them was an inconvenience, it wasn’t something that stuck with me.

Not so Google Reader.

I was never sure that RSS would catch on with a general audience. But it was invaluable to most of the people I wanted to connect with online. For work and learning, it was a great way to keep up when most people were actively focused on blogging as their prime way of sharing. And the social features were incredibly important to that.

Several of the people I valued most on Google Reader were people I wouldn’t have necessarily been friends with on Facebook. Twitter launched a year later, Facebook hadn’t added the ‘Follow’ option, and I didn’t really want to stay in touch socially with all the people I connected with on Google Reader. I just wanted to be able to learn what they were reading and cared about enough to share. And that was perfect.

Alternatives have grown, such as Feedly, but the rise of social networks and drop in blogging and RSS for many people means that it hasn’t caught on in quite the same way. And the social side of RSS readers seems to have lost critical mass forever.

 

ThisIsMyJam: See the link above, but slower paced sharing and the focus on music means it’ll occupy a similar place to Reader in allowing me to see what songs were most important to people who I may never want to connect with elsewhere.

 

I’d be really interested to know what services you miss? And what services you’re currently worried might disappear? I’m currently wondering about the future of social bookmarking, especially Diigo and Delicious, for example.

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Nice post by Marco Arment on RSS, Interoperability and Social Networks

Well worth reading ‘Lockdown‘, a blog post by Marco Arment on the demise of both Google Reader and RSS – and the rise of the big social networks, which carry the belief they should try to own everything we do.

RSS represents the antithesis of this new world: it’s completely open, decentralized, and owned by nobody, just like the web itself. It allows anyone, large or small, to build something new and disrupt anyone else they’d like because nobody has to fly six salespeople out first to work out a partnership with anyone else’s salespeople.

That world formed the web’s foundations — without that world to build on, Google, Facebook, and Twitter couldn’t exist. But they’ve now grown so large that everything from that web-native world is now a threat to them, and they want to shut it down.

The only debate I have is whether that desire is solely the financial and empire-building nature of social networking business, or also partly the result of a large number of internet users who simply either don’t care (or don’t mind), the all-reaching nature of large internet companies because it enables easier connectivity, ease-of-use etc.

I run my own WordPress installs, use RSS, and other technology because I’m reasonably aware (if not technically competent), and I have specific beliefs about what would be most beneficial for the majority of internet users and businesses.

That’s not normal for most of the world.

And it leaves me constantly wondering whether it’s inevitable that the Tragedy of the Commons will always end up undermining the efforts of those promoting open interoperability?

The internet is essentially an open, common resource for most people. But every business, government, and organisation within it will almost always be trying to do what is best for themselves. I wonder whether eventually the internet falls short of its potential not because business has corrupted it, but because human nature makes it inevitable.

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The real problem with Google closing Reader

So Google Reader will close at the end of this month, and something has really stood out for me in this article on the closure by Wired.

They quote Richard Gingras, senior director, News and Social Products at Google;

“Users with smartphones and tablets are consuming news in bits and bites throughout the course of the day — replacing the old standard behaviours of news consumption over breakfast along with a leisurely read at the end of the day.”

Unfortunately, there are significant benefits to the old standard behaviours in this case. Consuming news in bits and bites is deeply inefficient, as all the studies on multitasking have found. Check out the handy Wikipedia page on Multitasking for a number of references:

Mayer and Moreno have studied the phenomenon of cognitive load in multimedia learning extensively and have concluded that it is difficult, and possibly impossible to learn new information while engaging in multitasking.

I’m pretty sure that in a company as educated as Google, more than one person must realise that swapping a tool which allows you to focus and concentrate on accumulating learning and knowledge for odd grabbed bits of news throughout the day is going to actually lessen what people get from them.

So the logical conclusion has to be that Google doesn’t care if people get stupider, as long as they’re continuing to use Google Now/Google+/Google Search to do it.

Having used Reader for several years, I decided to use the closure announcement as an experiment to see how I could potentially function just by other information sources (mainly social networks and email). My conclusion is that although I’ve been able to still keep up with a superficial overview of my interests, it requires wading through a lot of social updates (which may or may not be of interest) to try and find something relevant. And that’s further cluttered by recommendations from each network which are blatantly a load of old cobblers.

At the same time, there are 2-3 email newsletters I really value, but these are collated links which can be weeks or months old. Great for discovering hidden gems I missed at the time, but not so helpful for keeping up with the latest news and articles on a subject.

In short, as someone who works in an information-heavy industry as a content producer as well as consumer, there is no adequate substitute for a decent RSS reader of relevant feeds, and the options for replacing Google Reader with something that does the job as well are sorely limited. It makes it harder to focus on learning, harder to maintain my own sites and point people to great new articles, and removes the pleasurable experience of a relaxing Sunday morning spent with great writing from around the web.

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Taking an RSS Holiday…

There has been plenty of outcry over the decision by Google to retire Google Reader, which came as a sudden confirmation of something many people had suspected for some time.

I’m one of those affected, and I’ve read quite a few good articles on potential replacements, why it may have happened, and the positive and negative outcomes. I’m hoping that the positive predictions will come true and we’ll see great new products in the RSS space.

Dan's Google Reader Stats

My Google Reader Stats

But rather than rushing into importing my list of 270 feeds straight into a new service, I thought it was a good time to take an enforced break from reading RSS.

I was curious to see what effect it would have on my creativity and productivity – having spent probably an average of 30-60 minutes per day in Google Reader for about 5 years equates to around 900 hours of reading. That’s a little over 38 days of my life spent browsing headlines, hitting J for the next item, and reading through interesting articles before tagging and sharing them.

I’m around 1 week in, and at first I didn’t notice it much.

I was quite relieved to escape from a daily notice that I had 100s of unread items requesting my attention. I still received some interesting articles via email, and some via Twitter etc. I was also able to devote a bit more time to the equally imposing number of emails I’d set aside to respond or act on when I had time.

But after a few days, I started to miss certain feeds.

Not the mainstream tech publication feeds that churn out endless identikit stories on the latest Apple or Google news etc.

But the niche publishers and bloggers who are sometimes completely unrelated to work, but to which I subscribed because they’re just fascinating, or have a great writing style, or I met them somewhere and chatted.

And the feeds I’d set up via Google News Searches etc to feed me content suitable for some of my personal projects.

 

That’s why we need RSS Readers:

A few of the people I missed are connected to me via Facebook, Twitter or Google+, and some of their content still serviced. But real-time is fleeting, and their latest blog post may have appeared while I was working, sleeping, or in the toilet. By the time I came back, their link has been submerged under pictures of their family, the latest memes, or other updates from other friends.

Growing up, a regular ritual was the Sunday broadsheet with a relaxing breakfast as we’d exchange the sections we wanted to take a look at. And Reader replaced that by allowing me to schedule my blog reading for times when I wasn’t in the middle of work or family life, and could spend an hour or two relaxing and enjoying reading great articles.

Real-time updates are great for breaking news, or responding to customers etc.

They’re rubbish for being able to relax and enjoy lengthy meandering articles about the favourite passions of a writer. Or a complex debate over the merits of a particular issue. Or anything that requires you to stop multitasking.

Email updates are fine, and some work fairly well. Percolate does a reasonable job of highlighting some articles I find interesting, for example.

But I don’t want what’s popular on social networks today as my sole source of information.

I want the hidden niche gems I’ve somehow discovered and collected like a digital scrapbook. And if I’ve been away, I want to go through the last few posts to catch up, without having to run around 200 urls.

RSS obviously hasn’t worked for Google as a proposition to make enough money to justify continuing – hence the demise of Google Reader, Adwords for Feeds, and likely Feedburner sometime soon.

But after taking stock of my RSS holiday, trimming down the number of sites I really need, and getting used to the idea I don’t need RSS Feed Zero, I want my Reader back. I don’t want a flashy magazine style application, or other responsive, skeuomorphic mobile first bells and whistles.

I just want a clear, simple, and quick way to automatically collect the content I want in a place where I can visit when I want to be inspired.

I’ll let you know when I’ve settled into a new RSS home.