Tag Archives: Google Reader

Don’t forget the feed

Google killed Reader just over five years ago. This week, Digg decided to mark this Wood Anniversary by taking a club to its own Reader. Yet again, we oldsters find ourselves shaking our fists at Kids Today. See, for example, Bryan Alexander's thoughtful post on finding a way forward for RSS readers and RSS in general.

I celebrated this turn of events by struggling to set up an instance of Tiny Tiny RSS on my web server. Having finally figured it out, I'm pretty pleased with the functionality. One nice bit is the notice regarding "update errors":

Oh noes!

TT-RSS then has a tool for viewing a list of broken feeds. Looking through this list has been an interesting experience. For one thing, it's given me the opportunity to think about a few dozen people who have not otherwise entered my consciousness in a number of years.

More importantly, it's convinced me that the real threat to RSS is not the lack of reader software; you only need a couple of good ones to support an ecosystem. The bigger issue is that RSS content is disappearing.

The more mundane kind of problem is link rot and broken redirects. Many domains have gone away, some have moved in such a way that RSS links no longer work, some are now hidden behind password protection (Blogspot seems to be a particular offender). Web sites come and web sites go, so some of this is to be expected.

The more worrisome trend is content that's not available through RSS simply because there's no feed mechanism. A shamefully large number of my geekier aquantainces have moved their blogs to Jekyll and other static-site-generation tools, which don't appear to have feed support out of the box; and – this is the "shameful" part – since these folks, geeky as they may be, think so little of RSS, they don't bother setting up the secondary plugins or whatever necessary to serve feeds. I expect that kind of behavior from lock-up-my-content companies and technically-clueless organizations that rely heavily on proprietary and bespoke software, but not from people who ought to know better.

For all of its lumbering bloatedness, one of the truly wonderful things about CMSes like WordPress is that they give you things like RSS – along with a pile of other boring-but-critical-to-the-future-of-the-open-web tools – by default. You don't need to make the decision to support RSS readers (or responsive images, or markup that is accessible to assistive technologies, etc) – the system provides them for you, and you have to go out of your way to turn them off.

Those who build their own systems for old-school things like bloggish content distribution, or who rely on teh new hotness to do these tasks in ways that are slicker than the old-school tools, should beware the dangers of discarding the automated systems that are the result of many years and many minds and many mistakes. If you must reinvent the wheel, then do your due diligence. RSS feeds, like other assistive technologies, should not be an afterthought.

Doom and gloom upon the offing of Google Reader

This week, Google announced that it’s shutting down Reader. This is the first of Google’s “sunsets” that hits me personally – Reader has been a crucial part of my internet use for the better part of a decade. I happen to think, like Marco Arment, that in the long run the loss of Google Reader will probably be good for innovation in RSS readers and for RSS in general. Google’s hamstrung app has been just good enough for people like me, but non-approachable for non-geeks. A year from now, I’m hoping that there’ll be many more quality players. So, in the long run, I’m reasonably optimistic.

More immediately, though, a couple of causes for concern:

  1. Finding an alternative to Reader. My RSS reading habits are too ingrained for me to abandon them, even for a short time. More than that: following RSS feeds is beyond mere habit, but is check on my intellectual honesty. I follow many blogs whose authors I frequently disagree with, or even dislike. (Contrast this with Twitter, where I’m pretty fickle about whom I follow, and how many tweets/links I pay attention to.) So RSS is, for me, a partial antidote to the echo chamber tendency. That means that I’ve got to find a new app, and migrate over, and I’ve got to do it quickly.

    There have been a number of posts over the last couple days listing Reader alternatives. A number of them are cloud/service based, and for practical reasons (such as, um, Google Reader) as well as philosophical reasons (see below), I’m only considering alternative tools that I can run either locally or on my own server. A couple that spring to mind:

    • Fever. I’m interested in this one because (a) the screenshots make it look nice, and (b) it comes highly recommended by people I respect, like D’Arcy Norman. I like that it’s self-hosted. I don’t like the fact that its sustainability model is to charge for downloads. It’s not that I don’t think the author shouldn’t be paid – I would be happy to pay $30 or $300 for a great RSS reader app. It’s that the success of the single-developer model is contingent on the willingness of that developer to keep working on the project (paid or otherwise). I’m far more comfortable with software that is community developed under a free license, ideally using a set of technologies that would allow me to modify or even adopt the project if the main devs were to abandon it.
    • Tiny Tiny RSS. tt-rss also comes recommended by someone I respect (Mika Epstein, in this case). And it’s community-developed, which I like. It doesn’t look as pretty as Fever, but aesthetics are about fourth or fifth on my list of requirements.
    • PressForward. As Aram describes, the PF team (of which I’m pleased to be a member) is working on a WordPress-based tool that, among other things, does RSS aggregation and provides some feed-reading capabilities. PressForward is really designed for a different kind of use case – where groups of editors work together to pare down large amounts of feed data into smaller publications – but it could be finagled to be a simple feed reader. Mobile support is a particular pain point, as 50% or more of my RSS intake is done on my phone, and PF has nothing in place to make this possible at the present time. So, PressForward may not be quite ready for primetime, but I do think that it has promise.
  2. Get the hell off of Google. We all know that Google is a company with shareholders and profit goals to meet. Yet we often act like Google is some sort of ambient benevolent force on the web. Since I started Project Reclaim, I’ve been working on extricating myself and my data from the clutches of Google (among other corporate entities). Reader’s demise is a wake-up call that the time for dilly-dallying is over.

    For my own part, I still use a few Google services besides Reader:

    • Gmail. I don’t use Gmail primarily anymore, though many people do still email me at my gmail.com address, so obviously I have it open and I check it frequently.
    • Picasa. I use the Picasa desktop app on OSX to export photos from my cameras and organize/tag them. I also use Picasa Web Albums as one of my many photo backup services. (Seriously – I back up my photos to no fewer than six different local and cloud services. Nothing is more important or irreplaceable than my family photos.)
    • Drive/Docs. Aside from the occasional one-off collaborations, I use Drive to maintain a number of spreadsheets and other documents that I share with members of my family, etc.
    • Calendar. I’m not a heavy calendar user, but when I do use a calendar, I like Google because of its integration with my Android phone.
    • Chromium. Not Chrome, but still largely Google-reliant, Chromium is not my main browser, but I use it daily for doing various sorts of development testing.
    • Android. This is maybe the one that steams me the most, because at the moment there are no truly free alternatives. (Firefox OS, please hurry up.)

    In some of these cases, there are easy ways to get off of the Google services. In others, it’ll be a challenge to find alternatives that provide the same functionality. In any case, the Reader slaughter is a harsh reminder that Project Reclaim has stagnated too long with respect to Google services.

    More than myself, I’m worried about others – those who aren’t as technically inclined as I am, or those who simply don’t care as much as I do. Google’s made it pretty clear (as is their right, I guess) that they’re not an ambient benevolence. Those who rely on Google then, especially for critical services like email, should take this warning very seriously. Please consider carefully what you’re doing when you make yourself wholly dependent on the whim’s of Google’s product managers, and consider options that are either free-as-in-speech, or services that you pay for in a traditional way.

Saving tweeted items for later

I get a ton of reading material through recommendations on Twitter. But Twitter has a few problems as a source of reading material (problems that, among other things, keep it from being the “RSS killer” that people like to yammer on about). Perhaps the most pressing problem is that my normal use of Twitter is more or less at odds with the way in which I like to consume reading materia online. Typically, for me, Twitter is a sort of attention dump: if I’m doing work that doesn’t require all of my attention (or if I’m doing work that is sufficiently boring that I don’t want to give it all my attention), I’ll often pour my excess attention into Twitter. Web reading, on the other hand (which for me is typified by the kind of reading I do in Google Reader or Read It Later) is usually quite different, in that I generally don’t multitask as I’m reading. As a result, I frequently see links in my Twitter stream that I’d like to look at but can’t at the moment.

There are a couple of different ways that I deal, or have dealt, with the problem of collecting Twitter recommendations for later.

  • Readtwit – There’s a service called Readtwit that collects every link from your Twitter stream and creates an RSS feed out of the linked items, which are also annotated with the name of the original linker and the text of the tweet containing the link. Subscribe to the link in your RSS reader, which presumably is a place much better suited for concentrating on reading.


    I used Readtwit for about a week before I had to give it up. The problem is volume. I follow enough people, some of whom send out a huge number of links, that I found myself sifting through literally hundreds of items every day – on top of the hundreds of items I receive from all my other RSS feeds on a daily basis. Making things worse, I was only interested in a very small percentage of the items being linked to. I was wearing out my j key in Google Reader.

    Readtwit provides a bit of filtering tools to prevent against overload. You can filter out links from certain individuals, or (I think) links in tweets containing certain text. If you’re following a relatively small number of people, and you think you’ll be interested in most of the links that they send out, then Readtwit might be a good option for you.

  • star

    Subscribing to my Favorite Tweets feed – Twitter creates an RSS feed for any individual’s favorite tweets (located at http://twitter.com/favorites/yourtwitterhandle.rss). When I read a tweet containing a link that I want to check out later, I favorite the tweet. I’ve subscribed to my favorites feed in Google Reader, and a few times per day I receive the tweets that I’ve most recently favorited.

    The huge advantage of this method over Readtwit is that it lets me select only those items that I want to read, instead of getting every linked item in my stream. And since the favorites function is part of Twitter itself, I can mark items in any Twitter client. (It’s especially handy when, for instance, someone links to a video or something that can’t be viewed on my phone – I favorite the tweet, and check the link out the next time I’m reading my feeds on a computer.)

    The downside: What ends up in Google Reader is not the content of the linked article, but only the tweet containing the ink. That’s fine when I’m reading feeds on the computer and can easily click on the link. But it’s not a great way for me to read things on my phone while I’m in transit, which is what I like to do with longer-form web stuff.

  • ril

    Read It Later – That’s where Read It Later comes in handy. It’s a Firefox extension and a web service that allows you to mark individual web pages for later reading. (Instapaper is similar.) I use the iPhone Twitter app Twittelator Pro primarily because it has the built-in ability to save things to Read It Later. As you see at the right, I can click a button that will scour the current tweet for links and send the linked items to my Read It Later list (which I can then read in Firefox or in the RIL iPhone app or on the Kindle, as I have geeked out on before).

My workflow ends up being a combination of (2) and (3). If the link contains mostly text and images (which can be viewed in the Read It Later iPhone app, where I do almost all my RIL reading), I send it to Read It Later. If it’s got video or audio or Flash, I favorite the tweet and check the link out when it arrives when I’m reading my feeds in Google Reader at a computer.

On the cloud

Google freaked out this weekend, which, in turn, freaked me out. I’m a pretty ardent user of Google’s cloud services. Gmail is the most important to me, as it’s where all my email from the past four or five years resides. Reader has streamlined my online reading process so much that’s it’s hard for me to imagine how in the pre-Reader days I managed to read even a tenth of what I get through now. So when Google hiccups – even when the hiccup is apparently unrelated to where I store my data – I get scared.


via Reza Vaziri

These Google fears came just a week after I read Jason Scott‘s delightfully titled “Fuck the Cloud”. I don’t really buy into all the too-simple “you’re a sucker if you use cloud services” rhetoric, and I think (as urged in a Twitter conversation I had with @GeorgeReese) that a lot of what Scott is complaining about is more about backups than it is the cloud. Still, this piece, along with my Google woes, was enough to get me thinking about how wise it is to depend on web services like I do.

My first reaction on Saturday morning, when Google was acting up, was to back my stuff up. I saved all of my Reader subscriptions in a local OPML file, updated my POP3 backups of my Gmail messages in Thunderbird, and saved local copies of my important GDocs. I was able to make these backups because Google has allowed it by embracing the right kinds of standards. And this fact – that backups can be made and exports done – is one of the things that makes me relatively comfortable using Google’s services so extensively.

This relatively straightforward exportability stands in contrast to the situation at some of the other sites where I create and store content. I’ve used Tweetake to export my Twitter activity to a CSV file, but the solution is far from elegant. For one, I don’t really like giving my Twitter password out to a bunch of sites. Also, I’m not crazy about the fact that I can’t really do incremental backups. Ideally Twitter itself would offer some streamlined way to export one’s tweets. Facebook is even worse. I feel uncomfortable using Facebook’s message/email system because I know that there will probably come a day when I want access to those messages but cannot get them.

I don’t necessarily blame Twitter or Facebook for their total failure to provide content exporting. There is a sense in which the kind of content being created in these spaces – or, rather, the meaningful units of content to which we attach value and thus would want to save – is quite different from the most discrete units provided by email. What’s really valuable in Facebook is not just what I write, but what others write to and about me and my friends. Only a total snapshot of my entire immediate network would provide the kind of value for posterity that I want. With Twitter the situation is perhaps even more extreme: like in Facebook, the content I value is closely related to the content created by others, but in Twitter these people are not necessarily part of my immediate network at all (like when you @reply to someone you don’t follow because of some term you’re tracking). Pushed to the limit, you might even say that only a snapshot of all Twitter activity would really capture its value at any given time, since part of the value of Twitter lies in the potential you have to mine the collective consciousness, to get a sense of the zeitgeist. When the content that you value is so holistic, the details of backing it up become dicey.

On a more local scale, it’s probable that standard export formats will emerge as services like Twitter become more popular, in the way that something like Atom or RSS can be used to backup or restore a blog. In this sense, maybe my worries about certain kinds of cloud data storage are the kinds that will go away with time. Or at least until the next new kind of content is invented.

There are some other aspects of the cloud question that I find interesting, such as whether one should really feel more comfortable with local backups than with remote ones, and whether paying for a service really makes it more reasonable to feel comfortable keeping your stuff there, but I’ll save that for another day.