Where Are the Google Reader Changes?


Existing users tend never to be happy with changes, and all the services out there, Google Reader is particularly vulnerable 

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Ever since Google announced changes to its RSS aggregator last week, the stream of shared items in my Google Reader has been swamped with petitions opposing the changes, guides to working around them, and articles about Iranians who use the service to dodge their government's prying eyes. The service's sharing function has become an echo chamber of the oppostion, and as the week has come and gone, that opposition has intensified.

But where are the changes? When Google made the announcement, it said the changes would roll out in the coming week. So far at least, Google Reader looks the same to me, and I've yet to find anyone who has seen anything different. I've contacted Google for comment but have not received a response.

For users of any cloud-based service, changes in design and functionality can come as unwelcome surprises. Alexis Madrigal wrote about this phenomenon, which he dubbed the cloud's "my-mom-cleaned-my-room problem" back in our Tech Report in September. He wrote:

Netflix, Twitter, and Google make unasked-for, unanticipated, and unstoppable change in their products, which also happen to be our work and play spaces. Whether or not people like what the change did, they don't like how it happened. Facebook notoriously pushes changes out, most recently the new News Feed and Timeline profile pages. While they think of it as improving their product, in effect, they redesign what has become the default Internet startup screen for millions without asking.

So, of course people howl their protests. They remind us that we're all just children in the eyes of the cloud services provider and as long as we're under their roof, we play by their rules.

Existing users tend never to be happy with changes, because they're the people who use (and therefore presumably like) the service as it is. Bur for companies looking to improve their service's appeal, they have to think about the audience beyond those they already have. Of all the services out there, Google Reader is particularly vulnerable to this sort of logic. Those who use it, do so for free, and, because of it's minimal advertising, Google can't make very much money from it. Google has little to lose if Reader users are unhappy. But Google does have a lot to gain if they can get Reader die-hards to roll their content over to Google+, the social-networking site that Google has placed its bets on.

But nevertheless, the delay in the roll-out raises the possibility (however slim) that Google is tweaking its proposal. Google's announcement revealed drastic changes: "Many of Reader's social features will soon be available via Google+, so in a week's time we'll be retiring things like friending, following and shared link blogs inside of Reader." But why? It makes sense to integrate Google+ and Reader. It seemed strange from the get-go that there was no easy way to +1 a Reader post directly in the RSS feed. Why can't Google provide that functionality but leave Reader's social features untouched for their devoted users?

Companies don't have to force changes upon users. They could give people options, the ability to toggle between interfaces and to add or delete features to their liking (much like Google Labs did though it has now been discontinued). But they don't do that because they don't have to. This is what the cloud's my-mom-cleaned-my-room problem reveals: In the cloud, we don't have control over our things.

Image: Google

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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