Precisely How Google Killed Google Reader

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As you may remember, we argued that Google should take its extant communities and try to make them the core of its social offering rather than building G+ from scratch. 


That hasn't happened. But the memory of the communities on Google Reader live on. At BuzzFeed's FWD, there is a terrific epic about the lost social network that thrived within the admittedly narrow confines of the RSS application. 

What's best about the story is that it goes deep into the mechanics of how Reader's functionality enabled a community to develop and then how Google crushed it. There was (is?) an institutional logic in place that the company's social offerings had to be centralized, i.e. had to be turned into a platform. Whatever users were currently doing was just not important to Google, as Rob Fishman's excellent reporting makes crystal clear: 

At one point, [Google product manager Brian] Shih remembers, engineers were pulled off Reader to work on OpenSocial, a "half-baked" development platform that never amounted to much. "There was always a political fight internally on keeping people staffed on this little project," he recalled. Someone hung a sign in the Reader offices that said, DAYS SINCE LAST THREAT OF CANCELLATION. The number was almost always zero. At the same time, user growth -- while small next to Gmail's hundreds of millions -- more than doubled under Shih's tenure. But the "senior types," as [user experience designer Jenna] Bilotta remembers, "would look at absolute user numbers. They wouldn't look at market saturation. So Reader was constantly on the chopping block."

So when news spread internally of Reader's gelding, it was like Hemingway's line about going broke: "Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly." Shih found out in the spring that Reader's internal sharing functions -- the asymmetrical following model, endemic commenting and liking, and its advanced privacy settings -- would be superseded by the forthcoming Google+ model. Of course, he was forbidden from breathing a word to users. "If Google is planning on deprecating Reader, then its leaders are deliberately choosing to not defend decisions that fans or users would find indefensible," wrote [Google engineer Chris] Wetherell. Kevin Fox, the former designer, was so fearful that Reader would "fall by the wayside, a victim to fashion," that he offered to put aside his current projects and come back to Google for a few months. Shih left Google in July. Seeing the revamp for the first time, "most of us were prepared for a letdown," he blogged, "and boy, is it a disaster."

When people say (do they still say this? or is too obvious to bear witness to at this point?) that "Google doesn't get social," I think this is what they mean. Rather than finding a way to turn their most dedicated users into content creators for the larger masses of users, they just took their tools away, alienating a group that had *loved* their product. And for what? A G+ product with a huge nominal user base and a much, much, much smaller actual community. I guess the "higher ups" got their numbers.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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