The blogging world was stunned by the recent announcement by Google that it will be shutting down Google reader later this year. Due to my consulting relationship with Google I won’t comment too much on their reasoning, though I will note that I believe it’s possible the majority of regular readers of this blog, and many others, come via Google reader so this shutdown has a potential large effect here. Of particular note is Google’s statement that usage of Reader has been in decline, and that social media platforms have become the way to reach readers.
The effectiveness of those platforms is strong. I have certainly noticed that when I make blog posts and put up updates about them on Google Plus and Facebook, it is common that more people will comment on the social network than comment here on the blog. It’s easy, and indeed more social. People tend to comment in the community in which they encounter an article, even though in theory the most visibility should be at the root article, where people go from all origins.
However, I want to talk a bit about online publishing history, including USENET and RSS, and the importance of concepts within them. In 2004 I first commented on the idea of serial vs. browsed media, and later expanded this taxonomy to include sampled media such as Twitter and social media in the mix. I now identify the following important elements of an online medium:
- Is it browsed, serial or to be sampled?
- Is there a core concept of new messages vs. already-read messages?
- If serial or sampled, is it presented in chronological order or sorted by some metric of importance?
- Is it designed to make it easy to write and post or easy to read and consume?
Online media began with E-mail and the mailing list in the 60s and 70s, with the 70s seeing the expansion to online message boards including Plato, BBSs, Compuserve and USENET. E-mail is a serial medium. In a serial medium, messages have a chronological order, and there is a concept of messages that are “read” and “unread.” A good serial reader, at a minimum, has a way to present only the unread messages, typically in chronological order. You can thus process messages as they came, and when you are done with them, they move out of your view.
E-mail largely is used to read messages one-at-a-time, but the online message boards, notably USENET, advanced this with the idea of move messages from read to unread in bulk. A typical USENET reader presents the subject lines of all threads with new or unread messages. The user selects which ones to read — almost never all of them — and after this is done, all the messages, even those that were not actually read, are marked as read and not normally shown again. While it is generally expected that you will read all the messages in your personal inbox one by one, with message streams it is expected you will only read those of particular interest, though this depends on the volume.
Echos of this can be found in older media. With the newspaper, almost nobody would read every story, though you would skim all the headlines. Once done, the newspaper was discarded, even the stories that were skipped over. Magazines were similar but being less frequent, more stories would be actually read.
USENET newsreaders were the best at handling this mode of reading. The earliest ones had keyboard interfaces that allowed touch typists to process many thousands of new items in just a few minutes, glancing over headlines, picking stories and then reading them. My favourite was TRN, based on RN by Perl creator Larry Wall and enhanced by Wayne Davison (whom I hired at ClariNet in part because of his work on that.) To my great surprise, even as the USENET readers faded, no new tool emerged capable of handling a large volume of messages as quickly.
In fact, the 1990s saw a switch for most to browsed media. Most web message boards were quite poor and slow to use, many did not even do the most fundamental thing of remembering what you had read and offering a “what’s new for me?” view. In reaction to the rise of browsed media, people wishing to publish serially developed RSS. RSS was a bit of a kludge, in that your reader had to regularly poll every site to see if something was new, but outside of mailing lists, it became the most usable way to track serial feeds. In time, people also learned to like doing this online, using tools like Bloglines (which became the leader and then foolishly shut down for a few months) and Google Reader (which also became the leader and now is shutting down.) Online feed readers allow you to roam from device to device and read your feeds, and people like that.
This was followed by the discovery of feeds by the social networks. Sites like Facebook began as something browsed, but made a big change when they discovered the value of feeds and serial reading. This time it was different because most people linked to too many friends, and the volume of a typical social network feed is overwhelming and too full of material that is uninteresting to you, even if it’s from people you know. Online discussion groups consisted of material that was usually about a topic of interest to you, but not necessarily from people you knew. The online groups however often became communities, and people met new friends there, so nothing is entirely pure.
Nonetheless, the firehose of social network feeds gave us a new online media class: sampled media. You can’t read the whole feed so you only see what’s going on when you happen to read. The feed is so fast that most social networks never even implemented a concept of “she’s seen this, don’t show it to her again.” They rely on you to stop reading when you start seeing stuff you saw before.
Another orthogonal axis in this spectrum of online media is how the material is sorted. The classic method was chronological, but as feeds grew, systems have tried to sort in some sort of priority or importance order. This is even becoming true in mailboxes. Newspapers were always this way — the most important stories were on the front page or front pages of sections. You could read until you got bored and know you had surely hit the most important stuff. Likewise with some social media, they now promote stories that others are reading or liking or commenting on, and you can read until you get bored. This classification is usually algorithmic, though based on human activity, while a newspaper’s sorting is done by a human editor.
Still missing from all of this are the “slow feeds,” including a blog like this where there may only be a few posts a week. With these feeds you typically want to consider every item. You don’t want to miss an item just because you didn’t happen to do a reading session shortly after it was posted. These fare terribly in places like Twitter, and even on Facebook unless they get a lot of attention so the priority system keeps them around. As far as I’ve seen, the priority systems don’t pay attention to the fact that there is often a difference in the thoughtfulness between those who post once an hour and those who post once a week.
RSS and mailing lists fill this role today, and it’s a hugely important one. If RSS is wounded by recent events, there is a challenge for social media to fulfill the need.
- We need a way for authors to prioritize what they put out, to make the difference between ephemeral “updates on my day” and “topical notes” and “timeless essays” be clear. Authors could put “expirations” on posts (with a default of “a few days”) but it’s debatable if they would use such a UI.
- Since UI gets in the way, it would be good if systems automatically saw the difference between frequent posters and rare ones, and gave more weight per post to the rare posts. In some ways authors could implicitly have so many points per day, which they can “spend” all at once or spread out over many posts.
- We need a way to follow the non-ephemeral posts of writers we like in a way that always displays the important ones, even on busy days, and even weeks later.
- It must be platform agnostic (as RSS was.) I want to see all my followed writers in one place, whether they post on Facebook, G+, Twitter or their own site.
- In general, those who wish to post on their own site should not be impeded. While the fancy social networks have a zillion coders working on them and do fancy things, there is nothing like the true potential for innovation that comes from having a million different sites from a million developers.
- The “What’s new for me?” view is crucial and should be well developed. For extra credit, the USENET style where you checked off the interesting ones and then saw them with minimal UI (scrolling or hitting spacebar/pagedown) has a lot of value.
Some of these the social feed sites could do easily. Others, like being cross platform, they will resist. Social sites have tended to hate aggregators that serve actual user wishes and put everything together in one place. In particular, it’s harder to figure out how to integrate monetization into this approach, be it by advertising or other means. This is also the thing that’s hurt the web-based RSS readers, since they have costs to operate and few sources of income.
Can we see a return to the serial? Is this just a yearning for the glory days by an old hand, something that the new generation sees no value in? I don’t think so. Everybody sees the way we are drowning in information, and everybody hopes for something to deliver the magic — give me what I want as quickly as possible, without the FOMA (fear of missing out) drives people to be such rapacious consumers of online media to the detriment of the things they need to get done. In particular, we’re really short of solutions to what to do when we return from a long trip, or sometimes even a weekend, offline and the messages have just piled up even more. A move away from RSS, or at least the style of reading it represents, is probably not the answer.