Google Reader Takes a Bow as Google Plus Takes the Stage: the death of critical reading on the Internet

The new Google Reader was released this week.  Its UI changes have streamlined its sharing functions in order to integrate it as easily as possible with Google Plus.  At first, I didn’t mind the changes, mostly because the clean white interface has kept distractions to a minimum on the Reader Interface.

But I’ve now changed my mind. I’m not sure I like the Google Reader changes. The new interface’s clean lines means that readability has stayed the same, if not improved, i.e., its look and feel seem to promote the act of reading over skimming. But the changes to its sharing function really is an issue. Sure, I can share things to G+, but clicking on the +1 button is akin to shouting into the din of the Internet.  I can share and share and share as much as I like, but I don’t know if people are sharing their own Google Reader items back into my G+ stream. Furthermore, I don’t know what kind of content they’re sharing anymore.  Are the shared items in my Google+ Stream coming from a valued Google Reader store?  Or are these items just clicks and pages found while surfing the net?  At best, the former Google Reader dialogue is now feigned (it’s now a monologue on G+), and the quality of those shared pages on G+ is indeterminable.  I’m now looking for options.

The changes we’ve seen to Google Reader has got me thinking again about the nature of reading, skimming, and sharing on the Internet. What made Google Reader so great (aside from the emphasis on reading, see above) was the assurance of quality that came with its shared items.  Shared Items on Google Reader were posts that came from blogs and websites that people believed were important enough to read regularly as opposed to mere posts and pages found while they or their friends surfed – and skimmed – the Internet.  People who used Google Reader had a better assurance that the content they found in their shared folder was carefully chosen, was fit for consumption, and required some of their time and attention in order to synthesize.

The fact that blog posts and shared items in Google Reader sat in a folder until the user actually read them shows the importance of the items’ content.  Google Reader’s interface – like all RSS interfaces – demanded the user actually read the content he or she saved to the system: content did not disappear until you at least saw that it arrived for you to read. This premise behind Google Reader, i.e., posts are to be saved for later reading, meant that its users selected content that was not merely ephemeral.  By its very nature, Google Reader asked the user to choose only the best content on the web and to store it in a separate space to read at a later time.  By and large, shared items on Google Reader had a quality assurance label stuck to them: these posts were determined to be distinct from the general “of the moment” nature of the web and therefore should be treated with care. Anything shared on Google Reader required special attention because some one said, “This content came from a valued source and ought to be read, and it is not going away until you at least see that I’ve shared it with you.”

Google Plus, Twitter, Facebook, and so many other social sites do not do this.  Social networks promote connections above all else, so the content is almost always “of the moment” (that’s the second time I’ve said that).  Content on social sites is pinned to a moment in time, but the conversation always moves forward. If you log in to Facebook at 2pm, you only see the conversations happening at 2pm; you must look carefully for what your friends shared earlier in the day.  That shared content may have been valuable, but there is no easy way to flag that value on social networks since content is subordinated to relationships and connections as they exist the moment you are online.

I like Google Plus, I really do. But like other social media sites, Google Plus emphasizes shared connections and the constant stream of chatter that arrives on your screen.  Of course, we can stop that stream at any time, click on a link, and fully consume what has been offered to us, but a social site’s design promotes social conversations over thought and analysis. I still believe that the “Internet Age” is an age of skimming. We are living in a time where thorough, critical analysis has been subordinated to the conversation. I’d like to see a balance restored between the two. So long as we aren’t reading well – so long as we aren’t taking the time to think critically about what we visit and read online – we are preventing those conversations from reaching their full potential.

Internet 2.0! Now skim faster and shallower!
Internet 2.0! Now skim faster and shallower!