Give me my life back!

By Nick Holmes on March 19, 2013
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Filed under Feeds, Social networking



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Bad news recently … or is it? Google is retiring Google Reader, used by millions of news junkies, including self, but sidelined at Googleplex in recent years in favour of development of Google+. This follows the general trend of users away from feed reading to Twitter and other streaming update services.

It’s a reminder that you rely of free platforms at your peril. However, though many Google Reader fans might disagree, it’s not that a big deal (though I nevertheless urge you to petition Google). There are many other feed readers, several of which may suit you as well as Google Reader, or even suit you better, once you get used to them. Try feedly which automatically sets up from your Google Reader settings.

But for me it’s more a reminder that what’s important are the tools – in this case RSS – not the platforms, which get all the popular attention. Per Nick Carr:

Google was once a tool-maker. Now, it’s a platform-builder. Like Facebook. Like Apple. Like Microsoft. Like Twitter. Like all the rest. And so Google is officially killing off its popular RSS tool Google Reader. The move was in the cards ever since the creation of the Google+ platform. Tools are threats to platforms because they give their owners ways to bypass platforms. If you have a good set of tools, you don’t need a stinking platform. If you’re happy with RSS, you’re a little less likely to sign up for Google+, or Twitter, or Facebook. At the very least, the tool gives you the choice. It grants you self-determination.

Self-determination we crave. But we are too readily surrendering it to the web giants as John Naughton explains in his book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet:

The Internet has liberated a great deal of previously untapped human creativity, and provided its users with a cornucopia of delights – an unimaginably wide range of opportunities for entertainment, information, and communication. But concealed in those delights there may be a bitter pill that Huxley would have recognized, for in pursuing the things we enjoy we could, in fact, be sleepwalking into a kind of pleasurable servitude.

In particular we are currently surrendering our souls – our personal profiles, likes, dislikes, lists of friends, photos, the whole kitchen sink – to social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter (not quite so much, but give them time) et al; and don’t forget Goog who, like it or not, has recorded your entire search history if nothing else. However much we like these services, ultimately they will enslave us.

Does it have to be this way? Not according to the father of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, with Kieron O’Harah in The Read–Write Linked Data Web (PDF):

Work is being done to make social networking work in a Web-like fashion, so anybody can follow anybody across platforms. Hence, for example, the creation of identi.ca, a social networking and microblogging site similar in conception to Twitter, but that provides extra features including free export of personal data and data about friends based on the FOAF standard, and which runs off the status.net open source code base. If Alice tweets on identi.ca, the tweet goes into her Twitter feed. But even though such sites are moving in the right direction, they often use application programming interfaces, which are an extra layer of complexity and require the writing of some code—which remains an impediment to the webized free flow of data.

However, as we are talking about data, why not do the simple thing and use existing data standards? … The point of this architecture is to allow users to write their own applications, bringing in the data they need easily and straightforwardly. … On this model, someone creating a social networking site would not follow the usual practice of building a giant store to hold everyone’s data. Instead, they would sell an app cheaply to bring data together.

Does this approach have a hope in hell of supplanting the encumbent platforms’ control over our data? I believe so. As John Naughton asks: “How much exploitation will [social network] users tolerate before they decide to quit?” (Even Google won’t be around for ever, let alone Facebook)

If Facebook can go from zero to hero in a short time, it can equally quickly fall from favour, don’t you think?


Image: Brian Hodgson. I’ve visited the Hype Cycle once before. This one doesn’t really hit the nail on the head, but it’s pretty picture.