what was google reader


July 1 was the anniversary of Google’s shutting down Google Reader, its tool for organizing RSS feeds. On Google’s scale of operations, Reader was a fringe product, but among a certain generation of 2000s era bloggers and writers, it was the public sphere, whose loss is now much nostalgized. 

Reader was a means to share links to posts and articles that were worth discussing, and a means to disseminate one’s own bloggy writing without having to optimize it for social media’s algorithms or hype it incessantly for a merely theoretical audience who might have missed it. 

The thriving RSS-driven social network assured people that their work would find its way to the people who had shown an interest in it. This generally encouraged (for better or worse) longer pieces of writing, often in response to other people’s posts, and a greater flexibility in subjects and arguments. There were no blue checks or euphemistic metrics (likes and favorites) foregrounded, and bad-faith engagement was typically remanded to comment sections that many bloggers took care to try to moderate. 

Some people managed to make money from this mode of discourse, but it was only haphazardly organized as an economic venture. Mainly it was characterized by its opposition to mainstream media; it consisted of writers who had not yet broken into conventional journalism or established themselves in academia, or were not interested in professionalized opinion-making but wanted to participate in a conversation that hashed together mainstream media’s failures, under-discussed social concerns and political perspectives, random pieces of popular culture, and personal narratives of everyday discovery or ennui. 

Even before Reader was discontinued, you could see this culture was falling apart. The pressure to professionalize became stronger, more evident in the writing, in the hedging of analysis, in the pretenses to specific forms of authority and the flows of subservience to certain locations of power. After vilifying and ridiculing bloggers, mainstream media outlets began to appropriate their style and co-opt some of the writers. The “blogosphere” started to take on the quality of a protracted audition. It was seemingly paralleling how “indie” culture became “alternative” in the 1990s.

But the main thing that destroyed blog culture was of course social media. It wasn’t a matter of an independent subculture selling out; it was more a vast expansion of the space of countenanced cultural production. Social media generalized the idea of ordinary non-media people broadcasting their thoughts and feelings and details from their lives on an all-day everyday sort of rhythm. Social media brought more people “online” — that is, into the everyday exchange of “content” as a mode of socializing. It brought scale to bear on a kind of communication that had been ad hoc, somewhat serendipitous. Everyone suddenly needed a profile and a rhythm of posting and consuming; everyone would eventually have a personalized feed. 

Blogging presumed the idea of people being online, on a computer all day long, probably in an office. Social media seized on the commercial possibilities of generalizing that posture as a lifestyle, anticipating the integration of mobile technologies into people’s lives. From that position, one doesn’t “consume information” but is instead immersed in its continual flow. The product tech and media companies can then sell is not the content itself but the modulation of that flow — the route it takes and the advertising that can be festooned along its way. 

This raised the stakes for bloggers who were already doing this form of writing and posting — gave them a potentially larger audience and a possible means of making a living by monetizing that audience. (They would be supplemented and then supplanted by influencers.) It also shifted the tenor of concerns in the “discourse” toward putting out attention-gathering opinions (”takes”), whose impact could be measured not through coherent comments but reflexive gestures (follows, likes, retweeets, and eventually the “ratio”). 

People began to track the much expanded everyday conversation through social media, which was popular enough to begin to collapse contexts — it was not a community of people who shared interests, politics, or writing styles; it was just a mishmash of everybody you ever knew. This changed what people said and how they said it and why. 

The platforms themselves were invested in organizing people’s attention to “the discourse” around compulsion rather than curiosity. This meant creating a sense of FOMO around the friends and family and glamorous-seeming strangers who personal lives were now more visible and accessible for consumption, and a sense of urgency around information and conversation in general, investing it with a sense of competition, a scoreboard (foregrounded metrics), the possibility of “winning.” Being informed didn’t matter so much as being appropriately positioned in the flow. The substance of any conversation or debate was insignificant relative to how that debate was organizing people, lining them up into factions, gathering metrics, goading their quantifiable participation. 

The main tool for this reorganization was the algorithmic feed. Google Reader operated on an algorithm so simple it didn’t require the word. It was just a chronological feed of everything you chose to see. It could sometimes become hard to keep up with, but you never wondered if you were missing anything, and you also knew exactly what sort of time commitment it would require to “get to the end.” Social media reorganized media consumption so that there could be no end, only continual information triage, which it would insist on helping you perform. 

Algorithmic feeds are usually described as being what people “really” want because they drive up time on platforms. This mistakenly conflates consumption and control with desire. It may be better understood as a bait and switch. Algorithmic feeds changed what people were actually consuming on platforms, but not by shifting the mix of content. People started to consume the experience of being catered to, of being nurtured (or force-fed). This is the opposite of being in a public sphere; it’s enjoying the process of seeing the public sphere transcended, subordinated to the individual self.

What people get from social media is no longer about the information itself or the quality of what the algorithms choose but the process of having recommendations made to you; you consumed your own passivity in the face of torrents of information as a form of convenience. You got to enjoy the extinguishing of your own self-directed curiosity as a kind of luxury, as though it were a psychic massage working out the kinks and knots in your executive function until it was smoothed into nothing. 

The platforms themselves were invested in organizing people’s attention to “the discourse” around compulsion rather than curiosity. This meant creating a sense of FOMO around the friends and family and glamorous-seeming strangers […] and a sense of urgency around information and conversation in general, investing it with a sense of competition…

Painfully true.