How I’m going to share stuff on Google Reader now that Google has discontinued Shared Items

Google Reader’s sharing features [i] were discontinued yesterday, despite the decision causing a fair amount of discontent. Brent Simmonds wrote a fairly thoughtful comment on the changes just after Google announced them, concluding rather dramatically:

I’m not an RSS reader developer any more. But if I were, I’d start looking for an alternative syncing system right now.

Three points are worth making about this: RSS isn’t going away any time soon; a distinction should be made between accessing content on the Internet and sharing it; and there are ways of still sharing from Google Reader that are practically indistinguishable from the old one.

RSS is still the only way to efficiently access content in an unbiased way on the web

For most people, I realise, this isn’t a big issue. After all, few people use RSS to read news and blog posts: for reasons that largely escape me, most prefer to read news directly on their favourite newspapers’ websites. Yes, that means having to visit all of them and likely being restricted on the way that they can share the news if they’re using a mobile application, but on the Internet, as elsewhere, people like being told what to do. Many others exclusively read content curated by others—on their Facebook or Twitter feeds. By doing this, people are merely reproducing behaviour when interacting with other media, as when they passively watch whatever content is fed to them by their favourite television channel.

In the past couple of years, most commenters have regarded the decline of RSS as inevitable as increasing numbers started relying on social media (meaning, Facebook and/or Twitter) to access and share content. There’s no doubt that Twitter and Facebook provide two powerful and efficient ways of sharing content, the standard way being to use Twitter for content you’re happy to share with publicly, and Facebook for anything you want to share with your friends [ii].

The crucial distinction between accessing content and sharing it

Yet for those who, like me, prefer to choose what we read at source, RSS provides the only way to receive a copy of every story published online by whatever news source in which one finds one is generally interested—and I’m not the only one who uses it like this. To date the best way to access the feeds for those news sources has been Google Reader. And a good RSS client (in keeping with its slightly absurd policy of disdaining clients for exclusively web-centric interaction, Google doesn’t provide or even encourage clients for its online platforms), such as Reeder will enable me to quickly sort through my feeds—say every morning over breakfast, and then a couple of times again during the day—and only read what actually interests me, without delegating the task of selecting material to others, which is what you inevitably do when you rely exclusively for news on major media websites, Twitter or Facebook or any combination of the three. It’s also a damned sight quicker.

While I probably only read about 1 per cent of the content in my RSS feeds, I only want to share a even smaller portion. And the way I share it depends on whom it’s targeted at and whether I feel it warrants a comment. Until now, anything I want to share with friends only (typically, anything touching on private subjects such as politics) will tend to go to Facebook. For anything I’m happy to share publicly with a comment, Twitter is ideal, because the 140-character limit forces one to be concise and to the point and means followers will quickly get the point I’m trying to get across and click on the link provided if they’re interested.

That left, until yesterday, a third category of content that I still wanted to share, but didn’t feel compelled to include in my Facebook or Twitter feeds, either because I deemed it slightly less interesting, or because it didn’t warrant a comment: for this, I used the now-defunct Google Reader Shared Items.

For convenience, I’ve for some time now been providing a unified page on my website which includes links to anything I’ve publicly published on shared: so luckily, I’m not faced with the prospect of losing access to my past Google Reader Shared Items, because the corresponding links will continue to be hosted by me on a website I fully control—demonstrating the inanity of relying on third parties, however well established, to host your content.

Luckily, I’m not an Iranian blogger: because that country’s de facto authorities have no way to filter out Google Reader without blocking Google altogether, a lot of people used it to share information without fear of repression. They’ll now have to—and I’m sure will—find another way. For the luckier rest of us, who are stuck with Google Reader because there’s no other server-based RSS platform that can be as easily accessed via an API by clients installed on all one’s different devices, we’re going to have to make the best of it and share content using other platforms.

Users now have a choice between sharing content on Google+ or relying on Facebook and/or Twitter

Because I don’t use the Google Reader web interface, instead relying on the excellent Reeder clients for Mac, iPhone and iPad, right now I’ll simply be sharing everything on either Twitter or on Facebook. I’m assuming Silvio Rizzi, the developer of Reeder, will be swiftly adding Google+ to the list of services to which content can be pushed from inside Reeder [iii]. When that happens, I may decide to do one of three things:

  • use my Google+ profile, which I find totally redundant and have not actively used so far to share content on which I don’t want to comment—exactly like I’ve done with Google Reader Shared Items so far [iv];

  • use my Instapaper account to ‘like’ items I want to share, which will then become available to my followers,if they also use Instapaper, which a lot do;

  • simply whittle down my sharing options to two: Facebook or Twitter, which has the unbeatable advantage of simplicity.

The fuss over Google Reader’s sharing provisions should be kept in proportion: after all, the main purpose of Reader is reading, not sharing—and I’ll be able to continue doing that exactly as before. And, more crucially, given that Google have embarked on their—in my opinion—doomed attempt to compete with Facebook and Twitter in the social field, it’s perfectly consistent (indeed, they should have planned ahead on this rather than giving the impression that this move was an afterthought) that they should make it the only vehicle for sharing on their platform.

  1. In case you aren’t familiar with them, until yesterday you could share stories you’d liked on Google Reader, with or without an added comment, by making them ‘public’, and anyone who subscribed to your Google Reader shared items or looked at the corresponding page would be able to read them.
  2. Facebook’s gradual introduction of ‘public’ content has turned this slightly on its head—but that feature is unlikely to threaten Twitter, whose 140-character limit ensures it’s unbeatable on simplicity and readability, at least with power users.
  3. These already include Facebook, Twitter, Instapaper, Delicious, and Evernote, among others.
  4. If I choose this option, I won’t be polluting my Google+ profile with anything else, so that anyone subscribing to it will only be able to see my shared items in exactly the same way as they did with the discontinued feature; this is made inevitable by the fact that in Google+, unlike Google Buzz, you can set your profile to automatically import content from any other source—a tactical mistake in my opinion, but presumably a conscious decision by Google.