When Google announced Wednesday night that it was shutting down its Reader product, it was met with a reaction that wasn’t just furious, but personal. Many angered Reader-ites took to Twitter, looking for some outlet to express their anger, with some shouting “Save Our Reader!” in the hopes Google would hear their cries and keep their product alive.
Within the root of that protest, however, lies the very problem. Google Reader was never anyone’s Reader but Google’s and, by virtue of ownership, Google was always free to do with it what it wanted. On Wednesday night, the company announced plans that made that fact painfully clear and, being that Google evidently weighed the decision beforehand, it is unlikely that any protest, no matter how long it trends on Twitter, will get Google to change its mind. Google Reader, for all intents and purposes, is dead.
The death of Google Reader reveals a problem of the modern Internet that many of us likely have in the back of our heads but are afraid to let surface: We are all participants in a user driven Internet, but we are still just the users, nothing more. No matter how much work we put in to optimize our online presences, our tools and our experiences, we are still at the mercy of big companies controlling the platforms we operate on. When they don’t like what’s happening, even if we do, they can make whatever call they want. And Wednesday night, Google made theirs.
From a former Google Reader project manager.
Let’s be clear that this has nothing to do with revenue vs operating costs. Reader never made money directly (though you could maybe attribute some of Feedburner and AdSense for Feeds usage to it), and it wasn’t the goal of the product.
Reader has been fighting for approval/survival at Google since long before I was a PM for the product. I’m pretty sure Reader was threatened with de-staffing at least three times before it actually happened. It was often for some reason related to social:
2008 – let’s pull the team off to build OpenSocial
2009 – let’s pull the team off to build Buzz
2010 – let’s pull the team off to build Google+
It turns out they decided to kill it anyway in 2010, even though most of the engineers opted against joining G+. Ironically, I think the reason Google always wanted to pull the Reader team off to build these other social products was that the Reader team actually understood social (and tried a lot of experiments over the years that informed the larger social features at the company). Reader’s social features also evolved very organically in response to users, instead of being designed top-down like some of Google’s other efforts.
I suspect that it survived for some time after being put into maintenance because they believed it could still be a useful source of content into G+. Reader users were always voracious consumers of content, and many of them filtered and shared a great deal of it.