Since 2005, I have started almost every working day by using one Web application – an application that occupies a permanent browser tab on my work and home desktop machines. That application is Google Reader.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that Google Reader will cease to exist from July 1 2013. Others have ranted, railed against the corporate machine and expressed their sadness. I thought I’d try to explain why, for this working scientist at least, RSS and feed readers are incredibly useful tools which I think should be valued highly.
RSS: a primer
When I first discovered the concept of RSS, it was one of those moments that made me think: “this is so brilliant, simple and obvious – why isn’t everyone using this?”
In fact even today, very few of my immediate peers know what RSS is or why it’s useful. This may be an issue specific to Australian science, which is not exactly renowned for being at the cutting edge of the web revolution. However, for anyone else struggling with the concept, let’s spell it out:
The point of RSS is that:
- you can monitor multiple, diverse sources of information in one location (aggregation)
- you don’t have to visit those sources until their content updates and your feed reader tells you when that happens
What are these multiple, diverse sources of information? For a scientist they could include:
- Tables of contents from journals
- Alerts and searches at key research-related websites e.g. NCBI PubMed
- Science blogs
- Saved job searches
- Activity monitoring at personal websites
Brilliant, simple, obvious. I wonder how scientists keep up to date in their field without RSS.
The Rise of Google Reader
Soon after launch, Google Reader rose to become the predominant feed reader. Undoubtedly, this was due in part to the brand. However, GReader does boast several key features which I believe contributed to its adoption:
- It’s part of the “Google suite”; one login, multiple applications; in other words it’s “just there”
- It’s “in the cloud” and so available and synched on all your machines; no local setup
- No need to read everything immediately; it’s a searchable archive (they did take their time implementing search though, didn’t they)
- Sharing to multiple networks is relatively easy via the “send to” function (forget about the now-defunct sharing button)
- Intelligent keyboard shortcuts and simple layout enable rapid click-through, allowing focus on interesting items and discarding of irrelevant ones
RSS Is Not Dead (even if you’d like it to be)
Permit me a brief rant?
I’m tired of twenty-something hipster data scientists telling me that RSS is dead and has been supplanted by Twitter, Google+ and so on. Or as someone put it at the Google Operating System blog: “not everyone likes seeing 1% of their news as it scrolls by”. It seems that there are those who would like RSS to be dead and who believe that if they repeat the phrase often enough, it will come true. They may be right.
I speculate that the popularity of RSS among (enlightened) scientists and librarians is an indication that it’s a tool for people who like to read things properly, slowly and in-depth.
Google can do what they like of course, none of us paid for the product and there are alternatives available. I’m currently trying Feedly, who assure us that their product will continue to work after July 1. My fear is that there are those who equate RSS with Google Reader and who see the demise of the latter as further evidence of the death of the former. And again, they may be right as a self-fulfilling prophecy takes hold.
However the Web evolves, I just hope there will always be tools and protocols to provide information for people with attention spans longer than a gnat and a requirement for serious research.