The end of Google Reader: a scientist’s perspective

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.


Some feeds, yesterday

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.

The Future

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.

18 thoughts on “The end of Google Reader: a scientist’s perspective

  1. My real concern is that the demise of GR will also lead to fewer websites providing RSS links in the belief that no-one uses them anymore. Yes I know it’s possible to make a link to something like GR, but I’m not sure if I have the time/inclination to learn how. Didn’t I read somewhere that another company is working on providing the backend of GR?

    • Feedly claim that they are working on a clone of the GR API, so that their service will continue to work when GR is gone. I guess we’ll see come July 1. But then, how long will Feedly be around?

  2. I’ve been looking at as a possible alternative. It is perhaps a bit too fancy, but some sort of self-hosted service may well be the answer, assuming one can find mobile clients able to access it adequately.

    “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.”

    Indeed – same here.

  3. Hi Neil

    “very few of my immediate peers know what RSS ”

    This seems to be true of scientists and non-scientists alike. It’s a mystery (to me at least) why more people don’t / didn’t use feeds – seems to be mostly the preserve of geeks.

  4. Pingback: The end of Google Reader: a scientist's perspective | Didactics and Technology in Education |

  5. I’m a RSS junkie also. I use rss2email and push everything through my email client.

    RSS is part of the open web. This is it’s problem and strength. It’s slightly harder to use than a more integrated solution and always will be, because it’s uncontrolled, because it’s flexible. Currently, the web is moving away from openness at every turn and toward the walled garden. It is a shame.

    On the flip side, I think, with the closure of GReader, I think people are becoming more and more aware that Cloud Convenience entirely comes at the cost of lost of control. I use cloud services pretty rarely — currently, I think, Google Calendar is my only essential option — and only when there is a way out. The more this sort of thing happens, the more convinced I am that this is the right decision.

  6. I’ve just migrated to feedly and there are a couple of things that I like – and inevitably a couple of things I don’t. One of the main attractors was the promise that they would continue after July 1st. We shall see…

  7. Why is the Feedly app for iPhone easier to use than the desktop version? Maybe I’m turning into my parents… However, full credit to them, Feedly imported all my Google Reader RSS feeds without complaint.

  8. I never understood the argument that Twitter is a replacement for RSS — 90% of articles on feeds I read never get tweeted (or at least not by people I follow, which granted isn’t that many). So I’m supposed to just ignore them then?

  9. Well, I read about the alternatives to Google Reader suggested by the other commentators, and I’m glad to you and I think that I’ll stick to Feedly, it’s only ‘con’ is the fact that it works as a browser addon, not as web application, and this I will have to install in every device its appropriate Feedly version. I tried feedafever, it’s concept to simplify your feed reading experience appears to be fun – but they ask you to pay $30. That is not for starter, as me. The problem with feedly, is that it works as a browser addon, not as a web application. I will feel the need of a ‘meta-feed’ like the ones that GReader provides for each one of your tags, like, for example, the podcasts, having a ‘meta-RSS’ of all the podcasts feeds on my GReader I can then use it on a podcast downloader that will fetch all of my favorite podcasts once.

    About the reasons why Google decided to shut down, I think the guys really will want to make people give up from using feeds at all – and perhaps, in this way, lead them to use more Google+. Instead of each website manager provide the feed, it will provide a Google+ page, in which the operation of “feed subscription” will be replaced by “+1 this GooglePlus Page”. This way, I think, the decision is a side-effect of ‘social network war’ between Google and Facebook.

    As a footnote, I will likje to ask the Google Guys, what about the podcasts, how we’ll get them from the websites ? It’s through the feed the audio files are fetched!?

  10. The problem is that Google wants to go into the content business. Apple makes good money with selling magazine subscriptions for the IPad. There no way for Google to sell subscriptions to content with Google Reader. There’s a way to do so for them with Google Currents.

  11. A friend of mine suggested that we all use Google+ exclusively, as many feeds are available as people to follow on G+. This option does not work for RSS feeds, which are very important for scientists to read. I just switched over to, and it seems to be a much nicer interface for reading paper abstracts than feedly. Theoldreader has the same look and feel as Google Reader. Still, I miss having all of my data in one place on the cloud (Google).

  12. The Old reader seems to be the most familiar and simplified online RSS aggregation, but sadly is quite buggy at the moment. Hope it clears up.
    And Feedly seems to be reluctant to render LaTeX images, at least from wordpress.
    As of now, there is no true alternative on the cloud (IMHO). Hope the announced digg Reader is up to the mark.

    • I think you’re right regarding lack of genuine alternatives. I can’t see how Old reader, a toy side project run by 3 people, is going to scale to millions of users.

  13. I am currently trying ‘netvibes’ which also imports the google data and appears to work decently. The look & feel is somewhat unusual and requires some configuration work; I strongly prefer the reader mode over the widget mode, but this is a matter of taste. I also don’t like the fact that netvibes displays all feeds, no matter if there are unread items. However, after some time I got used to this feature and just ignore the feeds that are greyed out.

  14. I don’t think RSS is dead because other people tell it’s dead. We have a diverse working environment in our lab. Sadly, only two out of 13 people use RSS feeds, I think. But for the two of us, it’s productive. One used the gO.ogleReader, and now has to switch. I simply use Thunderbird (portable) as RSS client; works fine and gives me what I need in most cases. My two cents: cloud stuff is pretty, but also quite fluffy and puffy. It can be blown away by the Higher Authority at any time. I’m going to stick with downloading my feeds (and mail, etc.). I can have a copy of stuff in a cloud service at the same time.

Comments are closed.