Google Reader is gone (but not forgotten)

July 1, 2013: 11:26 AM ET

Many clones have taken the RSS reader's place, but its spirit lives on in the new social web

For a different take on the demise of Google Reader, click here.

By Ryan Bradley, senior editor


FORTUNE -- Back in March, when Google announced it was shutting down its beloved (though not, apparently, well-enough-used) RSS reader, I wrote a post about why this seemed to me like such a bad idea. It had—and still has—to do with the small and selective brilliance of Reader's social functions.

For news hounds, culture vultures, and anyone else who enjoys finding very good or bad or notable stuff on the internet and sharing it with a small group of fellow travelers, Google Reader was something special. It lacked the more performative aspects of Twitter and Facebook (FB) and Google+ (GOOG) because its (small) size bred intimacy. I followed maybe 15 people at its height, all friends in real life, and they followed me. Being small doesn't have to be such a bad thing. It often means you act like your own true self because you aren't performing or catering to Likes or Retweets. What's authentic on the internet can be rare and valuable thing indeed. Sincerity is, as some have argued, what made Instagram worth $1 billion.

The perfect coda to the death of Google Reader isn't the crop of Reader-clones that have risen to take its place (Feedly in particular). It's this week's launch of Potluck. Potluck is not an RSS reader, nor does it have much in the way of content, but hang with me a moment. Potluck is by the same team behind Branch, which is stripped down conversation-hosting site. When an especially juicy topic pops up on Twitter and many voices chime in, they often head over the Branch to hash things out (here is an especially memorable one about how much freelance writers should get paid).

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Potluck is even more basic: You paste a link. Maybe you say something about it. Maybe someone else, one of your friends, says something else. Maybe a conversation begins. But maybe it doesn't. That's it. So far Potluck is very small, and only a few of my more Internet savvy friends are on there, but the feeling of sharing bits of notable internet detritus with a small group of people you really know feels like the best moments on Google Reader. A directive Josh Miller, one of eight engineers behind Potluck, gave on a post about the service was: "Be your authentic self."

The idea that we are living in an era of the Social Web, which in some way exists apart from and is spreading out into the Regular (non-social) Web is wrong. The web has always been, and will always be social. We should probably blame Facebook, which has codified and monetized and added buttons to the experience, but hasn't prompted any behaviors that weren't already innate. We are social creatures, the internet is a network of networks, so shouldn't it be obvious it has always been thus? What has happened, as Facebook aged and grew and our social graphs became overly complex and nostalgic, is a corrective shrinking of these graphs, plus a rise of the ephemeral, and a new evaluation of the authentic. Call it the Great Snapchatting.

What still stings about Google Reader's disappearance is that, for such a forward thinking company, so many smart people at Google seemed to miss that their product was ahead of its time.

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