Like many members of the small but fervent RSS community, I was upset to learn that Google was discontinuing its Reader product. For those of you that don’t know, Google Reader was a tool for reading RSS feeds, which are something between email and Twitter. Most websites these days have RSS feeds; you just don’t know it. You might’ve passed over it because a lot of times it’s listed right there along with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the rest. If a website doesn’t list it there, most browsers have the ability to detect hidden feeds. Notably, Google Chrome has always required an extension to have this ability. Foreshadowing, anyone?
What these feeds do is let you know when a website is updated. The difference between RSS and Twitter, though, is you can get all the content right there from the feed. Some sites opt out of this option and instead provide only a click-through so they can still get the ad revenue. There are also systems that allow you to embed ads in your RSS feeds.
So the updates come through a program like Reader and are listed like email with an unread count. This is my favorite feature and is why I still prefer the RSS system to Twitter, though I use both. You could go a few days without checking Reader and you won’t have missed anything. If you spend an hour away from Twitter the party’s already over. One other difference Reader has from email is that when you get the update and read it, or mark it as read, it disappears. It’s not a saved file like an email, although you can mark it unread or save it for later some other way.
The thing about Google Reader was that, because it was Google, it was centralized, connected to your Gmail, and essentially flattened the competition. And now that Google’s letting it go, what are we to do? Luckily, the RSS community is one made up of power users and they aren’t going to let the system die on them. Lots of new systems are springing up in Reader’s place, and some are offering innovative features that Google’s aging system didn’t have. The lead contenders at the moment include Feedly, Pulse, The Old Reader, and a wide variety of others. Digg has even announced plans to build their own reader. It looks like there won’t be a shortage of alternatives once Reader disappears on July 1st, and a part of me is looking forward to trying something new. Time will tell, however, if any of them will fill the void left by Reader. And if not, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.