Why feed readers have been a geek flash in the pan

March 9, 2011

People have been bemoaning the slow decline of syndication feed readers for a while now. While I think that there are many causes of this, in my view one of these are that syndication feed readers are inherently an interface with a limited, geeky appeal.

To see why, you only have to describe the sales pitch for feed readers: they present a minimal and essentially unstyled and un-designed interface (or at least a generic one) to browsing, but not skimming, through a lot of information. This is a great pitch for specialists, but really, does this sound like something that ordinary people are going to want to use if they have alternatives?

Ordinary people actually like how websites style themselves, and they don't deal with the Internet information overload this way; instead of trying to follow a river of (personalized) news, they dabble in entertainment. As I've written before, a conventional browser and a source of URLs is a much better interface for this than the typical feed reader, including web-based ones such as Google Reader.

How did so many people miss the boat on this? (After all, Google built Google Reader even though they have apparently since abandoned it due to lack of use.)

While I'm sure that part of it was geek enthusiasm for new, geekish stuff that fits our needs, I think that the unforeseen growth of Twitter and Facebook are a decent part of it. Twitter and Facebook created a way to get a more or less personalized stream of URLs that you might want to take a look at; you effectively get to mine what your personal social network thinks is notable (which is how much news gets around in real life to start with).

(Reddit and Digg sort of filled the same niche, but they are nowhere near as personalized. Your social network's stream of URLs is effectively curated, and curated by specific people to boot to make it easier to filter. Us hairless apes are very good at deciding how much we should trust what some specific person that we know tells us about something; it has been a core survival ability for quite a while.)

Comments on this page:

From at 2011-03-10 03:14:54:

Google is still doing something with Google Reader, at least the mobile version, as it bugs me about reloading it once or twice a week to get updates.

I would say that my whole feed-reading experience does feel a lot like reading Usenet did, only with fewer tools to winnow out the chaff (leaving me to do it by occasionally reevaluating whether it's worth keeping a feed around, or adding a new feed based on someone else linking to a site). It figures that it would be eaten by Facebook and friends, pretty much like everything else worthwhile on the Net seems to be being sucked in, sucked dry, and left for dead. With any luck, everything worth caring about will be gone in a couple of years and I can just go back to reading books.

Written on 09 March 2011.
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Last modified: Wed Mar 9 01:08:00 2011
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