Once upon a time, Google had a beloved social network. No, I don't mean Google+, and certainly not Buzz. I'm talking about the miniature social community that grew somewhat unintentionally out of Google Reader during the first six years of its existence. Even as countless companies jump at the opportunity to try and replace Reader before it disappears on Monday, the prospect of users finding a native social reading experience quite that good is as dim as ever.
Two years after it first launched, Google Reader was integrated with Google Talk, which brought one's Google contacts into the RSS reading service and allowed people to share articles and blog posts with each other. The "share" button in Google Reader didn't push headlines out to any third party social networks, as is now customary in just about every reading app. Instead, it limited the sharing to one's Google Talk contacts, which meant that the network was naturally focused mostly on people you knew. By definition, these were people you talked to. If you didn't IM with them, they probably wound up your buddy list because you had emailed back and forth with them at some point. Even if you'd never talked much before, Reader presented a new opportunity to converse in the comment threads that formed under every shared item.
The result was an intimate, semi-private network of friends, colleagues and some strangers who were all fellow Google Reader nerds. That meant they cared about blogs, podcasts and news sites as much as you did, even if they read different ones. Indeed, a big part of the fun was discovering bloggers and news sources you hadn't heard of via your friend's Google Reader shares. Before Twitter was everyone's personal wire service, Google Reader showed you the best stuff being read by a meaningful selection of people you actually knew.
For some, the Reader sharing community morphed from an online network into an in-the-flesh-one, as diehard sharers—or "sharebros" as they came to be known—hosted real-life meet-ups, made lasting friends and even occasionally got married to one another. As a social network, Reader never came anywhere close to the size of Facebook or Twitter, which were exploding just as Google began to neglect the Reader project. But what it lacked in numbers, the Reader community made up for in passion, focus and a flow of high-quality, typically troll-free conversations of the sort that many social startups and publishers would kill to host.
Indeed, it was Google's own social ambitions that ultimately drove the steamroller that would crush Reader, starting with the much-adored "share" button. In November 2011, the feature—and the community it created—were removed from Google Reader, sparking an outcry that felt massive, but would later be dwarfed when Reader's true fate was revealed. At the time, the company encouraged users to bring the conversation over to Google+, which it was (and still is) desperately trying to turn into a viable social network for people other than early adopter tech and media nerd types.
"The saddest part of Google Reader's slow demise is that I haven't really found another place to take those conversations," says Zach Seward, senior editor at Quartz. "It turns out the communities that assembled insider Reader were more-or-less an accident: the right people using the right product at the right time. The utility of feed-reading came first, and since it did that so well, there we all were. Now there's a Reader diaspora."
The embittered Reader users of 2011 did not, in fact, flock to Google+. And here we are in 2013, Reader has a few days left to live and still, no aspiring replacement has quite managed to replicate the original community Reader once hosted.
It's not that nobody's trying. A service called The Old Reader has done its best to clone the original Google Reader, including the internal sharing feature. It offers the ability to follow friends, share stories and comment on individual posts. When I logged in to The Old Reader and connected my Google account, it found 15 friends who were using the service, many of them from my old Google Reader crew. Still, it was just a fraction of the group I used to share articles with before Google+ ruined everything. Most people I know fled to Feedly, many are drawn to the new Digg Reader and others are experimenting with other, lesser-known RSS reading applications.
Indeed, this is the very heart of the problem for those in the diaspora to which Seward refers. As the mighty giant called Google stomps its boot down and destroys Reader, the service's inhabitants are all scurrying in different directions, trying to find a new home for their RSS feeds. As a result, no single network is going to include everybody you know. Only when—or if—a single entity emerges as the dominant Reader replacement will a sufficiently large majority of one's reading buddies be in the same place at the same time. Even then, precisely recreating Google Reader's original magic will likely prove elusive. The best case scenario may well something that's merely close enough.
Other companies in the newly energized feed-reading space will undoubtedly try to build their own social reading experience. In these final days before Reader's demise, however, most of them are too preoccupied with building out the core essentials of a feed-reading service as quickly as humanly possible.
The headquarters of Betaworks-owned Digg, for instance, is an unusually hectic place this week, as a team of designers, engineers and product people rush to polish off the beta for the company's last-minute stab at wooing the Reader refugees. The Digg Reader beta started rolling out on Wednesday and will continue to evolve and onboard new users over the next few days. Its interface and functionality roughly approximate that of Google Reader, but with the iconic Digg "thumbs up" replacing Google's star-shaped favoriting button. It also sports its own backend, which is ripe to be smartly integrated with other Betaworks content products and an array of external social data.
David Weiner is another member of the Reader diaspora. Like the rest of us, he's about to be forever evicted from his feed-reading home of the last several years. He's still nostalgic for the old share button and the now-dispersed community of which he was once a part. But unlike you and I, Weiner has the opportunity to help build out an alternative to what Google is shuttering. As the editorial director of Digg, Weiner is currently knee-deep in the company's effort to launch Digg Reader. As the first iteration of the service is pushed out the door, Weiner and his colleagues are naturally thinking about what the future of the product will look like. At launch, Digg Reader doesn't have internal sharing, nor is it officially on the product roadmap yet. But it's something that Weiner and many of his colleagues are hoping to work in at some point.
"It's something I think a lot of us would like to do at some point," says Weiner. "I've made real life friends with people I met through Google Reader. I think it was probably the best social network maybe ever."
Right now, the bulk of the company's efforts are going into ensuring that a functional, well-designed reading service is ready and waiting for the last-minute Google Reader stragglers. What they push out the door needs to meet most users' expectations well enough to lure them away from competitors like Feedly, Feedbin, AOL Reader and the like. The bells and whistles needed to placate super-users can be bolted on later, and some of them—like internal search—would likely work best as part of a paid, premium subscription. Where social sharing falls on that free/paid continuum remains to be seen, presuming the feature gets added at all.
"Right now, we have to figure out if it would work," says Weiner. "When you're Google and everyone has a Gmail address, you're kind of automatically opted in to this kind of network. Obviously we'd be dealing with a smaller pool of people. So it's about figuring out the priorities. If we get a lot of feedback about that, which I'm kind of hoping for, then I think we would love to work that in."
Once the post-launch dust settles, the demand for Digg Reader to add this kind of functionality will almost certainly be there. Feedly users are already clamoring for "old school Google Reader-style social sharing," but like Digg, the company hasn't officially worked it into their roadmap.
With users still scurrying from the soon-to-be-rubble of Google Reader, none of these new entrants are in a position to start building much beyond their initial offering. What's next for each of these companies will be determined in large part by how much of this Reader diaspora settles into their services and precisely what those hordes of new users are most vocally clamoring for.
"There are lots of great places to read, share, and comment, but I doubt there will ever be one that assembles the same kind of masses in the same kind of way that Google Reader did," says Seward. "That's sad, but with any luck, it will lead to something we don't yet know is better."
[Image: Flickr user Mike Melrose]