Google’s Lost Social Network

How Google accidentally built a truly beloved social network, only to steamroll it with Google+. The sad, surprising story of Google Reader.

This post originally ran in December of 2012. Today, Google Reader, the eight-year-old RSS reader that became an industry standard, has been given a funeral date: July 1st, 2013. “We launched Google Reader in 2005 in an effort to make it easy for people to discover and keep tabs on their favorite websites,” says Google. “While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined. So, on July 1, 2013, we will retire Google Reader.”

***

Last October, while hundreds of protesters were encamped in Zuccotti Park, a handful of people occupied a glass building in downtown Washington, D.C. Wearing sheepish grins and business-casual attire, the 99% they were not; one demonstrator said he worked for Grover Norquist. “GOOGLE: DON’T MARK ALL AS READ,” pled a poster outside the Internet company’s D.C. headquarters, where the aggrieved customers had assembled.

That week, on the heels of launching its long-awaited social network, Google was to make significant — and feature-breaking — changes to Reader, an RSS news aggregator launched in 2005. Formulated as a “river of news,” a scrollable collection of headlines from across the Web, the site added sharing features that endeared it to a niche group of users.

Pre-Twitter, it was the essential aggregation tool for news and information junkies. But Reader had also became a social network in its own right. Four years on, with Google+ ascendant, these same social functions were marked for elimination. And so, its users fretted, was their beloved Google Reader.

“We think the end result is better than what’s available today,” wrote Alan Green, a software engineer who announced the impending changes on Oct. 20, 2011. “We recognize, however, that some of you may feel like the product is no longer for you.” For Reader loyalists, the revamp was not only seen as worse — it was devastating. Over the years, so-called “Reader Parties” had sprung up everywhere from the Long Island Sound to the Ozarks.

“Sharebros,” as some came to be known, crashed on one another’s couches, sparking real-life friendships and not a few marriages; in the soon-to-be-appropriated language of Google+, there were “hangouts” among “circles.” Google had fostered a social network and earned die-hard fans in the most valuable way possible — without trying.

The few picketers in Washington stood for numerous members in a Facebook group that spanned from Houston to Detroit, with outposts in Macedonia, Switzerland, and Singapore, and a particularly vocal contingent in Tehran. After an Iranian blogger lobbied against the changes (citing Reader’s contributions to the Green Movement), a barrage of press from TechCrunch, Mashable, and Andrew Sullivan directed 13,745 signatures to an online petition. Nonetheless, on Halloween of last year, Google went ahead with the redesign. A former product manager called it a disaster, while an ex-designer offered to rejoin the company to stanch the damage. As one commentator complained, “There’s almost no way Google could have blundered more disastrously here.”

In the year since, Google+ has been derided as a “virtual ghost town” and a “complete failure” unpopular even with Google employees. All of which has heightened the resentment shared by Reader fanatics. Today, they are a population dispossessed. Many have disappeared off the grid, while others struggle to rebuild communities that were, with a few keystrokes, deleted. All of them — the dental student in San Antonio, the academic librarian in Boston, the game developer in San Francisco — yearn for the scroll-tracked Shangri-La that was.

They wonder why Google deep-sixed superlative features, years in the making, for an upstart social network, a Facebook clone. In the year past, the same question has been framed and phrased in a thousand different ways — why force an unproven social network on users at the expense of an organic one?

Or, to put it more bluntly, why pave over paradise to put up a parking lot?

***

In the summer of 1999, Meg Hourihan took a vacation. She had recently founded Pyra Labs, a Silicon Valley tech startup that aimed to increase workplace productivity. Hourihan was also the author of Megnut.com, one of the earliest weblogs. While she was away, her business partner, Evan Williams, who went on to cofound Twitter, released a side project, a digital publishing service for just such budding diarists. The project found an audience and soon became Pyra’s focus. Blogging was taking off, although the Pyra founders said they worried about “unimaginative” postings like “I’m tired” or “This sucks.” The following spring, Hourihan met Jason Kottke, a Web designer who, among other creations, drew the “half-assed technicolor logo” on Gawker’s masthead. Kottke was another blogging pioneer, and after a courtship online as much as off, he and Hourihan married. (Disclosure: Kottke sometimes works from a desk in the BuzzFeed offices.)

In early 2001, Chris Wetherell, a software engineer, was reading Kottke’s blog. That day, a company called Moreover was featured. Moreover was offering what is today a hallmark of any website’s right rail: a feed of headlines from around the Web. To find the desired stories, you entered keywords: “Britney Spears, Napster, DVDs, museums, etc.,” for example. Wetherell wanted to try it himself. His version, called Java Collect, was an open-source library that displayed Moreover’s feeds and scraped websites like CNN for top news; on 9/11, when news sites went down, Wetherell’s module retained some of their cached headlines. Over the next few years, while his servers spun at home, Wetherell joined Google. He was working on Blogger, the service that Hourihan and Williams had started and, in 2003, sold to the burgeoning, and still privately held, search company.

Blogger, too, displayed feeds on their pages. These feeds, also known as Web feeds or news feeds, first came about in the late 1990s. At that time, early bloggers like Williams and Dave Winer, a software developer, had made meaningful headway in publication, but struggled with syndication. Blogs would be updated without their readers ever noticing. While the Web had embraced HTML, much of its sister language, Extensible Markup Language, or XML, had yet to be written. If HTML exists to display data, XML was built to transport it. In XML, Winer saw a solution to the syndication problem. And in April 1997, he released Scripting News, a sort of “bibliography for DaveNet,” his blog at the time. “I decided to take the plunge, and take the chicken out of the chicken and egg problem. Or is it the egg? Who knows. But from now on, Scripting News, in addition to being a HTML Web page, is also an XML application,” Winer wrote. With the advent of Web feeds, blogs like DaveNet, EvHead, or Megnut could reach beyond a dedicated audience to find wide distribution. The Web’s Gutenberg moment had passed, and here were intimations of a fax machine.

Called RSS (for Rich Site Summary, and later, Really Simple Syndication), the new technology followed a volatile and often contentious trajectory over the next five years. Engineers at Netscape designed their own version for My Netscape, a forerunner of personalized Web portals like iGoogle. But when Netscape was acquired by America Online, development on RSS grounded to a halt. And that’s when the infighting started. Winer took up a post at Harvard’s Berkman Center, where he released RSS 2.0 under a creative commons license, and tried (but failed) to trademark the name. Meanwhile, developers from IBM, Moreover, and Google’s Blogger continued work on an alternative version called RDF, from which RSS had taken some of its DNA, motivated as much by technical disputes as by Winer’s alleged imperiousness. “Dave Winer has done a tremendous amount of work on RSS and invented important parts of it and deserves a huge amount of credit for getting us as far as we can. However, just looking around, I observe that there are many people and organizations who seem unable to maintain a good working relationship with Dave,” Tim Bray, one of the creators of XML, blogged in 2003. In some circles, he added, RSS had come to stand for “Reliably Spiteful Squabbling.” Winer fired back: “Why has my personality become the issue? They’re using that to try to get me to shut up.” While haggling with his detractors, Winer cannily sidestepped the dispute and took his offering straight to the publishers. In April 2002, The New York Times signed on with RSS, followed by Salon and Rolling Stone. By June 2004, The Times had expanded its offerings to 27 feeds. No longer an obscure directory for bloggers, as the paper of record reported, “This increasingly popular online tool turns a morass of disparate information sources into an automatically generated and neatly organized index of the latest articles and postings.”

It was later that year when a Google colleague challenged Wetherell to construct an Atom parser in Javascript. Atom was yet another XML language, and the dare called on Wetherell to expand on his old passion project. If successful, he would have “something that turns something into something else which could be used to represent data that was basically about cat photos,” as he transliterated for the layman. The parser worked. One night, while testing and debugging, Wetherell had a Frankenstein moment. “A little wheel reinvention occurred,” he recalled, “as a square. The parser became a reader by accident.” Most of the time, software developers write additional code to describe complex data. By a stroke of luck, Wetherell’s reader actually bypassed a layer of complexity. Wetherell designated the creation as his 20% project. In a pitch meeting, he drew a circle on a whiteboard, and wrote below it: “Feed reading is inherently polymorphic.” The kind of RSS reader Wetherell envisioned would be “athletically flexible to match a wide variety of reading styles.” He drew spokes out from the circle to delineate the different use cases he imagined. Finally, his colleagues said, “OK, then.” Work on “Fusion” — the prototype for what became Google Reader — would begin.

***

A supposed principle of contemporary Web behavior is the 90-9-1 rule. For every 100 users, it posits, 90 people will consume content curated by nine influencers, originated by just one creator. It takes a single finger-biting baby and about a million upvotes to generate nearly half a billion views on YouTube. In a more traditional context, a reporter like Michael Hastings gets Stanley McChrystal on the record trashing President Obama, and Politico, The Huffington Post, and Gawker disseminate the story to a news-hungry public. Over the past decade, the 90’s mindshare has seesawed between the one and the nine; in the McChrystal case, Rolling Stone, for whom Hastings worked at the time (he now writes, additionally, for BuzzFeed), was up in arms when blogs shared advanced copies of its scoop. The relationship between originators and distributors has been described as parasitic (see Keller on Huffington: “flocks of media oxpeckers who ride the backs of pachyderms”); commensalistic (see Zuckerberg to publishers: “discover more news stories through your friends”) and symbiotic (see Peretti on Zuckerberg: “They own the railroad tracks, we drive the trains”). Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, being mass-distribution platforms for user-generated content, scratch both itches, and hence are touted as the ne plus ultra of software development.

In the beginning, Google Reader was merely a means of distribution — a tool for the 90%. The small team, which by 2007 had grown to nine engineers, innovated mostly on improvements to the reading experience, adding labels, search, and embedded videos. The beauty of Reader was that it was self-contained. Fossicking through search engine results meant more tabs, more browser windows, more clicking out; with Reader, it was about digging in. Infoholics used Reader as a one-stop shop for their favorite sites and blogs. There did exist a rudimentary method of sharing, a workaround where one user could subscribe to another’s feed of shared items. But as Christine Eslao, a Reader from Boston, remembers, “You were kind of sharing in a void for no discernible purpose.” Chrix Finne, a Reader product manager, described the sharer’s plight in his limerick:

There once was a Reader named Chrix,
Who found himself in quite a fix:
He’d fun stuff to share
But no one was there,
Now Reader shows friends when Chrix clicks!

In December 2007, Reader linked up with Google Talk (the chat feature in Gmail) to display shared streams from friends. Within the context of feed reading, it fomented something of a Neolithic Revolution. Foragers, hitherto gathering headlines on a crude and solitary basis, became farmers, cultivating streams of information for their neighbors. Sharing increased 25% overnight. At Yale University, a student named Richard Berger (later known as Richard Likebot or Obscure Reference) notified his friends of the changes. “Holy shitballs,” replied Tom Lehman (aka Lemon or just Tom), who would later create the popular and lavishly funded lyrics annotation site Rap Genius. “I fully support this idea. Even if no one else does, please add everything to your shared feed.” Soon after, Reader implemented a bevy of complimentary features like pithy annotations and a bookmarklet to aggregate sites that didn’t support RSS. In March 2009 came a crucial update, allowing Readers to comment on one another’s shares. Eslao, the Reader from Boston, convinced her boyfriend to sign up.

From Kevin Coppola: “Backstory: a sharebro Tanner shared something like this saying he wished he had one. I was like ‘bro i have one,’ got his address and mailed it to him, got this share shout out. Pretty silly!”

By that time, Lehman, Berger, and many of their friends from Yale were living in New York. Sharing had continued unabated, but now they were seeing comments left by perfect strangers. Berger took what he called a “strict constructionist approach,” refusing to link up with anyone new. His brother, Daniel, on the other hand, followed everyone. With the introduction of commenting, remembers Todd Schneider, another friend from Yale, “that’s really when all these people from God-knows-where started showing up, and who knows how we were related to them.” Luther Lowe came into the fold through a childhood friend. An Arkansan who worked at Yelp, Lowe helped assimilate the “Arkbros” into the New York flock. “Reader was special because it stitched together really brilliant and creative people who otherwise would have never met,” said Lowe. Two of his Reader friends became real-life roommates. Lowe also met Matt Patterson, a writer for the television show Californication, who began incorporating the sharebros into his fiction. The two arranged a trip together to Mexico, and met for the first time an hour before they crossed the border into Tijuana. In comment threads, Lowe encountered the Internet persona Carles, the pseudonymous proprietor of Hipster Runoff. Lowe proposed that in exchange for a shout-out on Hipster Runoff, he would run the New York Marathon wearing a T-shirt that said “I am Carles” (the hipster of the decade’s identity is the subject of some speculation). Lowe completed the 2009 race, and Carles held up his end of the bet, writing: “This bro is me. This bro is you. This bro is every1 we know.” The brothers Berger were there to cheer Lowe on, waving Google Reader signs from the crowd.

If feature upgrades breathed life into the Reader community, its subsequent maturation came from within. As the decade ended, many of the key product leads moved off of Reader, or away from Google entirely. Wetherell left Google in the summer of 2008. A year later, Ben Darnell, one of Reader’s technical leads, joined FriendFeed to work alongside Kevin Fox, a former Reader designer. Jenna Bilotta, a user experience designer, transferred to YouTube in 2010. But as support from Google waned, the community took it upon itself to maintain, and even to innovate, on the platform. “We were kind of protective of it,” said Kevin Coppola, a dental student from San Antonio who learned of Reader through Carles. “It was your own sacred space, your baby.” Eslao, her friend, Aili Contini-Field, and others in the Boston area shared within the commune-like confines of what they called the Shire. “It was like an asynchronous party that was going on all the time,” said Eslao. Contini-Field compared their circle to a salon, a “non-threatening” forum outside the reach of trolls, unwanted pop-ups, or pornography. In Arkansas, a group that included Laine Gates and Ramey Moore — a couple who first met through Reader — set down a Reader Lexicon to decode words like “magnanimosity” (ceding ground in an argument to make your opponent appear overzealous), “cephalobro” (a sharebro interested in cephalopods), or #gg, a hashtag meaning “grandma glance,” considered a put-down. “Even as marginal as Arkansas is on the world stage, our way of speaking about it seemed just as acceptable as anyone else’s,” said Moore.

Elements from within the community took various stabs at self-governance, some lighthearted and others more grave. The New York sharebros began hosting annual Reader Awards, with categories like “Best Aardvark Share,” “Best Hashtag,” and, presciently, “Most Likely to Succeed in Post-Reader Apocalyptic World.” Berger, Lehman, and Schneider published Google Readernomics, with world records for the most “likes,” and commendations for the biggest chatterboxes. In Iran, where Facebook and Twitter have been routinely banned, dissidents used “Gooder” — a portmanteau for the service — as a clandestine social network. When an online petition to stave off Google+ circulated last year, thousands of the signatures came from Iranian and Chinese activists. One Iranian called it the “Google Reader Spring.” With autonomy sometimes came acrimony; the scripts Schneider authored to rank his peers alienated some, like Lowe, who dropped off of Reader for a time. A member of the Shire joked: “The Iranian dissidents would have never referred to themselves as sharebros.” Still, as another Arkansas Reader blogged, “The diversity of Reader is both is triumph and its curse: We learn a lot but we also fight over everything.” It had evolved, she noted, into a “weird brand of democracy.”

This summer, Internet luminaries including Evan Williams, Fred Wilson and Clay Shirky gathered on a website called Branch to revisit the 90-9-1 rule, and whether it could be broken. Williams said he had never bought into the rule in the first place, pointing to the photo-sharing site Instagram as a place where, he estimated, a quarter of the users are creators. Shirky agreed that the rule could be broken, “but generally only in ways that make the product or service worse.” What may have quietly distinguished Reader is the extent to which it flouted, or even reversed, the 90-9-1 rule. Shirky speaks of lurkers, of which, in Lowe’s experience, Reader had almost none. After the 2010 SXSW conference, the Reader team made badges for power users, with the highest level, “Totally Sweet,” awarded to people who had read more than 314,159 lifetime items. Of the contestants, 13% were “Totally Sweet,” 25% had read 133,700 items or more, four had seen over a million items, and one user had read more than two million stories.


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Like a physician’s scale, achieving the ideal social network is a question of balance. Twitter errs on the side of distribution, and, consequently, 40% of its users don’t tweet. Tumblr favors creators, but is rife with pornography and spam. Facebook may well achieve an equilibrium, but it is social to a fault; the network, like a heaving, many-headed Narcissus, rallies mostly around itself. Reader pivoted on the fulcrum of content, unearthed and spread in equal parts. What drew Courtney Stanton, a project manager in Boston, to Reader was that “it balances the two primary uses of the Internet: information and communication.” Or as Wetherell told me, “What we made is nearly a one-to-one relationship between the ease of consumption and the ease of sharing.” Google, after Facebook could no longer be ignored, went looking for a social network of its own. It might have already had a golden one.

***

In what increasingly seems to have been the beginning of an ongoing existential crisis, Google came to market last year with Plus, which many saw as a Johnny-come-lately entrant into the already established crowd of social networks. This wasn’t Google’s first rodeo: Orkut (2004), Friend Connect (2008), Wave (2009), and Buzz (2010) had all aspired to be social, but — at least in the United States — had flopped. This time around, Larry Page, who replaced Eric Schmidt last year as chief executive, was reportedly obsessed with Facebook and with reshaping Google to best it. In the month before Google+ launched, Google sites still held an edge over Facebook in monthly visitors, but page views and time-on-site metrics skewed heavily in Facebook’s favor. Technological Darwinism had continued apace, and in an epoch of social media, the search giant suddenly seemed vulnerable.

What Facebook had that Google didn’t was a platform. In a 2008 profile of the company, a law professor worried that Google would “wind up at war with itself,” wavering between “a source of content, a platform, a destination.” Later on, an outspoken engineer named Steve Yegge published a damning post — on Google+ of all places — that blasted Plus as “a pathetic afterthought.” The upstart network, Yegge wrote, was missing the ingredients that make for a good platform. “Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that’s not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work,” he wrote. With its myriad APIs, robust authentication tools, and thriving environment of app and game developers, Facebook is more than a standout product — it’s a seedbed for many more.

So it came as no surprise when Google moved to streamline its services. In his 2012 investor update, Page wrote: “Google has so many opportunities that, unless we make some hard choices, we end up spreading ourselves too thin and don’t have the impact we want.” The summer before, Google Labs — which incubated Alerts, Maps, Reader, and Docs — had been shuttered, and now 30 additional projects were to be closed or combined. As Page’s cofounder, Sergey Brin, weighed in: “We’ve let a thousand flowers bloom; now we want to put together a coherent bouquet.” Even this June, as Google+ floundered, its creators stressed the site’s cohesive value. “Google+ is just an upgrade to Google,” said Vic Gundotra, the senior vice president for social business. “Google is taking its amazing products, and by bringing them together, they just become more awesome.”

Graphics by Courtney Stanton, who explains more here. Via superopinionated.com

But in bonding together its heavyweights with social glue, something was lost. As Page has said, “Understanding who people are, what they care about, and the other people that matter to them is crucial.” For that reason, Google+’s primary differentiator is its Circles, smaller groups for narrowcasting the messages that Facebook users typically broadcast. Yet as The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal has argued, these more nuanced social streams have actually existed for years, albeit in the nooks and crannies of the Googleplex. “Google has a variety of products that while not explicitly ‘social networks’ could easily be thought of as places that help people ‘share,’ a la Facebook’s mantra,” Madrigal wrote in May. “Just think about them all: Reader. Picasa. Scholar. Earth. Books. Blogger. Hell, even Zagat,” he added. Whether through explicit shutdown or intentional neglect, Google uprooted a thicket of products to arrange Brin’s bouquet. Of course, flowers attract light in the drab green parts, and not in the bright petals.

“In the beginning, the best word I can use is that Google tolerated the project. Then, they gave it — support is too strong a word. They gave it some thought,” Wetherell told me of Reader’s early days. “It was kind of like The Dirty Dozen, that movie, where we would meet people in the hall, and we’d kind of mention it and they’d give us a nod and join. There wasn’t anything official.” Bilotta, the designer who eventually left for YouTube, was one such recruit. She had been with Google since 2006, initially working on Gmail; her first creation was the yellow box that users see when a new message arrives. After a few meetings with the Reader team, Bilotta was impressed, and in 2007 joined full-time. “Everyone from Google used Reader, from Larry and Sergey to the newest engineers. It’s such a beloved project.” Still, she said, “it was just in this limbo space. It wasn’t really supported, but it wasn’t actively being harmed.”

The difficulty was that Reader users, while hyperengaged with the product, never snowballed into the tens or hundreds of millions. Brian Shih became the product manager for Reader in the fall of 2008. “If Reader were its own startup, it’s the kind of company that Google would have bought. Because we were at Google, when you stack it up against some of these products, it’s tiny and isn’t worth the investment,” he said. At one point, Shih remembers, engineers were pulled off Reader to work on OpenSocial, a “half-baked” development platform that never amounted to much. “There was always a political fight internally on keeping people staffed on this little project,” he recalled. Someone hung a sign in the Reader offices that said “DAYS SINCE LAST THREAT OF CANCELLATION.” The number was almost always zero. At the same time, user growth — while small next to Gmail’s hundreds of millions — more than doubled under Shih’s tenure. But the “senior types,” as Bilotta remembers, “would look at absolute user numbers. They wouldn’t look at market saturation. So Reader was constantly on the chopping block.”

So when news spread internally of Reader’s gelding, it was like Hemingway’s line about going broke: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Shih found out in the spring that Reader’s internal sharing functions — the asymmetrical following model, endemic commenting and liking, and its advanced privacy settings — would be superseded by the forthcoming Google+ model. Of course, he was forbidden from breathing a word to users. “If Google is planning on deprecating Reader, then its leaders are deliberately choosing to not defend decisions that fans or users would find indefensible,” wrote Wetherell. Kevin Fox, the former designer, was so fearful that Reader would “fall by the wayside, a victim to fashion,” that he offered to put aside his current projects and come back to Google for a few months. Shih left Google in July. Seeing the revamp for the first time, “most of us were prepared for a letdown,” he blogged, “and boy, is it a disaster.”

No one took it harder than the users. “When we heard it was going away, it was like the end of the world. It’s like your favorite bar and your favorite restaurant and your favorite newspaper all closing on the same day,” said Moore, the Arkansas sharebro. “There’s a kind of shared trauma now,” agreed Contini-Field. Laine Gates, Moore’s wife, remembered, “The next step was a lot of drinking, a lot of blogging silently and by ourselves.” Part of what stung were the relationships, severed in one fell swoop. “Everyone went their own way,” said Coppola, the Texan. “I’m missing a lot of sharebros. You know, they’re gone.” “We have a Reader-shaped hole in our lives,” added Gates. Equally vexing was the feeling that Google had needlessly, if not maliciously, trampled their communities. “I’ll never forgive Google for killing Reader,” Lowe told me. “They destroyed the best community on the Internet. To what end? So they could compete against Facebook? How’s that working out for them? Google has completely lost its way.” Daniel Berger marked up the painting “Sword of Damocles.” The tyrant leader, Dionysus, represents Google, and Damocles, presumably a sharebro, stares up in horror at the dangling sword.

One embittered user suggested that Steve Jobs was to blame. In a 60 Minutes interview, Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ biographer, recounted a meeting between Jobs and Larry Page. The Apple founder told the Google founder: “Focus. Don’t be like Microsoft doing products all over the map. Figure out what you do best, and keep it focused.” Whether Jobs intended it that way — or if they took his advice at all — the Google founders decided that fewer products meant better products. Madrigal, the Atlantic writer, thinks that’s misguided, and that Google should foster “the nascent but largely invisible communities it already has.” The sharebros might agree, but even Reader’s disaffected engineers acknowledge the importance of unification. “Google has clearly made its bets with G+, and Reader should be part of those plans,” Shih conceded.

But how do you federalize a smattering of disparate colonies? Yegge’s point is that when big companies become platforms, users and developers take on that burden. Apple provides real estate for three-quarters of a million mobile applications. Facebook collects rent from tenants like Zynga and Spotify. Google+, on the other hand, launched without a single API. “Saying ‘no’ to projects doesn’t make you Steve Jobs if you say no to inspiring things. It’s the discernment that’s meaningful, not the refusal. Anyone can point their thumb to the ground,” Wetherell wrote in a Reader postmortem.

On the last night of October, the Google+ integration went live. For days after, Readers kept browser tabs and mobile apps open, like voicemails from a deceased relative. With a single refresh, Google Reader as they knew it would be gone.

***

Nine souls — ten if you count a toddler — demonstrated in Washington on that rainy day last fall. The view from outside Google’s window might vindicate people like Malcolm Gladwell, who despair of the “networked, weak-tie world” that social media has wrought. Thomas Friedman, too, broods over Generation Q, “too quiet, too online, for its own good.” For all their heartache and discontent, few Readers got up from the keyboard. Much ink was spilled, but not any blood. Even when the threat was existential, the Google Readers stayed home.

Cynics of social media claim that online relationships are necessarily tenuous, but the ties between Readers were anything but weak. In a joint response to Google, the Arkansas party wrote: “We in the Reader community have met our spouses here, created lasting friendships, made productive professional connections, collaborated on works of art, journalism, literature, and activism.” Lowe and Patterson jaunted to Mexico, but have vacationed together every year since. Wetherell and Bilotta are now married and are working on an iPhone app for couples. “This community is the primary way I stay in regular contact with many of my closest friends. It’s the network I tell first about things that happen in my life,” lamented Stanton, the Bostonian. Gladwell chides social media evangelists for having “a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, as you could never have in real life.” But the bonds formed on Google Reader were sincere, even lifelong. And still, no matter how strong their ties, the community did not revolt.

Part of what suppresses backlash is the expansive nature of the modern Web. One billion users is cool, but that vast interconnectedness also serves to quantify our own insignificance. Do people still name stars for each other’s birthdays? To a child, it is the most magnanimous of gifts, until one day you learn that the Milky Way alone contains one hundred thousand million unnamed stars. And so when changes come down the line, disgruntled Facebookers band together in Facebook groups. Mark Zuckerberg invariably apologizes for how far the envelope has been pushed — by Liz Gannes’ count, 10 of Zuckerberg’s 25 corporate blog posts have addressed user complaints — but rarely is the decision reversed. Web titans like Facebook and Google have so consolidated their power base that people speak of them as public utilities. Indeed, as a Times reporter noted, Facebook has among the lowest customer satisfaction scores in America — right down there with the cable companies and the telephone providers.

The problem with oligopolies — markets dominated by a handful of outsized players — is not only that they quash the little guys, but that they tend to fixate on one another. In its most benign form, that makes for a lot of copycatting; Facebook releases “cover photos,” so Twitter introduces “header photos.” The dark side is a rancorous string of patent wars among smartphone makers and social networking giants, squabbling like litigious heirs to a disputed fortune. When promising startups are acquired, then, they’re often swallowed up, Saturn-like, “forced to focus on integration, not innovation,” as Mat Honan has written of Yahoo’s stifling purchase of Flickr. Facebook’s watershed acquisition of Instagram was, by most accounts, a defensive buy, a billion dollars spent on preserving the order of things, rather than shaking it up. “Social networks only work when people use the same ones,” writes The Next Web’s Paul Sawers. “In other words, they naturally lend themselves to being monopolized.” When the playing field is cornered by just a few Goliaths, even an army of Davids can be edged out, acqui-hired, or conveniently retired.

Even in a morass of dark clouds, there’s always a silver lining. Where many sharebros mourned the loss of Reader, others saw an opportunity. Last October, a Reader named Francis Cleary announced that he was building a replacement, codenamed HiveMined. A year later, Cleary’s pet project is still in development, on its third iteration of code. “I’m invested in hivemined.org a 100%,” Cleary blogged in November. “It will be done or I think I might go mad, lol.” Another successor, called The Old Reader, is functional, but still in beta. Lehman and Schneider, the Yale grads, have also developed a replacement, called Reader2000, that is popular with the sharebros. Ironically, Reader2000 is not a feed reader, but a suite of centralized social tools for sharing by way of a bookmarklet. Google, of course, still offers a perfectly good reading tool; the pressing need, as Schneider notes, is a place to socialize. “Technology will route around the diminishment or disappearance of Reader,” Wetherell writes. Winer, the RSS creator, is a longtime critic of Google, and once worried that it had subsumed too much of RSS usage. When he got wind of this story, Winer blogged: “Wondering if there are any opportunities for open development to help bring the communities back together, with the understanding that this time they will have to take responsibility for running the servers, and may have to pay for some of the software development.” He may be happy to know that those efforts are already underway — but not on Google, and certainly not on Google+.

The other day, Kevin Coppola, who has become a Reader2000 faithful, was remembering all that trouble last year. At the time, he had just started dating someone. But the situation with Reader weighed heavily on his soul. “I was really bummed,” he recalled. Still, he decided to give Google+ a chance. He ended up breaking up with his girlfriend — in a Google Hangout.

“I think I was just trying to embrace the new medium as best as I could.”

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