Replacing Google Reader: and the winner is…

NewsBlur.

newblurlogoWhy did I choose NewsBlur? To be honest I don’t really know – it’s just that, after a little time of using it, NewBlur just felt right.

A few of the options that emerged once Google announced the closure of Reader were claiming to reinvent the RSS reader, as if the whole thing was broken. I never felt that it was. Reader worked rather nicely to for me, so I just wanted something that did something similar.

NewsBlur to me seemed to take RSS as seriously as I do – which isn’t very, I suppose, but maintains a healthy respect. I don’t want my RSS reader to be like Twitter, Facebook, or – heaven forfend! – Flipboard. I don’t want my RSS reader to be beautiful, or ‘delightful’ – I just want it to aggregate all the things I like reading in one place for me.

NewsBlur does have some extra bits, like commenting within the reader rather than on the original sites, which I’m not sure about (it’s hard enough to get people commenting on blogs as it is, these days!) and so won’t use. Also the sharing option seems to create a separate link blog, hosted by NewsBlur.

My previous sharing system just used the stars in Google Reader and IFTTT to ping links to Twitter and also to the roundup posts in this blog. I could do that in Reader by just pressing the ‘s’ key – super simple. Right now I have gone back to bookmarking links in Pinboard, which adds some time to the process which is a bit annoying. Maybe I could set this up in NewsBlur? If anyone has ideas, let me know.

Open or closed – does anything online ever last?

It’s only now, a couple of weeks after the announcement, that I feel I can talk about the demise of Google Reader. Up til now, the whole thing has just been too upsetting. Reader is the site I turn to first in the day, before email or Twitter, and the one I check last as well.

I have about 600 odd feeds pouring into my Reader account which I skim through everyday – some I read in their entirety every time, others I’m happy to just dip into now and again as the fancy takes me. It’s ok – RSS isn’t email, you don’t have to read it all.

Reader is also an important part of my publishing workflow. A lot of people find the links I tweet and the regular posts of links on this blog to be helpful. That’s all driven by Reader and by the stupidly simple act of clicking once to ‘star’ a post. Then, thanks to IFTTT, they get sent to my blog and to Twitter, like magic.

Reader was an app that used RSS feeds, an open standard – excellent! It’s because of this that we can move our subscriptions to one or more of the many possible replacement services that exist or are springing up.

What’s more, Reader was also an API that other apps could hook into. The most used purpose for this was to synchronise the read status of feeds between apps – for example between a desktop and a mobile interface.

For instance, on my laptop I use the Reader web app, but on my phone I use Reeder which always picks up where I left off thanks to Google’s API.

The trouble comes because people came to rely on Google’s Reader API to deliver a service, and development around similar services just stopped. So when Google decided to take their ball home, it meant nobody could play with it any more.

Still, the fact that RSS and OPML are open standards means we have other software options to move our feed lists to, and while they may no longer rely on Google’s vast infastructure and databases, they ought to work well enough to meet most of our needs.

But the point is worth making again – we can only do this because the open standards existed and we all use them – deliberately or not.

The second point is that even when a piece of software like Reader operates using these standards, if people come to rely on them, then control is surrendered in exchange for convenience. That’s fine, as long as we know this is happening and can take steps to regain control when it’s needed.

So, I’m not saying that we should all stop using other people’s services, that we should abandon convenience in favour of control. Just that we should have back ups in place – of our content, sure, but also backup plans so that our activity can carry on even when our favourite tools disappear, as they surely all will do.

We held the latest UKGovCamp at IBM, a venerable old technology company. Will Facebook last as long as IBM? Will Google? Will Amazon?

Best be prepared by assuming probably not.

Tools I use for learning

Recently, as part of a survey of members of the Social Learning Centre, I put together a list of ten sites or apps I use a lot in my own learning activity. Actually, I thought ten was rather a lot, so to share it here, I thought I’d whittle it down to half that number.

I think it’s useful to always remind yourself of the tools you use regularly in your own activity, particularly if you spend time designing sites, systems and platforms for others to use.

What’s also interesting for me is that everything in this list is pretty old! It turns out I am not exactly on the cutting edge. Who knew?

Google Reader

The source of all knowledge! OK, maybe not, but I’m subscribed to over 500 blogs and sites in Reader and it’s the second place I go to every day, after my email inbox. Maybe 80% of everything I scan through on there is of no use, but that’s ok –  the 20% is what matters.

I do worry about the future of Reader – RSS is not the hippest of technologies and I’m concerned Google might switch it off some day… which would make me very sad.

Everything I find really useful gets starred in Reader, and thanks to IFTTT, gets pinged to Twitter as a link, and dumped into Evernote as an archive.

Evernote

My portable archive of everything. Web pages get copied into Evernote, everything I star in Reader ends up in here, notes in meetings and during phone calls… pretty much everything that passes my eyes online ends up here in case I need it later.

What’s interesting about Evernote is that it has reached that stage of ubiquity in my way of working where I don’t even recognise that it’s there most of the time, I just perform various actions, look stuff up in it, type in notes, clip a web page, without even thinking. Evernote fits right into my workflow, which is a key thing for any technology.

Wikipedia

I was thinking about putting Google search in here, but actually most of the time what Google produces is a link to a Wikipedia page, so I thought I’d disintermediate for you. No matter what I’m doing, I find myself looking stuff up on Wikipedia to find out more – reading a book, watching TV, whatever. It’s one of the things I use my Nexus 7 tablet for – just so handy a form factor for quickly looking stuff up.

Twitter

Not just where I share stuff I found illuminating, but where I get to find things out too. Whether ‘overhearing’ interesting conversations or picking up on links and stories shared by others, Twitter is a hugely important part of my learning network.

Interestingly (perhaps) is that now I have been on Twitter for a little while, and built up a fairly substantial follower/following count, I find it less useful for asking questions myself and getting responses. Perhaps this is because the network is just that much more busy these days – who knows? – but the apparently logical idea that if you have more followers you get more responses doesn’t seem to be true.

Maybe I’m just asking the wrong questions.

WordPress

Blogging is where all the stuff I’ve learned elsewhere gets written up and formulated into something that’s usually even less coherent than it was before. This has gotten increasingly difficult as the various stresses and strains of life, running a business, etc get in the way; but I do try to blog thoughts and ideas as often as I can.

Hopefully this helps others – but the primary benefit is my own. The process of writing for a public audience forces you to critically analyse your ideas and thinking and there is as much value in the countless posts that never get published because of their idiocy as there is in those that are seen and commented by others.

WordPress is a publishing platform that I feel I have grown up with since I started using it back in 2004 and it just gets out of the way for me.

RSS readers

Read/WriteWeb has an interesting piece on RSS aggregators, and whether they really matter any more:

One of the interesting trends of 2009 has been the gradual decline of RSS Readers as a way for people to keep up with news and niche topics. Many of us still use them, but less than we used to. I for one still maintain a Google Reader account, however I don’t check it on a daily basis. I check Twitter for news and information multiple times a day, I monitor Twitter lists, and I read a number of blogs across a set of topics of most interest to me.

Ross Mayfield, head honcho of enterprise collaboration platform Socialtext, picks up on it:

We all know that Twitter cannibalized RSS Reader habits with something simpler and social. And innovation happened elsewhere for aggregation with simple focused things like Techmeme. And that enterprise RSS innovation moved away from clients. But iGoogle and Netvibes widgets as Twitter clients were developed by third parties. Perhaps it was innovator’s dilemma on a compressed scale, but the Readers didn’t expand what could be read.

I was thinking about this the other day, when, randomly, I checked into Bloglines for the first time in literally years. Bloglines was the first RSS reader I ever used – it was the RSS reader I used when I didn’t know what an RSS reader was.

It was awful, and hadn’t seemed to have been updated since 2004 when I used it regularly. I use Google Reader these days, like most people I suspect. Well, most of the people who use these things at all.

I like what Dave Winer has to say about this. RSS readers are about news:

News. Stuff that’s new. When you want to find out what’s new you don’t want to know everything, you can’t. The world is too big. There’s too much happening. If you were to get a true readout of the number of stories you didn’t read, just today, it would number in the millions. It’s a pointless number. As if it would mean anything if you got the number to be zero. All it would mean is that you spent every waking moment reading, and you had no idea what any of it meant. It wouldn’t make you smarter, happier, worth more, have more friends, get laid more often, go to heaven or become a saint. Reading every story is a meaningless concept.

It’s like Twitter, or any any other social media stream: You don’t have to read it all.

I check my Google Reader several times a day. When I’m drifting, struggling to concentrate on something, I find it a really good way to tune back in again, to read something thoughtful that gets me thinking.

It’s also a great source of new ideas. Twitter is good for that, but it uses up too much clicking to get through to stuff. People say that Twitter is better because of the trust thing. But I trust the people whose blogs I subscribe to – that’s why I subscribe to them.

Maybe the reason why I’m still a heavy user of an RSS reader – I think blogs matter and like them. I like to have the ones I consider good and useful easily accessible, and the reader does that for me.

Google Reader

Google Reader

Am using Google Reader at the moment as the new version of NetNewsWire, which I foolishly downloaded, seems to have problems doing anything.

There’s a number of new features that I need to investigate that weren’t around when I last used the service, like notes on shared items and friends lists. I tend to share the stuff I think worthy of comment via del.icio.us, which posts directly to this blog once a day, but in case I start sharing bits, the URL is http://www.google.com/reader/shared/08096379081421145011. As soon as I have shared something, I will stick it up on my FriendFeed too.