Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The unintended consequences of technical tools: the demise of sharing in Google Reader and why I will miss it

One of the first things we learn in fields like STS, HCI or Design Studies is that technologies often get used in ways that their designers have not imagined, and that this is both wonderful and productive, but can also be subversive and frustrating (for different people).  It's particularly trying for a designer: after all, the most important thing about design is to make people behave in a certain way, through certain kinds of artifacts (the button that is the only thing that can be clicked, the door-knob that has to be turned in order to pull the door, etc.) - and yet try as you might, it's never quite possible to get people to behave in exactly the way you want.  However, sometimes, having users do things with your design is a boon; it makes the application more flexible and increases its value.  One of the things about good designers then is that their designs are useful, rigid but not too rigid, and leave just enough room for all those workarounds, tricks and shortcuts that users will come up with.

All of this is a long way to say: I am bummed because Google Reader has disabled its "Sharing" features. I'm still going to continue to use Reader, I still like its interface and I love its "tagging" feature and its keyboard shortcuts.  I'll miss the "Sharing" aspects because I'd built up a group of like-minded contacts (most of whom, I'd never met or talked to, my Reader buddies, so to speak) whose links I often found most interesting and most relevant to my own interests.  But even more than that, the "Sharing" feature of Google Reader allowed me to do what I'd always wanted to do: have one receptacle for everything on the Web that I found interesting, which I could then search through as and when I wanted to.  I don't think the Reader designers imagined that their "Sharing" feature could have other uses but that's what hurts most right now.  I had a workflow which I thought I had perfected and it was all through Reader - and now I have to start all over again and come up with another workflow.  In a way, this goes to show the danger of overly relying on one particular technology. 

Let me start from the beginning.  The discovery of RSS feeds was the best thing that happened to my web reading habits.  I read randomly back then, and one had to actually go to a website to read - and this was difficult to do, I used bookmarks to remember all these sites I found interesting - yet it never quite worked out.  Then came RSS feeds and suddenly, I didn't have to go to a website anymore, instead the website came to me.  I experimented with a number of desktop RSS readers, then shifted to Bloglines (remember Bloglines??!!!) for a long time, before finally taking the plunge into Google Reader. It was great - I loved it.  I could tag items that I thought were interesting and worth storing and it had an excellent "Search" feature which meant that I could look through all my feeds using keywords.  This is most useful when you are blogging or writing: you can look through all your read-and-tagged articles and find the ones that most relate to the argument you are making.

There was one problem.  But to explain that, I have to talk about my long-standing obsession with information.  One of the things about reading on the Web is that you get access to lots of material that you wouldn't have before.  And you don't actually get to read most of these pieces; some of them you skim, some of them you skim, find interesting and then read deeply; some of them you don't even skim but you think these could be potentially useful at a later time.  Which means that you want to store everything that you think is useful - even remotely.  And the great thing about the internet is that storing things is inexpensive and easy, although there are infinite ways to do it.  I tried a variety of options: Google Bookmarks, Evernote, Delicious - but it never worked.  There were just too many options and working across applications was tiring and inefficient and frankly, not very useful.  Storing links and text is only useful if you re-read them and use them; and I found that I was rarely going back to what I had stored.

This started to change as I started reading more and more through Google Reader, I would tag anything I thought remotely useful (the story of what tags I came to use is something I'll tell another time). Thus I had a nice folder of items that I thought might come in handy for me later.
But there were other articles that I would read outside Reader (usually links that came from the blogs that I read in Reader).  And I wanted to store these too - but there was never a way to put them into Reader.  So for the longest time, I had two places where I stored interesting things I'd read: in Google Reader and in Evernote - and needless to say, it got pretty unwieldy.

And then I discovered sharing on Reader which was pretty cool.  And somewhere in the midst of this, I discovered Google's "Note in Reader" bookmarklet, which was designed so that you could share interesting things with you Reader friends even if what you were reading was not actually through Reader. 

That was the breakthrough.  But not in the way the Google designers imagined.  True, I used the bookmarklet to share more links.  But once I clicked on "Note in Reader," I had the option of not just sharing the article, but also tagging it so that it would be accessible from within Google Reader.  So there were a lot of pieces that I used the bookmarklet to just save and tag, and not necessarily to share with others.  I had my one application to store everything on the Web that I found interesting: it was Google Reader.  At some point, I stopped using Evernote.

Which is why the loss of the Sharing functions in Google Reader is depressing.  Now when I click on "Note in Reader" here is what I get:

So forget sharing, I can't even tag and web-page and move it into my Google Reader folders.  Which means I have to start my search for one storage application all over again - or content myself with two.  I'm hoping that even as Google has disabled Sharing through Reader, they will at least allow us to import web-content into Reader folders.  But we'll see.

As we learn all the time as designers, when  you take away a feature, you take away practices that users have been relying on, practices that may not have been what you intended.  It's a good lesson to learn as a user - hopefully it'll be something I'll remember when I do any kind of design work.


Chris P. O'Connell said...

Great post! I use Reader all the time and learned a few new features from reading your blog.

I agree with you about the removal of features. Companies do it all the time. Barnes and Noble removed the "Go To Last Page Read" feature from their Nook. Can you imagine? The list goes on and on.

Chris P. O'Connell said...

Guess what?!? Share is back !!!!

scritic said...

How? What? Really? I've been googling for it furiously since I saw your comment but I can't seem to find anything!

Life Mysterious said...

I couldn't agree more about the sharing disaster, but Google listened, see here

Life Mysterious said...

And wat's more Shift + S still works!