Google Reader, Hitler and me

This morning’s Observer column.

One of the wonders of the online world is the Downfall meme on YouTube. (For those whose time is too valuable to be wasted watching video clips, I should explain that the parody is based on remixing a scene from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film, Der Untergang [Downfall], which chronicles Hitler’s final days in his Berlin bunker.)

The clip takes the scene in which Hitler, memorably portrayed by Bruno Ganz, launches into a tirade upon finally realising that the war is truly lost and overlays it with subtitles about contemporary issues or events. Thus Hitler rants about the inability of the iPad to do multitasking, that Sheffield United have been relegated or that Twitter has gone down again.

What brings this to mind is that a new version of the meme appeared last week. In it, Hitler is told about Google’s decision to “retire” (ie scrap) its Reader app. “WHAT THE FUCK ARE THEY THINKING??!!” he roars. “HOW CAN THEY DO THIS TO US?!! How dare they take away Google Reader. I have over 300 feeds in there!! Have they any idea how much effort I’ve put in? Of all Google products I spend 99% of my time with Reader. Why do they do this?” And so on.

For the first – and I hope the only – time in my life, I find myself agreeing with the Führer. For I, too, am a dedicated user of Google Reader…

It’s interesting — and perhaps predictable — to see the storm of (mainly geeky and journalistic) outrage at Google’s decision. But — as this post argues — it was probably a perfectly rational business decision from Google’s point of view. Most Internet users don’t use RSS, there’s no obvious direct revenue stream from it and Google is desperate for strategic reasons to shepherd its users onto Google+. On the other hand, maybe the reputational damage will cause the company to think again. After all, Google’s prime pitch is that it’s a good Net citizen — campaigning to keep the Internet open and uncensored etc.

Another thought sparked by the uproar is an observation made ages ago by Clay Shirky in another context when he said that what people complain of as information overload is actually a symptom of filter failure. I agree. Every new communications technology in history has led the early victims of it to complain of information overload. But in due course they figured out tools for managing the overload. The Net is no exception and RSS is one of the first-generation tools we devised to handle it.

In the meantime, the important thing for people like me is what to use instead of Reader. The Online Journalism Blog has published a very helpful spreadsheet giving details of the various alternatives. Thanks, guys.