Why Is There No Successor To Google Reader?

There are plenty, but nobody has heard of them

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook will let you turn off algorithmic ranking in your news feed.
  • It’s easy to follow new news posts from almost any site, using RSS.
  • RSS could benefit from a big-name service to make it popular again.
Feedbin RSS reader

Imagine if there was a way to follow new posts and articles from almost any website or blog. Guess what? There already is: RSS.

Facebook has added new settings for tweaking your news feed to give the simplest and most understandable view of all—a timeline view. Already available in the Android app, and coming soon to iOS, the new view sorts updates chronologically. It seems ridiculous this isn’t already the default on Facebook and Twitter, but if you don’t like it, there’s already a better way.

"RSS reading has the traditional values of the internet: it’s decentralized and nobody controls it," Brent Simmons, creator of seminal newsreader app NetNewsWire, told Lifewire via email. "Importantly, RSS readers do not tend to optimize for engagement—which means they don’t contribute to the democracy-killing trend toward extremism that Facebook and similar do."

We Miss You, Google Reader

Google Reader began in 2005, and was shut down in 2013. Reader let you follow updates to almost any site on the web. You’d just click a button on a page, and it would be added to your Reader. Then, all new posts from those sites would appear in Reader, instantly and automatically, sorted into folders or tagged. It was great, popular, and completely open. And, amazingly, all of this is still possible today.

Google Reader ran on something called RSS. Pretty much every blog still makes its new posts and articles available as a feed, and this feed can be followed in one of many excellent and up-to-date apps. And yet almost nobody uses it.

Social Commentary

RSS is open, in that anyone can make a newsreader app and tap into all of those feeds, but this openness may be the problem. Not only can RSS be hard to explain, but it lacks any kind of identity.

"While [Google Reader] certainly wasn’t the only RSS service out there," cybersecurity analyst Eric Florence told Lifewire via email, "having the Google branding certainly helped it to stand over some of the smaller services out there, possibly even overshadowing many of them."

When Google Reader was shuttered, users believed it was the end of everything. In reality, they could have exported their list of feeds and taken them elsewhere. "After Google Reader was shut down," says Florence, "many RSS services such as Feedly and NewsBlur stepped in to fill the void."

However, says Simmons, "people conflated RSS and Google Reader because most people would never have noticed the RSS readers from tiny companies with very little marketing budgets."

Meanwhile, many of those Reader users moved on to Facebook and Twitter, which mix news in with personal updates, making for a very sticky experience. Even if you could tempt a Facebook user to adopt a newsreader app, they’ll still use Facebook for their family-and-friends stuff.

RSS Advantages

The trouble with reading news on Twitter or Facebook is you have to be there when it happens. Some stories will be surfaced by retweets, but in general, you’ll miss more than you catch.

"RSS reading has the traditional values of the internet: it’s decentralized and nobody controls it."

A dedicated newsreader, on the other hand, makes it easy to stay on top of hundreds of sites. New posts appear in feeds, complete with a summary and often an image. And there they sit, until you read or dismiss them. It’s impossible to miss anything, and you can arrange all those site feeds into folders, or tag them, and much more. 

So, why don’t more of us use RSS? Maybe it just needs better branding.

A Big Banner Brand

Take a look at a post from your favorite blog, or a news article on pretty much any website. You’ll see follow buttons for Twitter and Facebook. There may also be an RSS icon, like an orange Wi-Fi icon turned 45 degrees. Imagine if there were some big-name service that let you "follow" updates, the same way you can easily follow it on Twitter, with a single click.

"RSS reading will not be mainstream unless and until a major tech company creates an RSS reader—and it probably needs a social element, as Google Reader had," says Simmons. 

NetNewsWire RSS app on iPhone

NetNewsWire

The reality is you can already do this today. Services like Newsblur, Feedly, and Feedbin let you subscribe to a feed. And then there are many RSS reader apps that can sync with those services. And yet few people use them.

"I’m not really sure that RSS reading was all that popular even with Google Reader," says Simmons. "But, at any rate, an RSS reader from one of the big tech companies is probably a necessary condition for mainstream use."

Here To Stay

The good news for lovers of news is that RSS doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Wordpress still has it built in, and most web publishing is built on Wordpress. Simmons’ own NetNewsWire, now an open-source project with a team of volunteers, is a fantastic iOS and Mac app. It even lets you subscribe to Twitter feeds. Plus, the underlying technology of RSS is more popular than ever. 

"RSS and RSS reading are not the same thing. RSS is super-mainstream in the form of podcasts," says Simmons. "But note how Apple’s podcast directory played, and plays, such an important role there."

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