joe moon

In Defense of the New Google Reader

Brian Shih, a former PM for Google Reader, wrote a scathing take-down of the recent changes to Google Reader on Monday.

And plenty of his criticisms are well deserved. It's certainly true that the visual changes seem to prioritize consistency with the rest of Google's visual redesign over the practical considerations of the product.

I think the visual criticisms are ultimately pretty minor, though. There were plenty of complaints about the preview of Gmail's recent user interface changes as well, but in the official release, Google seems to have addressed most of them. And Shih himself agrees that Google should be trying to visually unify its products. Finally, let's not kid ourselves: the old Reader was uglier, and not terribly more usable. It was just what we got used to.[^1] Will Google eventually find the right balance between visual consistency and actual usability? I'll reserve judgment for now.

The real meat of Shih's criticism, though, is for the new sharing model. Again, he agrees that Google should integrate Reader with Plus. But he goes on to make some criticisms that don't fully take into account the differences between the two products, and others that simply get the facts wrong.

First, he complains that the new sharing flow makes sharing items harder. Fair enough. But, as I wrote in an earlier blog post, this is purposeful. It adds friction at the point of sharing, makes you pause to consider who the audience for this particular item is. Which is how it should be.[^2]

Second, he complains that you must publicly +1 a post in order to share it. This is incorrect, as he notes in an update.

Third, he complains at the lack of a transition from the old sharing model to the new one under Google+. And this seems to be what many people seem to be most angry about. Google Reader users are widely upset that the communities that have organically grown in their feed reader has disappeared. What these people forget is that the old sharing model and the communities that formed in it were opaque, irrational, and hard to control. Discoverability was basically nonexistent, loosely based on your Gmail contacts. It was never very clear who could see your posts, and it was never clear who could see the comments you make on posts.

The new sharing model, under Google+, is perfectly clear about who can see your posts, who can see your comments, granular about who you can share with, and gives you more control over comment moderation. In short: it's better in every way.

I agree with Shih that it's unfortunate not to be able to consume shared content from Reader. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I'd prefer to consume, +1, and share all my content through Reader's interface, and not have to visit the G+ site ever again.

The one glaring omission from the new sharing model to me is the omission of an important point on the spectrum public-ness: public but not broadcast. Under G+ now, if I want to share an item publicly, I am also thrusting it in front of everyone who has me circled. But sometimes I don't want to do that. Sometimes I want to share something about bipedal robots, for example, that I don't care if it's public, but I also don't want to stuff in everyone's feed who knows me, for the same reason that I don't care if anyone knows about my fear of bipedal robots, but I also don't bring them up in conversation with everyone I meet.

What G+ needs is publicly subscribable Circles. These would be feeds that you can post to that are public, but only people who have chosen to subscribe to them can see. It fits nicely with the granularity of G+, and adds the organic growth model of the old Reader in a much clearer way.

Google is notorious for releasing new products that seem half-baked. Only a few days after the public outcry over changes in Reader, there is a new one over the new native Gmail client for iOS. Google does this a lot. But it also iterates on these products at a furious rate. And it appears to do this in reponse to public feedback. Again, the new Gmail redesign has addressed almost all of the initial criticisms as far as I can tell. Which means the public outcry is good. It tells Google what to fix. I just wish the outcry was over stuff that matters instead of what strikes me as simple aversion to change.

Notes

[^1]: There were plenty of browser extensions and user styles that 'fixed' the old Google Reader appearance along many of precisely the ways Shih complains about here.

[^2]: I do also lament the removal of keyboard shortcuts, but I assume they'll be added back in soon.