Jun 25, 2013

The Retailification of Online Publishing

Less than a week for Doomsday¹, and two things continue to surprise me.

First, the number of Google Reader² devotees (including me) who are yet to find a replacement. With other dead products walking, finding a replacement is top priority. With GR, bedside vigil and mourning have taken precedence³.

The second is how everyone - even GR devotees - seem all too willing to perpetuate Google’s preferred script explaining away the summary execution of a much beloved product. RSS usage has been declining, only geeks use it, on the litany goes⁴.

It’s almost as if one is trapped between the covers of a detective novel in which, as expected, an unnatural death has occurred - but the detective du jour is conspicuously absent. Everyone you encounter has no alternative but to trust and repeat hearsay, even the perpetrators’ own mea-not-culpas.

So, what’s this alternate vision of the future in whose service GR was sacrificed? Google’s lullaby is a klutzy mashup of how much things have already changed and what the benevolent future has in store for us.

“As a culture we have moved into a realm where the consumption of news is a near-constant process. Users with smartphones and tablets are consuming news in bits and bites throughout the course of the day — replacing the old standard behaviors of news consumption over breakfast along with a leisurely read at the end of the day.”⁵
And of course, Google is working on “pervasive means to surface news across [Google's] products to address each user’s interest with the right information at the right time via the most appropriate means.”5

To me that sounds an awful lot like being constantly, and involuntarily, drip-fed the information equivalent of burgers, fries and supersize colas every waking hour - with matching nutritional value and info-calories.

It turns out, quite a few of us still believe in the opposite⁶ - in the benefits of a sumptuous and healthy breakfast of quality, hand-picked and slow-published reading material, each morsel chewed and ruminated upon and, occasionally, unsubscribed if found wanting - and new discoveries cheerily subscribed, if found nourishing.

* * *

Anyone who has ever visited an Ikea store - or a shopping mall - will know this feeling: You walk in on an errand, knowing exactly what that errand is. But before long, you’ve lost track of where you are in the store and where you were supposed to be.

Not everyone realises what inevitably ensues: they end up buying much more than they set out to. They have become the victims of a ploy in shopping mall design called the Gruen Transfer⁷.

The Gruen Transfer refers to that critical moment when shoppers get overwhelmed and disorientated by the deliberately confusing layout and cues of the store (presumably while excoriating themselves for not being up to the task.) Controlled ambient factors and store displays wear out their focus and decision making faculties. Literally, their eyes glaze and their jaws slacken. And in a snap, they become impulse buyers, sacrificial offerings to the highest bidders for shelfspace.

In those futuristic visions of how we will consume content online, there’s ample room for every crafty trick discovered and perfected by retailers⁸. But, primarily, there will be no escape from the online equivalent of the Gruen Transfer. You head online to read the news and before you know it, you are clicking palpably on “22 more reasons why Neo (eventually) regretted taking the red pill (Now in Slideshow Mode).”

Far from being a product with no future, GR I suspect was a cannibalising thorn in this vision. A thorn that in traitorous alliance with the social web’s bees and pollinators⁹ would leak much of the transfer out of Gruen.

It represented a stand by a cohort of content pro-sumers - the supposed minority of supposed power users who conscientiously wanted to tick their list of to-reads every day. God, how 20th century is that annoying habit?

Putting the deathwish on RSS¹⁰ is Google’s deliberate ploy to tip us collectively into a world of bluish reality, a world where we harbour no hopes of hanging on to our errand lists when we check in online. Instead, we submit to being passive and impulsive consumers. And those recurring pangs of anxiety? Just chew on some algorithmic manna and you’ll be eventually cured of them.¹¹

While it’s unclear if RSS will thrive in the future, all indications suggest it will fight another day¹². An outcome hardly to Google’s liking, whose concerted actions¹³ seemed to have hinged on making RSS the first technology in history to plunge into permanent disuse¹⁴.

So, farewell sweet Reader, may angels sing thee to thy hard-earned rest. And as for you dear reader, stay safe and hope you can find your way back again.

References and Notes:
1. Bearing the news of Google Reader’s demise, The Economist’s Babbage blog put it thus : “Users, meanwhile, worry about impending newslessness.” (Have I Got News For You?) For a less restrained (and funny) response to the news, check out Hitler’s reaction. (Hitler Finds Out Google Reader Is Shutting Down)
2. If you do not know anything about Google Reader or its underlying RSS technology, David Pogue has a helpful introduction to both, along with his recommendation for a replacement. (Google’s Aggregator Gives Way To An Heir)
3. A typical sentiment is the one expressed by Tim Harford in this tweet. Robin Sloan expresses a more extreme, but not uncommon, commitment to use the product till its very last day. To be fair, there’s also the moved-on-and-loved-it brigade captured in this tweet by Chris Anderson.
4. The following paragraph from a recent WIRED piece (Why Google Reader Really Got The Axe) repeats Google’s position verbatim but in a faux objective tone: “Obviously Google had to have a good reason to shut Reader down. The company has reams of data on how we use its products, and would not shutter a product that was providing sufficient food to its info-hungry maw. While some users remained devoted, the usage numbers just didn’t add up. The announcement shouldn’t have been too unexpected. Google hadn’t iterated on the service for years. It even went down for a few days in February.”
5. The words of Richard Gingras, Senior Director, News & Social Products at Google as reported in a recent WIRED piece. (Why Google Reader Really Got The Axe)
6. Just 2 weeks after the announcement of Google Reader’s demise (A Second Spring of Cleaning), Feedly acquired over 3 million new subscribers (TechCrunch). There are many more where they came from.
7. The Gruen Transfer is named for Viktor Gruen (ABC TV), the inventor in the 1950s of the shopping mall. He actually disavowed the manipulative techniques that were given his name, but ironically the name stuck.
8. Entire books have been written about the shenanigans of retailers. This piece provides a basic introduction: The Psychology of Retailing Revealed.
9. MG Siegler at Techcrunch argues that Google Reader’s underappreciated power users actually constitute the bees who pollinate the web and through their unique leverage keep the social web blooming and aplenty : “The first is that Reader’s users, while again, relatively small in number, are hugely influential in the spread of news around the web. In a sense, Reader is the flower that allows the news bees to pollinate the social web. You know all those links you click on and re-share on Twitter and Facebook? They have to first be found somewhere, by someone. And I’d guess a lot of that discovery happens by news junkies using Reader.” (What If The Google Reader Readers Just Don’t Come Back)
10. This is also the view of Dave Winer, the developer and populariser of the original RSS format. (E-mail with Max Levchin & As July 1 Approaches)
11. Evegeny Morozov, and others, have argued persuasively for the greater harm Google might inflict on us with their blind deference to “algorithmic neutrality.” (Don’t BE Evil)
12. The attention and activity around many old challengers and upcoming RSS readers promises that this could turn out to be a blip that a revitalised and Google-free market will redress. (Have I Got News For You?)
13. Following the KO-ing of Google Reader, Google also shut down the RSS Add-On in its Chrome Browser. (It’s Not Just Reader: Google Kills Chrome RSS Add-On Too)
14. Kevin Kelly has claimed and demonstrated to critics that technologies never go away (not even ancient Roman bridge making techniques) and persist for a very long time, though popularly deemed to be extinct. (Technologies Don’t Go Extinct)
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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