Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why Google Reader is still hugely important (to me)

image I read Steve Gillmor’s elegiac goodbye to RSS a month ago, around the same time I read Farhad Manjoo’s exhortation to “kill your RSS reader” and in that month I’ve asked myself a few times “Could Twitter or Friendfeed completely replace Google Reader in my daily webbernetting? Could I do without my RSS reader altogether?”

This has been roundly debated all over the place, including tech blogs much larger and more well respected than mine. And if you’re reading this blog, I trust you’ve already digested the more popular commentaries. But I’m going to come at it somewhat differently.

Why I prefer Google Reader

Imagine, for a moment, there are sites out there that aren’t tech blogs or news aggregators like Techmeme. News sources that can’t be easily read using Twitter and Friendfeed. News sources and blogs that talk about medicine and law and parenting and music.

As a healthcare lawyer, musician, and soon-to-be dad, that’s the world I live in. And RSS still matters to me. Briefly, here’s why I still prefer Google Reader over Twitter, Friendfeed, and all the other real-time web engines.

  • Real time doesn’t matter to me. I’m a lawyer who works at a hospital. I’m not a pro-blogger or journalist. I don’t have time to sit around reading FriendFeed and Twitter all day. I check in on my pals, sure. But any just-for-fun reading I do has to occur at lunch and in the evenings. When I’m not doing my freaking job. If I used real-time sources like Twitter or Friendfeed to read the news, much of what I want to read would simply pass me by.
  • But speed does. And with Google Reader, I usually don’t have to click links to see what I’m reading. It’s already there. And if I want to share a post with friends, it’s a single click or SHIFT-S away.
  • I care about more than just the tech-o-chamber. If I were a tech journalist / blogger, I’d find just about all the sources I could ever want or need via Twitter / Friendfeed. But for other areas, like law and music and healthcare, the coverage on Twitter and Friendfeed is not cast nearly so wide. There are some enthusiastic users in all those fields using real-time tools and social media, but there are a lot of influential bloggers and news sources who are still pretty old school. They have RSS feeds, but that’s it.
  • I need deep—not wide—commentary. Much of what I consume is long form, niche material. I read longer posts on blogs that are updated far less frequently. These same blogs are not widely read, so they also aren’t widely shared. I’d miss these posts if it wasn’t for Google Reader.
  • There’s less noise in my RSS feed. There’s no @replies. There’s no “I need to pee.” There’s no links to Perez Hilton. When I finally take time to read my stuff, I want to read MY STUFF. There’s a place in my workflow for conversation and sharing with friends. And I actually like some of what Google Reader has done with respect to sharing and commenting. But when I’m in Google Reader, my focus is usually more narrow.
  • My RSS reader offers a more feature-rich, versatile, and efficient experience. I can do lots of things with Google Reader that I can’t do with Friendfeed or Twitter. Or at least, couldn’t do as easily. This is because Google Reader is about much more than reading. It’s an inbox with multiple outputs that serve multiple purposes. Yes, Friendfeed is great for sharing. So is Facebook. But I also use the Web for research and plain ole private reading for personal edification. That’s where Google Reader shines: reading and keeping track of what I’ve read.

This last point is important. I like Twitter. I like Friendfeed. But they’re a small part of my news-reading work flow. Google Reader’s speed, focus, and rich feature set simply allow me to do more with my news. Here’s a few examples of Google’s flexibility:

Tagging and Saving

Google Reader saves everything, so it’s easy to go back and search for something I’ve read in the past. I usually get lightning fast results with Google-like accuracy. That’s better than Twitter, isn’t it?

But suppose I want to make things easier to find? I can just tag them and come back to the collection. I’m fond of keeping track of cool desktop apps I’ve read about at Lifehacker or Download Squad. So, I usually tag these posts with “apps” and review them when I’ve got some free time. I don’t need all my friends reading these posts, it’s just for my use and later enjoyment. So when I’m ready to review my “Apps” posts, I click “Trends” then scroll down to my tag cloud.

image Publishing and Sharing

Google Reader allows you to create link blogs for all your shared or starred items, both of which can be made public. And, it’s easy to publish. Just click the share or star buttons. If you want, you can import your shared items into Friendfeed or Facebook. It is faster and more effortless than re-tweeting. And you can reach a larger audience with minimal setup.

I take this concept a step further by using some items as inputs into my Tumblr blogs. If you read my Cloudnotes companion, Notemarks, you might have already noticed this. To publish an excerpt on Tumblr, all I have to do is tag an item, and then import the shared RSS feed for that tag into Tumblr. I use the tag “cloudnotes” to designate an item for publication on Notemarks.

imageTaking notes

I write a weekly post for a music blog, and all week I take notes and do research for that one post, which is usually kinda long. Google Reader is only one of several sources for that research material, but it’s an important tool nonetheless. To make sure I get all my music links together, I like to keep stuff in Evernote (I finally converted!).

So how do I get Google Reader posts into Evernote? I use the email feature. Evernote supports email importing, so it’s a pretty simple process.

I just address it to Evernote, and it shows up for later organization with all my related notes from other sources. Plus, I usually send a copy to myself, so it’s also available in my Gmail. Since I tend to use “Send to Gmail” as my all-purpose bookmarklet (works with any service that imports email), Gmail is a pretty handy backup for all my notes.

Reading it later

Finally, sometimes I just want to mark an article for later reading, nothing more and nothing less. For that I use the outstanding Read It Later add on for Firefox. Sure, it works everywhere in your browser or on your iPhone, but I absolutely LOVE its Google Reader integration.

imageThat friendly red check mark just says, “I’m coming back to this later today or this week when I have time.” Since I usually only have time for light reading at lunch, this this little tool is a godsend for helping me read longer, more involved pieces.

So that’s it.

I use Google Reader because it’s flexible enough to encompass everything I need to do when I’m consuming content online. And I can do quite a bit with keyboard shortcuts and single-clicks. Let me know when Twitter and Friendfeed are that flexible.