Free rides

Published in Maura Magazine, March 2013. Original article here.

mauraFree rides: On Google Reader, my own personal internet and a grave insult
That first sip of coffee in the morning, that sense of relief hitting the back of my addict throat, the faith in the things that sustain me. It’s all there in the black liquid, the promise that it will restore me as I battle my sleepiness every morning. I’m an owl at heart, in no mood to deal with the world for at least an hour after waking, so until the haze lifts I take refuge in caffeinated drinks, blankets, and the online offerings served up by Google Reader.

So then, I was quite sleepy still when the message first flashed on my screen: “Google Reader will not be available after July 1, 2013.” No apology, no explanation. I was too tired to take it in, at first. Eventually, though, I started to wake up, and I got cranky. “What will they come for next, my cafetiere?” I wailed into the Twitterverse, gravely insulted by Google blatantly violating its own “Don’t be evil” code of conduct. Okay, so maybe this news isn’t exactly evil; no one has died. But my relationship with Google Reader is intimately personal; it’s as close to me as my breakfast drink of choice. And that feeling is exactly what Google – along with Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and other providers of free services on the web – set out to foster in their users. People are encouraged to share stories, make friends, and design their spaces, all while keeping a record of what they’ve browsed and reacted to along the way; these virtual places eventually become just as real as the corner shop. These companies wanted us to fall in love with them, to become indispensable in our lives and it worked: the internet is becoming real life. We feel like we own it, rolling over from sleep to wake our computers to life, hitting our favourite bookmarks where all the things we want to surround ourselves with are waiting. But now Google Reader has a “Closed” sign at the door.

It’s probably not fair to expect web services to stick around forever, especially when they’re free. Not that I wouldn’t pay to keep Google Reader, if they let me. But the impending demise of Google Reader is making me feel confused, and slightly betrayed, as this is the first time I’m losing something online that I actually love. Reader is RSS perfection, and its stark, stripped-back style is part of why I loved it: the content presented line by line, making it easy to be gobbled up quickly and without distraction. Alternatives do exist, including clever reading apps which present content like a sleek magazine. Feedly, which has an option to copy Reader’s viewing experience, arguably looks like the best alternative so far. But using them is like trying to make a restaurant meal using ingredients bought at the supermarket: it’s almost there, but it’s not quite right.

When Apple released the 11-inch MacBook Air, I was thrilled to join the cloud revolution. It’s the paperback of laptops and literally the apple of my eye, yet the Air is a cold, hard shell; none of the software belongs to me, and none of the documents, photos, or thoughts on the machine live inside. I use Twitter for social networking, Gmail for email, Tumblr for blogging, GDrive for document storage, and Flickr for photo sharing. All of these are either extremely useful or lots of fun; they’re also intensely personal, even though they “exist” far away from where I am. But sometimes when I look at my 4000-strong Gmail archive I feel uneasy; I recently emailed a friend something about bedsheets and now ads for bedding follow me around the web. There is a hidden cost: Google crawling through your words, learning who you are and what you want in its quest to know you better than you do yourself. I know friends have abandoned Gmail because of this feature, which is admittedly a tad creepy, but Gmail is the best mail service around – as long as Google wants it to be, at least.

I need Gmail as much as I need the lights to come on in my house. But Google is not a utility, and I certainly have no control over what happens to it next. Case in point: Google launched the note-taking program Keep just days after Reader went up against the wall. But how can Google think people would be willing to trust them to “keep” things? I plugged my iPod into my Mac the other day only to be told I needed to upgrade my iTunes in order to get my devices to sync, leaving me no option but to comply. Ten minutes later, I was battling a new and shiny version of iTunes whose intentions are less about me updating my aging iPod and more about getting me to buy more music – although whether I’ll actually own that music as a result is unclear. Similarly, the place I love more than any other on the internet is also the least rooted: Twitter is just one long stream, and I only am given 140 characters to express myself at a time. I’ve carefully manicured my list of people to follow there, ruthlessly cutting people who might be friends in real life but not adept at microblogging. Meanwhile, tumbleweeds roll across my family-infested Facebook, which I keep mostly for phone book purposes; every couple of weeks I log in and find invites to events long since passed.

I made my usual strong black coffee this morning before clicking the green Feedly icon. It’s not a familiar button yet. For the first week or so I’d interrupt my morning Feedly session to go back to Reader, as it still has a couple of months left on life support, but I’ve stopped doing that. It’s best to make a clean break. Feedly may become a perfectly acceptable Reader substitute at some point; “acceptance” being the opposite of love.

The internet I have in my house right now is practically flawless, piping 24 hours of connection into my beautiful little laptop, which pewters on the edge of my bed at night. It’s the portal to are all the things I love, and it’s personal. But maybe it’s an illusion. I remember the sound made by the old modems, the anticipatory crackling before I connected to the world via Hotmail. The internet never felt like it truly belonged to me back then because the connection was so tenuous; it could be dropped at any moment. I thought things had changed, but maybe I was wrong. The mechanics have improved and we feel like we own it, but the soul of the internet has its own agenda. Something’s at work, and I find myself asking: “Are you there, internet? It’s me, Jess.”

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