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Q&A: On The Death Of Google Reader And The Future Of Reading

Google is shutting down the Google Reader on Monday.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Google is shutting down the Google Reader on Monday.

You can't say they didn't warn you. On Monday, Google Reader will no longer be available. The search behemoth is putting its RSS reader to rest, leaving millions of dedicated users scrambling to find other platforms for organization of their news feeds and content exploration.

One of the leading contenders in the race to replace Google Reader is the recently relaunched Digg Reader. The man behind the effort is CEO Andrew McLaughlin. A former vice president of Tumblr, he also served as the White House's deputy chief technology officer and headed up global public policy at Google. As Wired magazine puts it in a recent profile, "Dude has bona fides."

Somehow, the indefatigable McLaughlin found time to chat during the frenzied, final few days of readying Digg Reader, which went live this weekend. We talked about content overload, the puzzling math behind our social media feeds and what one RSS reader's death means for reading's future.

Andrew McLaughlin is CEO of <a href="http://digg.com/">Digg</a> and <a href="http://www.instapaper.com/">Instapaper</a>, based in New York City.
/ Courtesy Andrew McLaughlin
Courtesy Andrew McLaughlin
Andrew McLaughlin is CEO of Digg and Instapaper, based in New York City.

What does the end of Google Reader signal for the future of how we read, watch or view media?

"Most people look at the death of Google Reader and say, 'Oh, RSS readers are a dead end; there's no need for them anymore.' In a narrow sense, that's true in that RSS specifically is not the most important thing for most users. But if you look around the Internet broadly, you see many, many more people online, many more people with smartphones and doing more of their reading digitally. So that just means that for the next 10 years and beyond the project of trying to make a really great reading experience is still a valid one. I mean, reading, viewing, watching.

"There's just going to be much more demand for a great reading experience. There's more demand for one part of the reading experience which is the ability to boil down the overwhelming flood of stuff that comes at you that competes for and demands your attention. Boiling that down in intelligent ways is integral to a great reading experience. Whether it's mood, situation, the time you have or what you want to do, there's going to be ways you want to slice and dice things."

But it does seem like there are feeds we rely on for surfacing news or information that are more useful for us than RSS feeds, like Twitter or Facebook feeds.

"RSS feeds are important. There are also things you want to follow or keep up with that are not RSS. Twitter shares lots of URLs. That's not an RSS feed. But what if we could rank them [the URLs] in terms of popularity in my world in New York, or the popularity two years ago if you'd like to know, or what's interesting to you based on what you like or tweet or reblog? Actions are an indication of what you find interesting. We're thinking around an uncluttered reading experience plus a bunch of other things. Distilling, sorting, ranking to make better use of your time. Flipboard, which I really like, creates that magazine browsing experience. Digg is trying to focus on reading and videos. We're not trying to make a gorgeous experience but a stripped-down one. We're making something more optimized for text."

How are you thinking through the fact that we're getting more and more content to choose from and consume?

"What we need are tools that cut through the thicket and dampen the noise. Our aesthetic choices [in the new Digg Reader] are designed to produce an emotional feeling of calmness. It should be that sort of thing. They reflect a conviction that distilling down and boiling down is the need. If you look at the right now, that's 70 things that cycle through that are picked by human editors. There's gotta be math, too."

A screen shot of the new Digg reader.
/ Digg
A screen shot of the new Digg reader.

How good is the math right now?

"We've built one algorithm for popularity, one for popularity within social circles, and we're starting to work on 'interestingness' in a personalized sense. It seems that there's a huge amount of room for improvement. The usual ways of calculating recommended for you kinds of things don't work that great. Betaworks' [the company behind the Digg Reader] expertise is in real data, social data, big data. That will be what we're noodling over — how to make usable, valuable products out of what's available.

"If you watch recommendation projects like Netflix, the trick to that is the only thing they know is what you watch, is what rating you give it. That's not that much. In the Internet world we can look at: What do you save? What do you open to read? How much of it did you read through? What did you do after you read it — delete it or archive it? That's a lot more signals. What did you tweet or send your Facebook friends?"

How concerned are you that the more these algorithms improve to tailor our content to precisely the topics or material we want to see, the more we live in our own "filter bubbles" of media — consuming only content that promotes and preserves our biases and preferences?

"It can. Part of what we're building is informed by what Eli Pariser [author of The Filter Bubble] and many before him wrote. Our sense about that is that the way to break through the bubble is not to have just one algorithm. Facebook has one way to decide what goes in your feed. We want to provide 10 or 15 ways to rank your items or any feed or any given folder. For example, if you go by popularity globally, that won't have a political bias if it really is the world. If you look within your social circles, you'll see things the rest of the world isn't paying attention to, what we are [paying attention to] domestically. We're also thinking about a sort by 'grade level.' You can analyze writing by grade level up to grad school. But I buy the critique. Which is why I don't think Google+ or Facebook is a good substitute for a reader."

Yeah, I feel like my Facebook feed is constantly changing and sending me more and more random stuff.

"Our feeds are getting puzzling — genuinely puzzling. Even if you click on chronological view, you still don't see everything. Even that is selected. It's not all of the things that all of your friends are sharing. That's probably maximizing monetization for Facebook, not your utility."

So readers aren't dead.

"Readers aren't dead because reading isn't dead. We're trying to build a comprehensive reading, viewing, listening experience. Our iPhone app and iPad app has a feature that allows you to play podcasts in your feeds, in order. You can hit that button and it pulls out podcasts and videos and plays them one after another. That's kind of great. We'll have a control panel so you can delete the ones you don't want or reorganize them. That's the kind of thing that Google Reader never did. It's about what you want to read, view and watch. There's no less need for reading. More reading is just happening on devices. So there's a huge amount of demand."

Who else is thinking about these issues in an interesting way?

, , . There's some edgier cases like Zite and Prismatic which are more about topical clustering. They take a different approach. Zite is source-based. Flipboard is that beautiful, visual magazine experience.

"We at Digg are trying to say it's not about just showing you everything you want to see in reverse chron that you scroll through. We're gonna try to give you ways to reorganize and reorder that stuff to get you the most important, longest stuff first and work the way through."

What's your advice for folks as we confront the end of Google Reader?

"Be prepared to sample and shop around; experiment with the different approaches, takes and user experiences. If you find one that you don't like, odds are there is another one that's what you're looking for."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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