Tools, platforms, and Google Reader


There are tools, and there are platforms. Tools tend to be simple things. They help you get some particular task done — they lend you their power when you need it — but they otherwise pretty much stay out of your life. They’re like little amplifiers of the self. Platforms are more complicated. They may help you do some of the same things that tools help you do, but, in granting that assistance, they demand that you become entangled in a bigger scheme, a scheme of someone else’s devising. Rarely do you know fully what the scheme consists of, what its ends are, or how it will develop in the future. A tool holds no secrets; a platform holds many. You use a tool; a platform uses you.

RSS is a good tool. It gives you a simple way to shape and filter the web’s content to suit your own needs. It lends you its power when you need it without requiring any broader entanglement. Its developers, to their credit, made its simplicity central. They were acting as tool-makers, which is how software programmers and web developers tended to act a decade ago. That was before the platform-builders arrived, with their schemes.

Google was once a tool-maker. Now, it’s a platform-builder. Like Facebook. Like Apple. Like Microsoft. Like Twitter. Like all the rest. And so Google is officially killing off its popular RSS tool Google Reader. The move was in the cards ever since the creation of the Google+ platform. Tools are threats to platforms because they give their owners ways to bypass platforms. If you have a good set of tools, you don’t need a stinking platform. If you’re happy with RSS, you’re a little less likely to sign up for Google+, or Twitter, or Facebook. At the very least, the tool gives you the choice. It grants you self-determination.

RSS, like other web tools and even other personal-computer tools, is doomed—not doomed, necessarily, to disappear, but doomed to be on the periphery, largely out of sight. “We’re living in a new kind of computing environment,” said Google engineer Urs Hölzle in announcing that Google Reader would be swept away in a “spring cleaning.” He’s right. The tool environment is gone. The platform environment is here. Consider yourself entangled.

Photo by Julia Manzerova.

17 thoughts on “Tools, platforms, and Google Reader

  1. Mark

    As a result, yesterday I moved to a new RSS tool named

    So far I like it. It’s not Google Reader but it’ll do.

  2. Richard

    This is one of the best posts I’ve seen on this all day. Thank you.

    “If you have a good set of tools, you don’t need a stinking platform.”

    I think it depends on who “you” is.

    You and I might enjoy our internet a la carte (now) but I can remember the early days of AOL, AppleLink, bitnet and the like and each was a platform that made things a lot easier (for me in those days).

    The tool/platform relationship also existed earlier when most of us were on AOL and a few brave souls jumped off and started doing all sorts of crazy stuff on the bigger internet with what seemed like geeky tools. Some of those geeky tools are now taken for granted by grandmas and AOL as it was is dead.

    I think for the huge number of people who are “online” now platforms are more easily digested than an ad hoc collection of tools, the uses of which are less understandable by the “average” user (whatever that is these days).

    I think the fact is, it takes easy to digest (get) platforms to get average people going . Like you, I hope there will still be “tools” around for those of us who like to build our own tool chests to use.

  3. Samir

    I think the platform-builders are, in some ways, co-opting us as their tools. Unlike the tools you cite, the platforms derive the bulk of their utility from our willingness to play inside.

    Are you determined to keep bypassing the platforms, Nick?

  4. Nick Post author

    Are you determined to keep bypassing the platforms, Nick?

    As a matter of fact, I am. What I’ve realized is that once you get entangled, it becomes very hard, practically and psychologically, to disentangle yourself. But if you don’t entangle yourself in the first place, then it remains pretty easy to resist entanglement. And as you see the entanglements become ever more entangling, you actually feel a sense of relief that you’re not a part of it — and then it becomes even easier to resist.

    Resistance, I guess you could say, is not futile.

  5. Tim

    I agree, we don’t need no stinking badges!.. I mean platforms. I’m locking my screwdrivers up and staying off the platforms as long as I can.

  6. Samir

    1. Inevitably:

    2. once you get entangled, it becomes very hard, practically and psychologically, to disentangle yourself

    True. Or at least that’s been my experience. But I wonder if, while you keep yourself disentangled from these platforms and their distractions, you feel you’re missing out on something. Or do you consider that that missing out is required to preserve your ability to focus, work, create, to hold on to your thoughts? Do you have to work hard at the avoidance? And where and how should one draw the line? I’m not sure it will get easier to stay a hermit from platforms.

  7. Richard

    Samir: If by “platforms” you’re referring to Facebook and Twitter, what do they give you besides social popularity that you can’t get in some other way?

    Almost everything I get through Twitter I get through RSS and RSS is a richer feed. Facebook gave me nothing and I dumped it quickly after signing up.

    I suppose if you’re marketing something (including yourself) then those platforms might be useful to tap into but for me, putting out a “humble” RSS feed and/or subscribing to same from others is a much better experience.

  8. Sylvia

    I do agree with Nick, as usual :) With a difference though: I am ok with tools AND platforms. I would like to be able to use what I fancy most in each moment with no further explanation to anyone.

    What strikes me is to understand why, because of building a platform, you should discontinue the tool. To me, the platform should be a beautiful assembly of things. Taking a tool out just because your are able to assemble it in a bigger set is as if you would stick together your Lego bricks once you’ve built the starwars warrior.

  9. Michael

    Like so many, I’ve had to start trying replacements for Google Reader. Despite its limitations, The Old Reader might be okay if they also develop a mobile app, but it’s not looking good. I’m still stuck in a queue of thousands to even import my feeds, so who knows when I might actually be able to put it through its paces. Netvibes doesn’t even have search (within feeds) which pretty much rules it out, although their Dashboard might make an acceptable iGoogle replacement.

    So, it’s Feedly that looks best at this stage, although I wish it had the “sort by newest” and “sort by oldest” function, (unless I’ve missed it somewhere; if anyone knows how to, please reply) and I don’t particularly like the way the individual feeds scroll in the mobile app. Small gripes, I know, but I’m in a funk after being spoilt by something that just worked so perfectly. Vale Reader.

  10. Kate Davids

    I think there’s a third category: the tools built on top of platforms, aka the apps. The way I see it, Google Reader is a tool build on a platform (the Internet). So what’s happening is that the basic layout of the Web is becoming Social Networks (platforms) and people are building “tools” to help us navigate these platforms, just like Google Reader helped us navigate the Web in general. The only difference is now we’re fencing in the Wild West. I do have to wonder if the Web will change in the same way as the American West.

  11. Edward G. Brown

    So well and succinctly put.

    I managed to dis-entangle myself from facebook over a year ago and my life has definitely improved, for various reasons. I’m entangled in twitter, google+, and youtube for various purposes, the primary being to promote my books. I’m starting to think that it may be better for my sanity to dis-entangle from those platforms as well. While I enjoy being on them, and interacting on twitter with some of my favorite authors (like Alain de Botton), there is a certain soul-sucking that I’ve found happens when you’re spending a lot of time checking for new feedback. Perhaps I need to just set limits on how much time I spend per day on them, and time windows where I allow myself. That seems a good idea regardless. It’s a double-edged sword of course, but then most things are. However, I think the problem with platforms is that there are multiple blades, with multiple edges, whereas tools seem to have just two. But perhaps I’m naive.

  12. Richard

    Dear Mr. Carr,
    First, a big thank you for The Shallows, it has, together with You Are Not A Gadget, fundamentally altered my perception of the Internet. At the very end of the book, you say “feel free to grab an oar”, so I have, in an idiosyncratic way, once briefly here:
    and once at great rambling length, here:
    I wonder if you saw this blog post in The New Yorker:

    For some reason this reminds me of a William Burroughs quotation, “It’s the little touches that make a future solid enough to destroy.”

    All the best, and keep up the valiant fight,


  13. Phil Simon

    No argument here. Like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and others, Google has embraced platform thinking. I for one don’t understand why Reader can’t continue to be a plank in its platform. I’m a user, not a customer, though.

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