Google Reader Social Retrospective #

With the upcoming transition of social features in Google Reader to Google+, I thought this would be a good time to look back at the notable social-related events in Reader's history. For those of you who are new here, I was Reader's tech lead from 2006 to 2010.

Late 2004 to early 2005: Chris Wetherell starts work on "Fusion", one of the 20% projects that serve as prototypes for Google Reader. Among other neat features, it has a "People" tab that shows you what other people on the system are subscribed to and reading. There's no concept of a managed friends list, after all when the users are just a few dozen co-workers, we're all friends, right?

September 2005: Ben Darnell and Laurence Gonsalves add the concept of "public tags" to the nascent Reader backend and frontend. There are no complex ACLs, just a single boolean that controls whether a tag is world-readable.

October 2005: A remnant of the "People" tab is present in the HTML of the launched version of Google Reader, and an eagle-eyed Google Blogoscoped forum member notices it and speculates as to its intended use.

March 2006: Tag sharing launches, along with the ability to embed a shared tag as a widget in the sidebar of your blog or other sites. On one hand, tag sharing is quite flexible: you can share both individual items by applying a tag to them, and whole feeds (creating spliced streams) if you share folders. On the other hand, having to create a tag, share it and manually apply it each time is rather tedious. A lot of users end up sharing their starred items instead, since that enables one-click sharing.

Summer of 2006: As part of Brad Hawkes's summer internship, he looks into what can be done to make shared tags more discoverable (right now users have to email each other URLs with 20-digit long URLs). He whips up a prototype that iterates over a user's Gmail contacts and lists shared tags that each contact might have. This is neat, but is shelved for both performance (there's a lot of contacts to scan) and privacy (who exactly is in a user's address book?) concerns.

Reader &auot;share" actionSeptember 2006: Along with a revamped user interface, Reader re-launches with one-click sharing, allowing users to stop overloading starred items.

May 2007: Brad graduates and comes back work on Reader full-time. His starter project is to beef up Reader's support for that old school social network, email.

Fall of 2007: There is growing momentum within Google to have a global (cross-product) friend list, and it looks like the Google Talk buddy list will serve as the seed. Chris and I start to experiment with showing shared items from Talk contacts. We want to use this feature with our personal accounts (i.e. real friends), but at the same time we don't want to leak its existence. I decide to (temporarily) call the combined stream of friends' shared items "amigos". Thankfully, we remember to undo this before launch.

Friends' shared items treeDecember 2007: After user testing, revamps, and endless discussions about opt-in/out, shared items from Google Talk buddies launches. Sharing is up by 25% overnight, validating that sharing to an audience is better than doing it into the void. On the other hand, the limitations of Google Talk buddies (symmetric relationships only, contact management has to happen within Gmail or Talk, not Reader) and communication issues around who could see your shared items lead to some user stress too.

Spring of 2008: With sharing in Reader picking up steam, a few aggregators and leaderboards of shared items start to spring up. Louis Gray comes to the attention of the Reader team (and its users) by discovering the existence of ReadBurner before its creator is ready to announce it.

May 2008: Up until this point sharing has been without commentary; it was up to the reader of the shared item to decide if it had been shared earnestly, ironically, or to disagree with it. "Share with note" gives users an opportunity to attach a (hopefully pithy) commentary to their share. Also in this launch is the "Note in Reader" bookmarklet (internally called "Tag Anything") that allows users to share arbitrary pages through Reader.

August 2008: Incorporating the lessons learned from Reader's initial friends feature, the preferred Google social model is revamped. Instead of a symmetric friend list based on Google Talk buddies, there is a separate, asymmetric list that can be managed directly within Reader. The asymmetry is "push"-style: users decide to share items with some of their contacts, but it's up those contacts to actually subscribe if they wish (think "Incoming" stream on Google+, where people are added to a "See my Reader shared items" circle). This feature is brought to life by Dolapo Falola, who injects some much-needed humor into the Reader code: the unit tests use the Menudo band members to model relationships and friends acquire a (hidden) "ex-girlfriend" bit.

New comments indicatorMarch 2009: After repeated user requests, (and enabled by more powerful ACL supported added by Susan Shepard) comments on shared items are launched. Once again Dolapo is on point for the frontend side, while Derek Snyder does all the backend work and makes sure that Reader won't melt down when checking whether to display that "you have new comments" icon. The ability of the backend and user interface to handle multiple conversations about an item is stress-tested with a particularly popular Battlestar Galactica item.

May 2009: Bundles are launched, extended sharing from just individual tags to collections of feeds.

Hearts when like-ing an itemJuly 2009: Continuing the social learning process, the team (and Google) revamps the friends model once again, switching to a asymmetric "pull"-style (i.e. following) model. This is meant to be "pre-consistent" with the upcoming Google Buzz launch. Also included in this launch are better ties to Google Profiles and the ability to "like" items. In general there are so many moving parts that it's amazing that Jenna's head doesn't explode trying to design them all.

Also as part of this launch, intern Devin Kennedy's trigonometry skills are put to good use in creating an easter egg animation triggered when liking or un-liking an item after activating the Konami code.

August 2009: Up until this point, one-click sharing had mainly been for intra-Reader use only (though there were a few third-party uses, some hackier than others). With the launch of Send to (also Devin's work), Reader can now "feed" almost any other service.

February 2010: The launch of Google Buzz posed some interesting questions for the Reader team. Should items shared in Reader show up in Buzz? (yes!) Should we allow separate conversations on an item in Buzz versus Reader? (no!) With a lot of behind the scenes work, sharing and comments in Reader are re-worked to have close ties to Buzz, such that even non-Reader-using friends can finally get in on the commenting action.

March 2010: Partly as a tongue-in-cheek reaction to social developments within Google, and partly to help out some Buzz power users who were complaining that all the social features in Reader were slowing it down, I add a secret (though not for long) anti-social mode.

May 2010: Up until this point, it was possible to have publicly-shared items but only allow certain friends to comment on them. Though powerful, this amount of flexibility was leading to complexity and user confusion and workarounds. To simplify, we switch to offering just two choices for shared items, and in either case if you can see the shared item, you can comment on it.

As you can see, it's been a long trip, and with the switch to Google+ sharing features, Reader is on its fourth social model. This much experimentation in public led to some friction, but I think this incremental approach is still the best way to operate. Whether you're a sharebro, a Reader partier, a Gooder fan, the number 1 sharer or someone who "like"-d someone else, I am are very grateful that you were part of this experiment (and I'm guessing the rest of the past and present team is grateful too). And if you're looking to toast Reader for all its social stumbles accomplishments, the preferred team drink is scotch.


Dear Reader Team,

We love scotch, too.

Reader Party
There is a Spanish Proverb: it is not a good idea to undress a Saint for dressing another one.

This is more and more disappointing :(
"This is a glaring example of a company making a move that is counter to what their users want or need."
Thank you for an educational historic summary to show Reader's progress.

It's been my favourite Google service after Gmail because it made sharing with a close circle of friends very easy and instantanous: just click Share and it's shared with the previously selected group. Then go into shared from others (or for a better commenting UI Buzz in Gmail) to read and respond to comments as they come in.

I don't mind switching that over to Google Plus but am wondering if we'll eventually see the same level of frictionless sharing. Right now it seems I have to click the +1 button via the mouse, then again use the mouse to enter a comment in the Share box, then tab once to select a target circle/person (previous one doesn't remain selected), and finally tab again to hit Share.

I'd love to see this simplified down to emulate Reader's model of 2 buttons: Share and Share with Note, where the first one instantly shares with the previously used circle/person without any comments, and the 2nd pops up the usual dialog for adding a note before sharing.
I am not sure if anyone competent is gonna read this, but I am reposting my comment from one of google manager's post:

1. I am not sure what designer could approve this, but red border when tab (either horizontal or vertical) is selected? Are you kiddin' me? totally not in line with new Google UI...
2. also, I find it really inconsistent when there is no border to the left of post (dividing menu from content same as in google+
3. popups not showing properly... test this UI
4. menu arrows for subscription folders not aligned properly
5. trend colors not fittin into design (that doesnt apply only for graphs, tables as well!)
6. also title such as "Your Reader Trends" not according to design principles of new UI... Should be red and bigger
7. inconsistent grey color
8. Explore link not showing properly in Chrome
9. again... hover background color for menu? where the hell did you see that in new Google UI?
10. that weird shadow when rss folders do not fit into div?
I'm just a little sad that Reader has now moved to the "intrusive sharing" model. To share stories now, you have to push them into your friends G+ streams. With Reader sharing before, you could share all you wanted, and the person (who chose to follow you for your story sharing) could read, ignore, gloss over, decide by the headline on a single line if they wanted to I feel like I'm spamming my friends who may or may not be interested in the stories.

At the very least, G+ should add a link or selection to access shared stories only if you want to. Like with games. It's way too hard now to consume large amounts of material.

It's a sad day when a good feature gets left behind in the name of "progress." :-(
Wow, so it's how many clicks to share something now?

And this is an improvement?
I love the new UI and simplifying the sharing so that everything Google is shared in one place and I don't have to go many different places to see everything is preferential to me. (ymmv)

Thanks for the update, I was looking forward to it and you didn't disappoint!
Keyboard shortcuts need to happen.

Reading articles that are shared in Google Reader needs to happen.

That's all I need.
Boothy, it's one click to share, more if you want to comment. Seeing friends' shares is somewhat more difficult.

Is there an RSS feed of a circle's +1s? That would get round the sharing issue without having to leave Reader.

Here's a big oversight: when the +1 button becomes visible it's normal for it to be low down on the screen, because it's always at the foot of the feed entry. So the "Add People" section of the G+ thing which pops up is also low on the screen. Clicking "Add People" brings up a list of circles, which for me goes off the bottom of the screen.
Bad move, Google, bad move
I really miss sharing a tag
Giving feedback in the comments section of this post is not productive; I'm no longer on the Google Reader team.

Please give feedback in either the forum ( or on Google Plus (feel free to + reference Louis Gray -
Honestly, I am shocked at this timeline. I was under the impression Reader was nearly completely ignored during that timespan.
@S.L. Æris: Which timespan? Most of the events that I cite are public releases (and point to posts on the Reader blog), so the dates shouldn't be too surprising.
The current transition locks in all our sharing within the Google-territory for simple reason that there is no RSS feed for 1+ items. If you have a service based on RSS feeds, you should really think twice before you break the RSS interoperability. We can no longer output directly our intra-Reader activity to extra-Google services. That's bad, that's no reciprocity, that's no netiquette: It does not care for the ecology of the internet, it cares only for the ecology of Google.
What Google have done here is really disgusting. I've been using Google Reader for some years, using the 'shared items' both as a very powerful archive of things I need to keep in a searchable place, and as a way of keeping the many websites that I work with updated. Using the RSS feed from my shared items page updates loads of websites and email services that I provide to others.

At a stroke, without warning, Google have removed the main tool I use for my work and removed my access to my archive. This creates huge problems for me in my work and I've lost a lot of time I'll never get back. There are weasel words on their site about how I can download by archive in the JSON file, but seeing as there's not an application that I can load it up into, it's a useless offer.

Sure - I can use MobileRSS on iPhone for now, and someone has created a Google Chrome plugin that lets me do a lot of what I used to to - but for how long? MobileRSS may even go along with the new GR at their next release. Google have already shown that they're quite capable of being total pricks and I suspect they'll soon turn off the 'shared items' archive and get rid of the legacy 'shared items' page.

This is a really nasty abuse of Google's market dominance (after all, the RSS reader market has been long-since cleaned out by the dominance of GR) and if it isn't illegal for them to turn off services like this with (almost?) no warning, then it should be.
"We Hate Google-Reader Redesign" page on facebook
New reader suxx, i use FeedDemon now, sharing gone, design is ugly, evolution ?
Well, it's nice to be back to September, 2005. If all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again, we're only a year from the introduction of basic social features in Google Reader!
I hate, *hate* having to switch over to Google+ and peruse my stream just to see if anyone shared an interesting blog article.

I understand Google's desire to put G+ at the center of all social features of Google's products. The ability to share Reader articles with different circles makes a lot of sense. But the ability to *read* shared articles within Reader itself *also* makes a lot of sense, and I now find myself missing half the articles my friends share because I don't visit G+ nearly as often as Reader.

I was a fiercely loyal fan of almost all Google products right up until the last few months, with the butt-ugly "New Look" they've insisted on, and all the half-baked Google+ integration.

Google, it's not too late to turn this around, but you need to issue a major Mea Culpa and listen to your users.
First Google forced users to get Gmail accounts in order to use YouTube, now it's trying to force users to get a Google+ account in order to share stuff. This is the kind of crap that sends users like me in search of new services from a company that doesn't coerce users. Google thinks it can get away with this because it believes there aren't alternatives to Reader and YouTube. Eventually, however, a company will come along and provide YouTube and Reader services that don't require that you sign up for crap you don't want in order to use them. When that happens, Google will become a footnote in history.
I don't mind of the UI setting. Google can do whatever they want, I also don't mind to add Google+ in Reader. BUT it is just SO WRONG to disable the share functionality in new design of Google reader.

Ever they think of how many PEOPLE are used to share their best article, their thought and feeling through Google Reader before?

You were telling us the history of its development, thank'S, but for WHAT end?

It is your ex-company who need to know the fact and reason of the previous functionality existence by historical basis. So Google can create a BETTER solution, not a WORSE one.

If you are with us, please escalate our voice.

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