On Wednesday, March 13th, Google announced that they will be closing their popular (in opinion if not in numbers) Google Reader product on July 1, 2013.
As a Reader user, I was kind of shocked to see that a product that seemed to be steadily improving, and that also seemed to not be too resource-dependent on Google’s part, be relegated to the trash bin.
For those that don’t know, Google Reader is a tool for aggregating and viewing RSS feed content. RSS feeds are streams of updates from websites and services. This blog has an RSS feed that contains each of the posts that I have made, along with time and date and other meta information for indexing and organization. Reader was a tool that collected and organized feeds for easy reading, allowing users to access one page to browse all of their favorite website updates (as opposed to opening a bunch of bookmarks into multiple tabs or remembering site addresses.)
Upon release of the announcement of the closing, the web went completely ape-shit and popular news items of the day like NFL free agency and oh, just the appointment of a new Pope were pushed aside for complete panic over what people are going to do now that Reader is closing. It may seem a little trivial considering this is just a free tool for reading RSS feeds (there are lots and lots of alternative tools available,) but this is actually a fairly important red flag for everyone that uses the web.
Most of us use free services like GMail, Yahoo Mail, Twitter, Facebook, etc. for sharing and storing our information on the web. They’re great: they’re free, easily accessible, constantly updated and enhanced and they’re relevant to the types of information we want and need and how we want and need it. Services like GMail make something like email easy for the masses. Setting up your own email server or even using POP with your own domain (what’s that, right?) are fairly complicated, especially for the less-techy users out there.
The problem comes with the complete integration of our lives with these services. Sure, Google can shutter Reader and we’ll grumble but move on to another service. But what if they decide to close GMail? Our email includes details about not only our online lives, but also our offline lives as well. Bank account logins, loan details, school and work documents, and other vital details for accessing important information all lives in our email. Not to mention all of the personal correspondence and records of conversations that are also archived there. Even businesses and universities have converted from private to GMail-run email services. We have all put our vital, private information in the hands of a corporation that has the justifiable power to erase it all at the flip of a switch.
Now, it’s highly unlikely that Google will close GMail, one of its most successful (if not most popular or industry leading) products. But it’s not impossible. It’s also not impossible for services such as Yahoo, Twitter or Facebook to close either. Or to be bought out or merged with another company and fundamentally changed for better or worse. Internet giants like Flickr and Instagram have both been eaten up by larger corporations (Yahoo and Facebook, respectively,) and while their core functionality has yet to change, decisions regarding these services must eventually bend to the will of the stockholder.
I’m not giving up my GMail account anytime soon, but I will be keeping my eye on what is a growing trend of commercialized information. And I’ll try to own and/or pay for as much of my information and services as I can.