The social structure of news

With the looming loss of Google Reader, there has been a rethink of “what is it good for anyway?” Some felt that RSS has long been a poor medium for reading. They long for formatting that is consistent with the way an author intended. There have been some Google Reader alternatives that have provided that so that seemed like a false claim.

Related is the notion that Google Reader itself wasn't a great reading experience. That is true. For me it was a great browsing experience but to read anything lengthy I'd prefer an Instapaper or Readibility type setting. In other words, far from what authors intended. Even there with a plug in or an app like Reeder that option was available. And if you prefer a magazine type layout there are many options available.

So it seems to me that the whole is RSS good or not debate isn't really relevant. It is a useful standard that has allowed customisation. It is just that Google didn't help out in providing it.

Another set of critiques is more fundamental. Some have claimed that they long abandoned Reader because the “social web” was serving them so well. What they mean here is that they can use social media to find the stuff they need to read without trawling through hundreds of blogs and news outlets. I suspect that is true of many people. Follow the right people on Twitter or maybe even Google+ and you are set. Or maybe even follow a good tech or politics blog.

The problem is that from what we know about the social structure of social media is that there are a set of roles available. Take Mark Thoma. His blog and twitter feeds have a huge following. Why? Because he reads all of the Econ blogs and picks out what he thinks is best. If you read Thoma, chances are you don't need Google Reader. He is the social web.

But how does Thoma operate? My guess is that he uses a feed reader and has a system for tagging good posts and forwarding them on to others. Sometimes it is just a link. Other times he provides a quote and a little commentary. Remove his tools and his job gets harder.

Given this it should be no surprised that the most dismayed about the loss of Google Reader were the contributors to social web curation. There is only need for a few of these but they do an important job so disrupting them will harm many. In the Econ world, these people are well known. They are Brad de Long, Tyler Cowen and a few more specialised bloggers. In the days of old I used to do this too with multiple posts daily but the others were better and so I dropped back to being one of the many who hoped these curators would pick up their posts.

My point is that if you say you don't use Google Reader because the social web takes care of you, then you are mistaken. The social web needs its tools and indirectly so do you.


7 Replies to “The social structure of news”

  1. Maybe is time to rethink RSS. Maybe we’re so angry because it broke our flow. However, I remind you that one of the reasons we loved Reader is because he disabled authors layouts, leaving only text and some images. It made reading a lot of info really quick.

    1. i was thinking instead maybe it’s time to treat information aggregators (and similarly public-minded educators) as near-publishers who, without much money to spend, are in need of external aid & comfort to decrease the overhead on their public generosity.

      this may require the equivalent of a trade guild, to oversee the development of tools for our curators.

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