R.I.P. Google Reader and the Open Web

A friend of mine started a Facebook page, asking for one minute of silence for the demise of Google Reader.

For many of us, Google Reader was a crucial part of the curating toolkit. Just subscribe to RSS-feeds, organize them in folders, view it in various ways. Save the interesting stuff for later, then put those articles which stay relevant for a longer time in diigo/dilicious/pearltrees… It was easy, and then Google killed it.

The company said it wants to focus on fewer projects. They felt there were enough good alternatives. And mostly, I guess, they were convinced Google Reader was no longer the future. So what is the future according to Google? Curation via social networks, first of all Google+, but of course also Twitter and Facebook. Algorithms and clever apps such as Flipboard and Zite are the present, readers the past. The future: even more algorithms, pushing information to you based on your explicitly and implicitly revealed preferences, your social graph, your locations, the time of the day… through wearable devices such as Glass.

Let’s be honest: the mainstream web users never embraced Reader. So, was Reader right about stopping Reader? What’s all the fuss about anyway?

The fuss is about the fear that Google is turning its back to the open web. People like Dave Winer, Felix Salmon  and Anil Dash lament about link rot and ‘the web we lost’. The big corporates such as Twitter, Facebook and Google primarily want to lock the users into their very own walled gardens. You and your friends can get data into those places, but getting the data out is another matter. Not that your data are particularly safe, they are not. They are not longer YOUR data, they are owned by the big corporations. When the web was still young people worked really hard for interoperability. Now the open web is on the retreat.

The mainstream, who never made it to Reader, is addicted to Facebook, and somewhat less to Twitter and Google+. Robert Scoble says it’s too late to save the common web, because the common users left. He gets more conversations about his articles and videos on Facebook and Google+ than on his blog/RSS feeds. Bruce Sterling says talking about “the internet” makes no sense anymore, and there are five reasons for that: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft (not clear to me why he doesn’t add Twitter):

Stacks. In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about “the Internet,” “the PC business,” “telephones,” “Silicon Valley,” or “the media,” and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image.

Chances are this will be self-defeating. It reminds me of the old Compuserve and AOL, ancient examples of walled gardens brought down or being forced to reinvent themselves by the open web. Sterling does not think that the stacks are stable entities:

Still, the Stacks figure they can disrupt and disintermediate all those old-school businesses; it’s the stock-markets that scare them, because they all know that, if they’re destroyed, it will surely be through that method; moguls can destroy the Stacks just like they destroyed the world of the 90s dot-com boom.

Are the Stacks “stable?” In a word, No. They’re all dizzyingly unstable Napoleonic gimcrack empires built by eccentric geek weirdos. Besides which, they’ve all learned to hate each other, and they’ve been stocking up patents for an almighty legal war for years now.

Maybe there will be non-American stacks (Samsung? some Chinese conglomerate?) – or maybe the open source and Makers movements will come up with something which is open van vastly superior to what the stacks offer now. We simply don’t know.

Curation war is getting intense

One of the things which seem to interest web-savvy journalists and students is curation: selecting, contextualizing social media and web streams. I use Storify to report and curate events such as the Arab uprisings and the disasters in Japan, and now I’m experimenting with Scoop.it! creating a page about curation. I also use Pearltrees, for instance

scoopt.it
The service is in private beta and is still working on some important features such as a way to embed the pages on external blogs or sites. However, it looks nice and promising – it’s a very flexible tool, allowing to move articels around, to include images or not, to edit texts and connects the articles and pages with other social media.

While I was assembling my page I discovered that yet another curation tool or platform will be launched: Storination, based on Storify. Which makes me wonder which whether all those fledgling services (Scoop.it, Storify, Curated.by, Keepstream, Bag the web, Pearltrees, and others I guess) will survive and what happens to the content one has on such a platform when it goes down (so an important feature seems to be ‘easy exporting’ of your content).

I think curation is a major development on the web and beyond. For every geek who happily uses hashtags, lists and other tools on Twitter there are 99 other internet users who don’t use Twitter actively or don’t use it at all. Social bookmarks, rss-feeds, google alerts are as yet not really mainstream, which make it crucial to have tools to present the richness of the web in a fun and easy way. Journalists are really dependent now on social media for their coverage and need ways to work efficiently and present their stuff in a esthetically pleasing way.

In fact we’re all drifting around on a social media stream which never seems to leave us alone anymore, because of our mobile devices and the irresistable blending of the digital and physical realms of life.

Making sense of our streams, in real time

How do we make sense of the streams of information on social networks? It’s easy to get overwhelmed and difficult to tell a good story about what happens on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. I’m a strong believer in virtual worlds as islands in those streams, where we can gather, and make time for thoughtful discussions. But even then we could make good use of tools to tell stories about what happens ‘out there’.

Josh Stearns on Groundswell has a great post about The New Curators: Weaving Stories from the Social Web.

Josh discusses Slices of Boulder, which seeks to aggregate and curate local information streams. The project is a collaboration between the Digital Media Test Kitchen at the University of Boulder and Eqentia.

Another tool, or rather a platform, is Swift River, built by the folks behind Ushahidi. It was designed with crisis situations in mind. The developers describe it as a “platform that helps people make sense of a lot of information in a short amount of time.” On their blog they try to clarify the concept as being an open source Yahoo Pipes for any SMS, Twitter, Email, and JSON/ATOM/XML/RSS feed, soon video and audio as well.

Storify finally is as Josh explains “based on two panes: 1) Navigating various content feeds (i.e. a Twitter search, a Facebook stream, as well as content from YouTube, Flickr and more) and 2) A blank stream where you can drag and drop elements from those streams to build your story.” It is simple, but compelling.

Storify demo from Burt Herman on Vimeo.

To be honest, Storify is the only tool mentioned here I actually experimented with (I’ll try the others out as well). Have a look at my post about Second Life in a browser and two stories on my financial blog (the blogposts are in Dutch, the tweets in English): one post about the US GDP report of last Friday and another one about Nouriel Roubini being pessimistic about the growth prospects (a social media discussion in which he does not hesitate to call a participant “an idiot”).

Storify (find an invite code at TechCrunch) actually helps you to discover stories.  It makes it easy to combine social media streams, and by doing that you stumble upon unexpected stuff (such as the angry outbursts of Roubini) and you can make that discovery process visible.

On Zombie Journalism Mandy Jenkins explains ten ways journalists (and bloggers of course) can use Storify: gathering reactions on breaking news, combining past content with newer information and social streams, showing your own quests on Twitter, Facebook etc, or organizing your own live tweets from a conference.

Robin Good is following up the fast expanding universe of real time curation tools on his blog. He also prepared a mindmap about all this:

A practical guide by Howard Rheingold for curating information into knowledge

Just found this new screencast by Howard Rheingold about finding, refining, organizing and curating information. It’s really about the basics of the social media ecosystem, while augmented reality and immersive environments can be considered the high-end part of it.

New for me (I’ll have to add it in my Prezi-presentation) were DEVONthink (for organizing information beyond Diigo and Delicious) and Scrivener (for writing, combining and manipulating your documents into new texts, it’s a Mac-tool).

The re-invention of news curation

Checking on what’s happening around the Liquid News project on the #liquidnews Twitter feed, it seems the project is advancing: Toni Hopponen from Sparkbox posted on his blog that Liquid News will likely use his service to publish articles, opinions etc. of experts involved in this project.

Sparkbox is a live reporting widget, enabling citizen journalists and experts to publish directly on websites. It has admin tools which make it possible to define user-specific rights. The look and feel of the widget is customizable, and of course sharing on networks, liking and commenting are features of this widget. Example of its use: is a newspaper in Finland having 15 soccer experts comment on the recent World Cup, they also organize citizens to report on local news.

The important thing is here that the content is curated. Maybe there once was a time that the internet was only used by gentle, civilized and smart people, but as every community manager will tell you these days what matters is to curate and moderate. While a community manager often only has one site or forum to moderate, curation of real time news is even more challenging as conflicting reports in various languages on many different platforms have somehow to be filtered and selected. It also is more challenging than what traditional journalists used to do: curating information coming via news wires and sources they often knew face to face. Journalists still do that, but they also have to handle the social media streams giving unique but not necessarily reliable information.

Robert Scoble has a fascinating collection of videos and news about “the real-time curation wars” and also Robin Good posted extensively about real-time curation.

Here you see ‘media futurist’ Gerd Leonhard in this video shot by Robin Good talking about curation:

Robert Scoble interviewing Patrick Meier about Ushahidi about crisis news curation systems: