Google Reader: the first social newsreader?

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Think of a social network, and you probably think of something like Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace or Bebo. (If you're especially old-school, or Brazilian, you might think of Orkut.)

Either way, you're thinking of a capital-S, capital-N Social Network. You join it as a social network, probably with the initial intention of connecting with people.

But some social networks can kind of sneak up on you. You think you're there to do something purely solitary, but then something happens...

If you're using Google Reader, you may already know what I'm talking about. Our tool of choice for following blogs and a wide range of news feeds, Reader has been part of the Google family of web applications for nearly four years now. Features have cropped up here and there to make it a little more conversational over the years - most notably the "Share" feature that lets you select individual items for exposure to your audience - but none of them has been revolutionary.

Now, however, things are changing. A series of new Google Reader features is turning a fundamentally personal, individual pursuit into something potentially much more social.

Google Reader now lets you follow other people, subscribing to their shared items, in much the same way you might "friend" someone on Facebook. (Discovering them isn't nearly as easy as it should be; I'll show you how in a video at the end of this post.) You can control who can see the items you share as well as who can comment on them.

And, borrowing a leaf from both Friendfeed and now Facebook, you can "like" an item... and, more crucially, who else likes it. That's some heavy-gauge social wiring: it makes discovering people who share your interests and tastes a lot easier.

This will look pretty familiar to anyone who's poked around media-sharing sites like Flickr and Facebook. But on a newsreader, this is awfully interesting. And given what newsreaders do - track and aggregate newsfeeds, which are already the lifeblood of the social web - it's a kind of meta-social layer: being social about social content.

"Interesting", though, doesn't mean they've reached the destination. Google Reader's social features still have an embryonic feel to them - possibly because they're waiting to see exactly what users do with them. I have three one pretty important item on my wishlist before I'm ready to start crowing that the revolution's here:

  • More control over groups and what they can see. Right now, access to comments and shared itsems is like an on/off switch: you're either in or you're out. But I'd like to share different things with different groups of people, and have discrete (and often discreet) conversations with each. Let me invite a client's workgroup to a conversation about a blog post on one of their key issues over here, and my circle of Vancouver Mexican cooking fans to a discussion of fusion mole sauces over here. (Disclaimer: For illustration purposes only. I can't cook a mole sauce to save my life.)
  • Tags, keywords, labels, folders - whatever Google wants to call them, I want them. Google's labelling feature in Gmail would be at least as handy in Reader, which already allows you to assign feeds to folders (which are effectively the same feature). Let me label blog posts as funny, smart, moving, inspiring; let me flag them for commenting, a follow-up on my own blog, or discussion with my team; let me mix and match and slice and dice to my heart's content.
  • Feed me. While Google's busy creating those groups and labels, let's have each of them throw a news feed, like Reader does for shared items.

Turns out Reader already has the last two features... although you need to do a little digging to really use them. See the comments below - and thanks, Boris!

In the meantime, if you're looking to get started with those new social features, here's a little help: the trick to searching for profiles from within Google Reader.

How to find People Search in Google Reader from Rob Cottingham on Vimeo.

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Boris says

July 21, 2009 - 7:11am

Feature 2 (tags) and feature 3 (feeds from tags) already exist and have for as long as tags have existed.

Click on "edit tags" to edit the tags on an item directly. If you have put subscriptions into tags already, each feed item will be pre-tagged, and then you can add more as desired. You can also "Share with Note" and get both a notes field plus a tags field, effectively duplicating Delicious (I stopped using Delicious some time ago and am using this). If you click on "Shared items" you can publicly share any tags you like, and you get a feed for each one.

Lastly, if you enable the "Note in Reader" bookmarklet, you can share arbitrary web pages that you come across by selecting text on the page, regardless of whether or not you're subscribed to it. Again, bu-bye Delicious.

Rob Cottingham says

July 21, 2009 - 10:03am

Thanks for the tip, Boris - I couldn't tell that the tags apply to posts as well as feeds; that's terrific news. And while I'm delighted they have tag-based feeds, they do an awfully good job of hiding them!

Here's how you get a tag-based feed:

  • First make the particular tag public. Go to Settings/Folders and Tags, and click the greyed-out feed icon and word "Private" next to the tag you want to use. (You can also select feeds using check boxes, and change the sharing for all of them at once with the "Change sharing..." pulldown menu at the top of the page.)
  • Now click "View public page." The feed link is at the bottom of the right-hand sidebar.
  • Alternately, once you've made the tag public, click it at the bottom of any post in Google Reader. You'll see a page with all of the unread posts with that tag. Click "Show details" in the upper right, and Google will give you the link to the feed.

And the bookmarklet looks almost painfully useful. Thanks for that tip!


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