What should I use instead of Google Reader?

The company is retiring its RSS reader. But there are some viable replacements, writes Alex Hern.

Direst news! Google is turning off its Google Reader service on 1 July, eight years after its birth.

Of course, if you are in what is apparently the vast majority of the population, you either haven't heard of Google Reader, haven't used it, or haven't logged in for years. The company cites declining usage of the service as a reason for its retirement, and they probably aren't making that up: the idea of reading the web by subscribing to RSS feeds through an dedicated app, once posited as the future of publishing, never hit the widespread usage it was expected to.

And if you do use the service, it probably isn't news that it's shutting either—because you've probably already logged in, this morning or last night, to be greeted with the dialogue box of doom:

If you are anything like me, and apparently most of my Twitter followers, you have already got your panicking out of the way. Now the dreadful thought bubbles up: what happens next?

Firstly: don't panic! (Any more than you already have.) Although Google Reader is used as a back-end service for a number of RSS apps, like Reeder and Feedly, a number of them—including those two—have confirmed that they already have plans for a replacement syncing service which should let users carry on as though Reader never shut.

If you are a die-hard user of the Reader web-app, though, you're going to have to make the switch as some point. Come 1 July, reader.google.com will presumably shut down—or, even worse, redirect to Google+—and you'll have to find a new way of using your feeds.

The first thing to do is nab your data out of Google Reader. The company offers its Takeaway service, which ought to make this easy to do. Just click here, and follow the steps.

Once you've got that far, where you go next depends on what you used the old Reader for. There's multiple services which scratch different itches, and any one of them could be right for you.

The most obvious recommendation is The Old Reader. Exactly as it sounds, this is a clone of the old Google Reader (old in this case meaning old-old—it mimics Google Reader as it was before the company removed sharing functionality at the end of 2011). It's still in beta, and doesn't have a mobile app or an API, so if you transfer your data to it, you'll need to be prepared to be in the browser a lot. But if you're averse to change, this might be the best option.

If you're someone who uses Google Reader as a gentle browser, then consider Flipboard. The service is designed for lean-back reading, rather than obsessive newshounds, but it does what it does exceptionally well. If you're the sort of person who panics about not reading every post on your favourite site, it's not for you, but if you've been using Google Reader to find interesting things from a few sources, it might make life more pleasant. Mobile only, though, so you'll need to compliment it with something that has a web or desktop app.

At the exact opposite end of the spectrum is Newsblur. This is designed explicitly for obsessive newshounds; it's fast, powerful and, though I love it, ugly as sin. It takes all your feeds in, and applies a smart filter to them to push the breakingest news to the top of your pile. If you only have fifty feeds, it might be overkill; but if you're pushing five hundred, you'll wonder how you lived without it.

Newsblur also has a mobile app, and the developer has a far nicer-looking UI in beta. It's where I'm planning to move my data, and I don't appear to be alone: by 7:30am this morning, the developer had moved from one server to six, and gone to bed for the night; as I write this, the site is down under excessive load.

Perhaps the best thing about Newsblur, though, is that it's not free (it lets you trial it, but caps your subscription at 100 feeds until you pay). That may be an odd thing to say, but the fact is that if Google Reader hadn't been a hobby for the company—it was staffed, in its dying days, by just five people—it may have stayed alive. We've all heard the clichés, that if you aren't paying, you're not the customer, you're the product; but they are clichés for a reason. Assuming that it successfully scales up past this initial burst of popularity, maybe having all your data on a service with a financial motivation for keeping it is not such a bad idea?

And for the small subset of Google users for whom Reader was a lifeline, this ought to ring warning bells for the rest of the company's services. Sure, Reader wasn't used by many people, while Gmail is the world's email service; but what happens if Google decides that it isn't making enough money to justify running a free email service, and ports everyone to Google+? Will your self-driving car enter a "sunset phase" if the number of users drops below some arbitrary level eight years after you bought it?

The market for news aggregators might get a kick up the arse from the exit of a corporate behemoth which had previously been smothering all innovation with an abandoned, yet still good-enough, free product. As Gawker's Max Read wrote, it kind of excites me, "in the same way i am excited at the prospect of navigating a postapocalyptic urban landscape".

We might end up better after the fall, but it's going to be a struggle to get there.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times