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.

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile