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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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.