Sad about losing Google Reader? Spare a thought for the blogs you had listed on it

Which blogs will lose out?

Google announced last night that it will be shutting down its RSS feed, Google Reader, in a couple of months. It was an unpopular decision. On twitter the black smoke rising from Google obsured most other news - "Google Reader" reached the top of worldwide trends, even with a new pope elected - and every tweet was outraged.

Some of these outraged twitter users were clearly hoping that their disappointment might make Google change their minds. After all, it's a user-influenced feature - no? Well no. At least, not enough of one:

"We know Reader has a devoted following who will be very sad to see it go," said Google's Alan Green on the Google Reader blog. "We're sad too ... as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience."

The thing that we're all finding it hard to grasp, as Alex Kranowitz over at Forbes points out, is that Google was never ours. As flies to wanton boys are we to Google software engineers; they kill us for their sport. He writes:

We are all participants in a user driven Internet, but we are still just the users, nothing more. No matter how much work we put in to optimize our online presences, our tools and our experiences, we are still at the mercy of big companies controlling the platforms we operate on. When they don’t like what’s happening, even if we do, they can make whatever call they want. And Wednesday night, Google made theirs.

Bottom line, we shouldn't have let ourselves get so comfortable. Even with the big, stable companies like Google, the online landscape can shift under our feet with very little warning.

But life goes on, and after the various stages of mourning, we'll all find another RSS feed to use. The real losers here will be blog publishers. Blog publishers shouldn't have got comfortable either. As today's news suggests, building any sort of strategy on the existence of a feature provided by companies like Google is a major flaw.  Marginal Revolution reckons the blogs that will be harmed most are the infrequent blogs (which don't show appear in searches so frequently, and which you might not visit on a regular basis), and those with a lot of ads, like Forbes (where every lost hit costs). But then it's hard not to build strategies on features run by online behemouths, because they have the power to hugely influence how well you do. Bloggers are in a sticky situation.

The decision was made, according to Google, because "usage has declined" - but it's difficult not to see the decision as Google flexing its muscles, showing publishers just how much power it has. They'll have to take their chances with Google search and Google news now. 

Google Reader is closing down. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.