Friday, March 15, 2013

In Memoriam: Google Reader -- Why This Matters to Digital Citizenship

Note: The top half of this will be about Google Reader -- the best product that few people new about. Feel free to ignore it. The bottom half will tie this product and the philosophy behind it to Digital Citizenship and Information Literacy. If you are a non-tech Educator, skip to the picture of the three girls.

So Long and Thx for all the Well-Organized, Pre-Selected Push News

If you were reading any blogs about...well almost anything or on social media...just about any of them. You probably heard that, as part of its Spring Cleaning Project, Google was putting the nail in the coffin of a service called Google Reader.

The reason that the cry was so loud, in part, is because so many of the non-traditional news sources (blogs, website reporters, active tweeters, etc.) used Google Reader on a daily (and in some cases hourly) basis. The sunsetting of this product will change the way that many of us (myself included) operate as we maneuver through the techno-informatic complex called the modern world.

What is Google Reader?
Google Reader was/is a news aggregator that uses a back end technology called RSS. Many websites, blogs, news agencies have the RSS symbol (seen in the picture) on their site. If you click that button, you will be given the opportunity to "subscribe" to the information on that site. This subscription is collected and available to you in an RSS Reader which can be found on the web or on phones, etc.

The reason the reader was so popular was because it did what it was designed to do very well. It delivered subscriptions in a clean format that could be sorted by subscription or by recency. It synced between online and mobile. It did not inundate the reader with too many advertisements, nor did it get overly complicated with graphics or flashy (or HTML5-y) formatting tricks.

Why Shut It Down?
Google reader (and RSS in general) is a quirky entity on the internet. For those people who use it, it becomes essential. It is a way to quickly filter information because you, as a user, have pre-determined that the content has some value.
This NSFW (language) post went up hours
after the announcement. May be worth a Google.
From a Social Studies teacher: What am I supposed to do? That is how I read all of my blogs. It is how I get new ideas for the class, news to share, commentary. This is miserable. What is next?
From Hitler: What? I am supposed to rely on getting my news from what Stalin retweets? (see photo)
 Conversation with my wife:
+Elizabeth Ferries-Rowe (@wishbabydoc): I don't know what that is
Me: When you wake up in the morning what is the first thing you look at?
+Elizabeth Ferries-Rowe: Facebook.
Me: For me, it is reader. It tells me what happened that was worth knowing overnight.

...and that is ultimately the issue. Google's spring cleaning focuses on eliminating products that don't fit its core mission components -- Search, Social, and ...something else that I am drawing a blank on. Now, it could be argued (and has been on a lot of blogs) that when Google refocused the "Sharing" from a broad choice down to Google+ that their insular vision caused a lot of people to drop the service. It could be argued (and also has been) that this is yet another example of Google backing away from its promise to "not be evil". Some see it as a problem with the Google-as-Free model, offering to pay money toward the service so many rely upon.

I signed the petition, but I don't think it will do much good. Google made its choice. Here is why I think it is the wrong one:

InfoWhelm, #DigCit, and the Need for New Methods of Information Acquisition

The next gen of Digital Learners will need to Find & Filter info
When Brebeuf Jesuit revamped its curriculum from Computer Applications to Digital Citizenship (a move now being adopted, at least in name, by the rest of the State of Indiana #nocredit), one of the areas that was important to consider was research. As we delved deeper into this topic, talking to teachers, interview students, looking at research in our curriculum and expectations of colleges, we realized that this was going to be a significant focus of the new curriculum. As with most of our units, there are a lot of goals that branch to a number of areas, but today I want to focus on three issues we uncovered:

1. Data, Data, Everywhere - In 2010, Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google told an audience at Techonomy that there is more data generated in two days than was produced from the dawn of human history to 2003. IBM notes that 90% of all data available has been created in the last two years alone.

2. Inability for Traditional Filter Mechanisms to Address - Traditionally, people relied on large organizations to filter through the data for reliability, veracity, accuracy, etc. These institutions included the government, academic settings with their peer-review system, and even publishers and editors. But most data is now user generated. Whether it is pictures shared on instagram, tweets of the snark or share variety, or blogs like this one, we publish with no filter.

3. Need for Intelligent Filtering - But at the point that so much data is produced, human beings still have to find a mechanism for sorting through that deluge of information. We need to setup systems and processes that will help us filter that information based on a number of factors, including:

  • Usefulness - does the data help me in my daily life or in achieving long term goals?
  • Accuracy - does the data match my real world experience? Can it be independently verified?
  • Timeliness - is the data relevant now or has the digital ship already sailed?
  • Variety - are there enough different sources of data to avoid falling into traps of confirmation bias or silo thinking?

From a post about setting up RSS filters
These filters are not a part of the natural make-up of a human being. In fact, we are biologically/psychologically programmed to have the opposite reaction to some of this information (we tend to ignore information that does not already fit within our pre-existing belief system; we discount information that goes against immediate bio-feedback).

At the point where we do not have a natural ability to sift through information and the social structures in place are inadequate to the job, we must design new systems. RSS Feeds are one of the most powerful tools for this information-filtering, if the people subscribing do so with deliberation and thought -- and Google Reader was one of the best.

Practically applied -- Teaching Infowhelm and Data Management
It is insanity to expect a student to run through a full cross-referenced search process every time they want to read about a controversial issue or topic of interest to them as an individual or to society at large. But in the age of bias-journalism, government/corporations limiting curriculum to easily testable/gradable items, and infowhelm, students need something to combat the deluge of bad data. Click SUBSCRIBE

As we teach our students the skills of finding accurate, relevant, and useful information, we should also be teaching them a method to collect that data on a regular basis. Once a source has been confirmed useful, it is a source that has a good chance of being useful in the future. Click SUBSCRIBE.

As we teach students to find items that present different viewpoints on the world (by finding sources that go against our natural inclinations, discovering writers and reporters from outside our geographic/cultural bubbles, or by finding snarky bloggers who make our blood boil), we should make those viewpoints part of our daily intake of information, if for no other reason than to know the perspective of those who disagree with us. Click SUBSCRIBE.

Why not Social Media?

Social Media Aggregators serve a different function
In class, we work with our students to have them identify their primary sources of information. A growing number of teenagers cite social media as their number one source of news. But relying on your social media circle has two negative #digcit impacts.

  • First, it adds a layer of choice between the user and the information that is outside the user's control. You are not receiving information because has been pre-screened as reliable or relevant or useful (at least not be you). You are receiving information because it meant some criteria that was relevant to whoever decided to share it. Not good.
  • Second, it is almost guaranteed to lack any form of counter viewpoint since we are not likely to follow/friend those with whom we fundamentally disagree. While we can intellectually view material with which we disagree and evaluate it for truth and accuracy, we don't necessarily want that in our social feed, so we avoid it.
  • Finally, our social feeds are SOCIAL. Although I am a huge advocate for social media for its connective and professional development potential, the use of it as a news aggregator gets diluted by the barrage of snark, hashtags, LOLcats, and Hitler-throwing-a-fit videos.
I am sad to see Google Reader go. I have begun to search for alternatives and have been disappointed in the bells and whistles that have been added, usually in the name of "making it more social" or "adding visual appeal". 

But I am also sad because I think of Google as a partner in the #digcit world. Through gmail, google docs, and drive, they have done a lot to empower the individual and close the gap that the Digital Divide throws at our students (granted at the cost of a little/lot of privacy). When they made this decision, they decided to remove an effective tool against information glut and overload. They decided to separate the core functionality of SEARCH from the parallel human need to SORT. Rather than close down the service, I would have hoped they would have made its use a key part of their educational drive.

So, Thank you, Google Reader. My mornings, mid mornings, early afternoons, just-before-leaving-for-work, standing in line, and late nights won't be the same without you.

(You have a few months left. Go ahead. Click SUBSCRIBE).