As the internet has progressed from a shared source of information to a primary communications tool, a natural offshoot of the migration has been where the two things meet: people referring internet information. If you’re active at all on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Friendfeed, or any of the numerous online communities, big or small, then you are regularly seeing links to useful articles and blog posts; cute YouTube videos, and entertaining photos. Much of this information is passed along from online friend to online friend, but where does the first referral originate from? Usually, it’s somebody’s RSS reader.
The main reason that I’m such an RSS advocate is that I believe that it’s the tool that lets me find the strategic and useful needles lost in the haystack of celebrity gossip, prurient content, and corporate promotional materials that they’re buried under. But it isn’t “RSS”, per se, that does the filtering — it’s other people, whom I call “information agents”, who do the sifting. If I want to keep up with fundraising trends, a topic that interests me, but, as an IT Director, isn’t my primary area of expertise, I’m not going to spend thirty minutes a day doing research. I subscribe to some very pertinent blogs, and I follow a few people on Twitter and in Reader who find the important and insightful articles and share them with me.
Now it appears that Google wants to cut out the social media middlepeople. As I alluded to in my article on RSS, and fleshed out in this post about sharing with reader, the ability to refer information that you find in Reader is one of the things that makes it so powerful. Last week, Google seriously upped the ante by adding Twitter/Facebook/Delicious-like following, “liking” and sharing to the mix.
Here’s what the new features do:
Sharing now lets you share with the world, or just those members of the world that you want to share with. Google has always allowed you to share items, but connecting to other people was a bit arcane and limited, as, by default, Google only allowed you to connect to those that you chat with in GMail. If you read up on it, you learned that you could change that to any defined group of associates in your Google Contacts (all of this assuming that you use Google Contacts – many Google Reader users don’t). As someone who does use all of the Google stuff, I still found that opening this up to 80 or so people in my contacts didn’t make it clear to many of them as to how they could connect with me.
The new Following feature lets you follow anyone who is willing to share, not just people that you personally communicate with. Now my shared items are marked as public, so anyone can follow my shared items feed by clicking on “Sharing Settings” (in the “People You Follow” section) and searching for me by name or email address. Once you locate me (or someone else), you can (and should) browse through their items to make sure that they share things that you’ll find useful. For example, I share a lot of things that are on the topics that I blog about here. But I also share items related to civil rights issues and the occasional link that I find funny. Since humor and politics are very subjective topics, you might want to be sure that you’re not going to be annoyed or offended you before you subscribe to a feed.
But the internet is not just about who you know. The Like feature allows you to find new people to follow based on common interests. You’ll note that certain articles have a new note at the top saying “XX people liked this”, where “XX” is the number of people who have indicated that they like the article by checking the option at the bottom of the post. This message is a link, and clicking it expands it into links to each of the people who “liked” it, allowing you to browse their shared items and optionally follow them. This, to me, enables the real power of the social web — finding people who share your interests, but have better sources. It’s what initially was so exciting about social bookmarking service Delicious, and it’s about time that Google Reader enabled it.
I’m hoping the Google’s next round of Reader updates will improve our ability to not just tag and classify the information that we find, but also share based on those classifications. That will enable me to selectively publish items that I think are of interest to others, perhaps sending nptech links to Friendfeed and the humorous stuff to Facebook. But I welcome these improvements, and I appreciate the way that reader becomes more and more of a single stop for information discovery and distribution. The Internet would be a messier place without it.