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July 15, 2009

Google Reader's Social Evolution

For more than a year, Google Reader has been struggling to add social features and almost all the new features were contrived, difficult to use and only cluttered the interface.

Originally, Google Reader's only social feature was sharing items in a public page. The trouble was that the shared page was difficult to find and users had to email the URL to their friends. Then Google Reader decided to automatically add your shared items to the reading list of your Google Talk friends, but those people weren't necessarily your friends and some were even added automatically by Gmail if you communicated often. Eight months later, Google Reader started to let you create a custom friend list.

Sharing an item wasn't enough as users couldn't explain why the post was interesting. To make things more complicated, Google Reader added "share with note". "Use the "Share with note" button on the item toolbar to create a copy of that item with your own note attached to it," explained Jenna Bilotta.

Sometimes the annotations were debatable and you wanted to post a reply, but Google Reader didn't have a commenting feature. Then comments came up and you could comment "on any items that you share or that have been shared by your friends". And since the interface wasn't complicated enough, Google Reader added a comment view to keep track of the posts that have comments.

The most recent additions help you find other people who use Google Reader. For the first time, you can protect your shared items by only making them available to the people from your friends list. You can also use Google's public profile search to find other people who share items and to follow them.

In addition to starring, sharing and sharing with note, Google Reader users can "like" posts. Why would you like a post when you can star it? By default, the starred items are private, while the items you like are public. Google Reader displays the number of likes next to each post and a list of the people who liked the post.

Google Reader became more difficult to use as the new features cluttered the interface and forced you to make more decisions. Now you have to decide if you want to star an item or just "like" it, if you want to share an item or share it with a note, if you want to follow the people who are following you.

FriendFeed, a service that helps you share and discuss interesting web pages, solved Google Reader's problems without complicating the interface. If your FriendFeed page is public, all your actions are visible to your subscribers. When you "like" an item, you automatically share it and you can also add a note. Unlike Google Reader, the note is actually the first comment from a discussion. User actions help FriendFeed find interesting posts, which are promoted at the top of the page.

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