Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Google Reader Commenting Problem

Google Reader is an excellent feed reader. Let me just go right out and say that. It does an awesome job of gathering together the content from all my feeds, organizing it, and presenting it to me. When you have all that content together in one place, sometimes you want to share your thoughts on what you read, or point out an article to your friends so that they can read it as well. Google Reader has a feature both to "Share" and "Share with note" which perform their stated purposes. There is also a bookmarklet available so that if you come across something on the web that you want to share, you can do so even if you are not subscribed to a feed of it. The problem arises when you have a group of friends who all like to share things back and forth: sometimes an article starts a discussion, and two or more friends wish to have a forum for that discussion. The discussion was started over Google Reader, so the natural thing would be for Google Reader to provide a seamless arena for that discussion to occur. The way that Google Reader implements sharing "under the covers" (as we in Computer Science like to say) is that each user has what essentially amounts to a blog, where all of our shared items and our comments about them are stored. This blog page is accessible under "Shared items" and it has a web page, and a feed of its own. When a friend shares their shared items with you, you are simply granted access to their feed. There is even a web page at which your blog can be accessed, which, if you wish, you can share with your friends and/or the world. (The URL for this blog contains a unique identifier, which would be nearly impossible to guess, in order to protect your privacy--but only if you wish to keep it a secret.) Now, herein lies the problem: when I share something and comment on it, all my friends see that comment and the shared article. When Josh, who is my friend, sees this article and my comment, he can also share the article with his own comment: which will be seen by his friends, including me. But the set of my friends is disjoint from the set of his friends. The problem compounds as more people wish to participate in the discussion, since there will be a growing cloud of people on the edges of the friend network who (1) are being repeatedly shared the same article, and (2) do not have access to the whole discussion or are uninterested in it. The request to have an integrated, more fully functional system for story commenting has been brought before Google, and is currently being ignored. I think this is because in order to fix the problem, they would need to change the basic architecture of Google Reader, and they're not prepared to do that. Google Shared Stuff showed some promise, but it never offered a comment feature, and is being discontinued. Friend Connect might someday fill this niche. The ideal use case would be that every time someone shares an article, a new forum would be created for that article. If one of your friends has shared an article before you, you have the option of starting your own forum on that article, or joining the existing one, thereby making it available to all of your friends who weren't friends with the original forum creator. The privacy side-effect of this is that when you participate in one of these forums, your comments can potentially be passed along to anyone, if they're a friend of a friend of a friend. I don't see that as bad, but Google Reader is built on the assumption that if I want my comments to be exclusive to only my friends, Google Reader isn't going to pass them along to anyone else. In the use case I'm thinking of, articles that had been shared would be annotated like this:
  • Josh: "I think this is hilarious."
    • 3 replies | Reply
  • Brian: "I think these people should be locked up and the key thrown away!"
    • 0 replies | Reply
  • Share | Start discussion | Ignore
Design goals in setting up the above example:
  • Maintain current functionality by allowing a user to see his friends' notes on shared items when they come up in his reader.
  • Co-locate friends' comments, so that a user can see what each of his friends said about an item in one place.
  • Ensure that the item appears when a friend starts a new discussion, but allow users to prevent a popular discussion they are not interested in from becoming annoying by repeatedly popping up (hence the "Ignore" option).
  • Allow a user to create a forum in order to share a comment that can be replied to by any of his friends, and any of their friends, who will now be able to see the discussion.
  • Notify other users that a forum has been created (or joined) by one of their friends when they see the article, so that they will not create redundant discussions unless that is there intent.
Frankly, I don't see this happening, especially since Google Reader users have been promised the privacy of their comments, and this system allows comments to propagate along with items over the friend network. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I want Google Reader to turn into something like the above, since it would inevitably be abused. After all, MySpace wasn't that bad of an idea in concept, it's just that the users were given more control than they could handle responsibly, and the result is quite ugly. Most of what I want to read is what I'm subscribed to, and I'm willing to take a look at something that my friends think is especially great that they've read. So, the options are as follows:
  1. The status quo: continue to complain, hoping that Google will fix it someday. Lower expectations in the meantime and refrain from attempting to have 'conversations' about Google Reader shared content, being content with mere comments.
  2. Integrate a 3rd party solution: look for another service to which Google Reader conversations can be redirected in a relatively seamless manner.
    1. If none are satisfactory, create our own. IPO and retire as millionaires within a decade.
  3. Ditch Google Reader: stop using Google Reader as the primary feed reader, and switch to another feed reader that provides a conversation thread for each shared item.
    1. This would involve getting the entire group of friends to switch to a new network for sharing (not easy).
    2. I don't know that there are any that actually fit this bill, since this isn't so much a reader feature as a social feature.
  4. Split the difference: Use Google Reader for what it's good for--reading feeds and commenting on why you're sharing that particular feed, not what someone else said about it. If you want to start a discussion, start it elsewhere: e-mail, FriendFeed, Facebook, etc.
  • Right off the bat, I know FriendFeed can be a good supplement to Google Reader, and I'm trying to work out exactly how the two can fit together for discussions originating on Google Reader.
  • Facebook has this sort of comment system down pat, but they don't have a reader, and I don't want to spam all of my Facebook friends with every story I share unless they specifically want it. Mostly though, Facebook doesn't prioritize maintaining users' privacy and ownership of data.
  • There's a Firefox extension that turns any page into a chat box: Socialbrowse. However, it looks like it's simply a public comment system like Digg and reddit. I'm looking more for a system where comments and articles are primarily shared with friends.
If you can't tell, I'm a verbal processor, and in the process of organizing the information laid out in this blog post, I have convinced myself that the best course of action is to encourage those who wish to have back-and-forth discussion about an online article to take those discussions to a service that specializes in that sort of thing.
  • E-mail is a perfectly legitimate system for a discussion thread, and Google Reader seems to have anticipated this by providing an "Email" feature, located right next to "Share with note".
  • For more casual discussions, where the attention demanded by an e-mail would be too much, I think FriendFeed is the way to go. I have all my Google Reader shared items automatically show up on my FriendFeed, and if you have get an account, you can start a comment thread on any item.

1 comment:

  1. Well that was quick.

    It would appear that the Google Reader team reads my blog and jumps to implement my every whim as quickly as possible.

    Google Reader just implemented a comment feature!