Google announced last week it would be closing the much beloved Google Reader web feed aggregator. Its users had been dwindling for a few years, as online reading migrated to the social web, to Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Google Reader has become a virtual leaf in the wind, revealing the steady passing of a particular form of reading online. As the social web becomes increasingly dominant, the experience of reading in a sort of "virtual solitude"—without the distractions, flash, opinions, interpersonal tensions, reactions, judgments, peer pressures, and hurry of the social web—will become a much rarer one.
It is hard to regard this as anything but a loss. Google Reader offered web readers a private space online, a form much more conducive to attentive, contemplative, and independent thought than the frenetic rush, impatience, and emotional reactivity of much of the rest of the Internet. The social web seldom affords us the time, space, and silence that we need for reflection. While other services will take Google Reader's place, the departure of a player of Google's stature indicates the change occurring in the online ecosystem.
The closing of Google Reader is merely one of many ways in which forms of reading, the nature of texts, and the relationships that exist between the two rapidly change in the contemporary world. Although these changes are constant and occurring at an unprecedented rate, we are seldom disoriented by them, nor do we often appreciate how much has really altered in a brief span of time.
Occasionally something awakens us to the scale of the changes that we are living through. For me, a recent article by Julian Baggini, in which he describes burning an old set ...