Thursday, October 15, 2009

Google Reader vs. Twitter


I've been using both Google Reader and Twitter for a long time now. I use them both very differently, but these days, I'd have to say that I prefer Reader for most things. I'll go into more detail below, but here's the short of it: Reader is free-form, but just as social as Twitter. In fact, because of the tie-in to Google Talk and Gmail, I'd argue that Reader is fundamentally a better social networking platform than Twitter. The problem is that it doesn't have the user-base, so I still use Twitter when I want to contact the largest number of people or to follow what my non-Reader friends are up to. (more...)

For those who don't know, Google Reader is an RSS feed reader. This means that you can plug your favorite blogs and/or news services into it and then read the latest news and posts from all of them at once, whenever you like, rather than having to visit each site. On top of this, they've added a social networking layer that allows you to re-broadcast things that you like to your friends with or without a comment. You can either re-broadcast everything to anyone that follows you, or you can restrict it to just people on your Google Talk contacts list.

Recently, they've even added a feature that allows you to share a note without a source article, so it's essentially Twitter without the 140 character limit, and with a whole lot more functionality besides the basic note-sharing. For example, when I share a Web comic on Reader, my friends don't have to click a link to go to the Web comic's site. They immediately see the comic in their browser (or on their phone or whatever).

Now, Twitter is a different beast. Originally, the length limitations on messages was designed to play nice with SMS, and cell-phone connectivity is still Twitter's killer app. It's also nice to be able to glance over a dozen messages on one screen and skim what you like. Granted, in Reader you can just hit "n" to skip to the next article as fast as you like, but it's not quite the same. Twitter's trends are also a nice feature. While Reader has its "What's Hot on Google Reader," it's not quite the same. There has to be a single source article that people share for Reader to promote it. If an event happens that people are interested in, but it has no clear primary source on the Web, then Reader fails to identify it, where Twitter's hashtags allow users to connect disparate URLs and comments.

The other place Twitter has Google beat is on third-party apps. Google produces a very nice API for most of their services, but while Reader uses the same basic API structure as the rest of their apps, they have yet to publish an official spec. This means that there just aren't a wide variety of good clients like the plethora of smart phone based apps for Twitter. Instead, you have to use the browser-based interface, which is excellent (it's Google after all), but lacks many of the extras that you'd expect from a stand-alone app such as camera/GPS integration. Oh, and speaking of GPS, that's another place that Twitter wins out. There's no connectivity (yet) between Google's location service (Latitude) and Reader, while Twitter can associate a location with users and/or individual tweets.

So, in the end, I still use both (and gateway Twitter to Facebook, which I mostly ignore). It's useful to have multiple lines of communication, but my hope is that someday all of these social apps will be forced to communicate with each other smoothly over open protocols. In many ways what we have now is exactly like the bad old days of email where you had to choose which friends you wanted to talk to: Compuserve or AOL? When the two started sending mail between them using the SMTP standard, much joy was had by the user bases of both services.