The Fertile Ashes of Google Reader

Announced amidst the furor over the election of a new Pope and the resignation of Andy Rubin, Google yesterday outed the less-than-stunning revelation that its RSS product, Reader, is set to retire this summer.

Of course, Reader has been on deathwatch for quite some time. Popular — and grossly misinformed — opinion has deemed RSS an irrelevant and dinosauric technology — a relic of the early days of the Internet. Thus, as the service enjoys relatively few users and offers little in the way of revenue streams, Google decided to shutter the service.

Although my initial inclination was to voice disappointment and anger toward Google, upon further reflection, I feel this is a warranted and pragmatic business decision. Highlighting a waining portion of its infrastructure, Google sought to — rightly — rid itself of cruft. Moreover, it liberated one of the most technologist-engaged — and therefore most volatile — properties within its wings.

For months, we've watched ambivalently as Google's shed excess products, outmoded designs, and refocused itself on the future. As with any change, many felt resentful toward Google for axing some beloved services. Others, on the other hand — myself included — felt the decisions represented a welcome narrowing of focus within the notoriously nebulous company.

In my eyes, the latter philosophy is utterly applicable to the death of Reader.

Perhaps Google could've kept Reader on life support. Or, perhaps they could've worked to monetize and improve the platform. Regardless, the likely outcome of either scenario would've been unilaterally underwhelming. We would've been left with a deplorable product amidst a rapidly improving Google ecosystem. There would've been no semblance of consistency and there would've been a gaping sore on an otherwise attractive, new Google visage.

So, rather than slip into complacency, Google euthanized a product that had fallen into irrelevant stagnation years ago.

In doing so, as many optimists have been quick to highlight, Google has removed the anti-competitive barrier to entry in the RSS marketplace. For the first time in years, developers and thinkers are engaged and actively pursuing innovative means to work with RSS.

Quite a remarkable turn of events for a purportedly dead and irrelevant technology.

For those who choose to decry RSS as outmoded technology, I cannot help but pity such a misguided and pessimistic outlook. RSS is a backend technology designed to be withheld from your view as a user. Just as OS X has undergone an aggressive path of simplification, RSS has also been steadily ushered behind the proverbial curtain away from our prying eyes.

And just because you cannot see something does not mean it cannot have a profound impact upon the manner in which you engage with the world.

RSS is a platform agnostic, apolitical, enabling technology that allows for the efficient distribution of content. Considering the resurgence of long-form writing and its confliction with the ever-more cluttered experience of Twitter and Facebook, there has never been a more fitting time for a new (or revitalized) distributional technology to make waves across our space.

The arguments for the death of such a fundamentally useful technology are most certainly not new. They've persisted for years without ever showing any tangible proof of a demise. In fact, looking back, the first article I wrote for The Loop was entitled, "The Purported Death of RSS." For context, that was written in November, 2011. And it was most certainly not the first article to seep onto the Internet refuting widespread conjecture over RSS's demise.

In other words, people have been blustering about the death of RSS for a very long time. And yet, as we all witnessed yesterday, the shuttering of a "dead" Google product caused outrage and Twitter activity to rival the election of a new Pope.

2013 is a monumental and utterly formative year for digital publishing. In my eyes, it's certainly no coincidence that RSS has been set free during this time. Readers are receptive, writers are experimenting, and publications are reforming. RSS stands to undergo a renaissance of relevance and that's certainly not a bad thing at all.

Supporting Independent Content and OneThirtySeven

Since launching the site redesign in September, 2012, I've received a humbling number of donations from readers via the well-hidden OneThirtySeven PayPal form. As I noted when I added the capacity for donations, I simply have no intention or inclination to advertise the feature.

Today's a brief exception.

Generally speaking, I fear that far too many writers are attempting to prematurely monetize their writing. Although I certainly understand the desire to elicit a material gain from the hours spent producing content online, I feel that, in some cases, monetization has overtaken quality as the goal and purpose of writing in the first place.

Many have taken to implementing membership initiatives, magazines, newsletters, t-shirts, postcards, and so on, but few have remained focused upon improving the commodity and service they're attempting to sell.

When I added the capacity for donations, it was not a frivolous moment. I thought long and hard about providing such an option. In the end, I settled upon adding it, but tucking it away within the site.

The reason is that this weblog is not yet at a point I feel is deserving of large-scale support.

Metrically speaking, OneThirtySeven appears extremely solid. Readership continues to multiply on a monthly basis, RSS and Twitter followers are increasing steadily, the consistency of posting is reaching a point of relative stability, and this content has now been proliferating for over a year.

And yet, from a personal perspective, I feel there is much further for me to go with my voice, my curation, and my techniques. Accordingly, I'm extremely wary of instituting any semblance of well-traveled monetization method.

2013 is going to be a year of tidal shifts in digital publishing. Although the independent community stands apart from the world of mainstream publications, I suspect there will be a convergence this year over experimentation in monetization. Memberships, paywalls, and so-called "freemium" models will invariably become commonplace, but only a handful will find long-term viability in doing so.

The trouble is that, with each new monetization model requiring reader support, the market becomes increasingly destabilized. There's only so many writers that readers can be expected to support and the rapid proliferation of the monetization mentality in the publishing community will likely cause an excessive saturation.

I mean to say that, even if OneThirtySeven was at a point of feasible financial support from the community, I would be reticent to adopt one of these models. Folks like John Gruber, Shawn Blanc, Jim Dalrymple, and Andrew Sullivan have pioneered new ways to fund their craft, whilst innumerable others have simply attempted to re-appropriate their efforts.

For all of this, I mean to suggest that I do not intend to implement a monetization method unless I can create something altogether different from my counterparts in both the independent and mainstream communities. I'm of the belief that, without sufficient differentiation, this weblog will simply merge with a growing mass of similar sites with similar business models. 

OneThirtySeven and Bionic were both conceived with the purpose of being different in voice, content, and purpose, and mindlessly adopting a business model for the sake of attempting to gratify myself would, therefore, not only be pointless, but also an element of self-betrayal.

I hope I don't come across as disparaging of other independent creators who've implemented monetization models. I support a great deal of them and I believe you should too. The trouble is that we're quickly moving toward a point of utter communal saturation — a point at which it will become difficult for the average reader to support all of the sites she or he enjoys. Just as retail subscription services rose to prominence in 2012 and subsequently overwhelmed many consumers, independent publishers are facing a similar problem. Although I'd love to support as many as possible, it's just becoming patently unfeasible for both myself and the wider reading public to do so.

For now, I'll continue to offer a donations option, but I've removed PayPal as the medium for such support. Per Patrick Rhone (a writer you should be supporting, by the way), I've migrated my donations to Spacebox (a front-end for Stripe). As a result, payments are made more easily, PayPal doesn't clutch its talons into your shoulders, and the process is made all the more incidental.

For those of you who've donated in the past, as I've written to each of you individually, I cannot thank you enough. Your gracious donations provide me with a great deal of confidence and drive.

For those who're considering a donation, I'm not going to coax you into it. OneThirtySeven is a learning platform for me and I find more than enough reward in seeing more and more people reading, linking, and chatting about my writing.

Still, if you'd like to express your support, I welcome small donations via Spacebox, but I'd be equally appreciative of a simple email with a few words of advice or support.

For those in the independent community, I strongly advise against implementing an ill-considered monetization method for your weblog. Consider your audience before you decide to ask them for money. Be mindful of the bearing a membership model has upon your readership. Although you might think there'd be no correlation, I suspect the reality is quite to the contrary.

As I wrote in November, 2012:

Anything you earn whilst writing — be it money, friends, connections, or otherwise — is a gift that you would not have had otherwise. To embrace an attitude of self-entitlement and demand more is not only excessive, but it is rather embarrassing.
The lesson is that pursuing things you are passionate about and enjoy will inevitably benefit you in an astounding manner. But, if you choose to pre-define the shape of these gains, you will find yourself disappointed and disillusioned.
Enjoy a sense of blind optimism and write for the sake of writing. You will unquestionably be rewarded for doing so.

In other words, there's more to writing than searching for a fleeting material gain. So, if you plan to introduce a monetization method, please try to keep that in mind.

For those who wish to donate, you can do so via Spacebox. For those who wish to email me instead, you can reach me here.

As always, thank you for your support. Should the situation allow it during the year, I may well consider a formal business model for OneThirtySeven. For now, though, I'm quite happy to just have a few words of support here and there.

At the end of the day, that's really what it's all about.

Digital Publishing Breaks 50% of Wired's Revenues

Nat Ives, Ad Age:

Digital contributed half of all ad revenue at Wired magazine in the final three months of 2012, a first for the title and an encouraging sign for an industry where most big brands still rely overwhelmingly on the difficult business of print. Across the year as a whole, digital ads comprised 45% of total ad sales at Wired.

Digital advertising contributed to about 10% of Wired ad revenue in 2006, when parent company Condé Nast bought Wired.com and reunited it with the magazine, according to Howard Mittman, VP-publisher at Wired.

Heaping upon the recent pile of digital publishing news, it appears that Wired has also found great financial success in its digital endeavors in the final months of 2012.

Given Wired's target audience, however, the results are hardly surprising. The magazine panders toward an early-adopting crowd of technologists, people who are well-inclined toward digital publishing and mobile readership.

Nevertheless, the numbers are promising, particularly in light of The Atlantic's recent successes. (It is worth noting, though, that Wired's digital revenues are significantly lower than those of The Atlantic. Perhaps an apt illustration of the problems inherent to Condé Nast's publishing model.)

Without belaboring the point, I'll say again, 2013 is going to be an enormous year for publishers. Perhaps the most important year in the past decade.

'The Atlantic' Set to Experiment With Pay Models in 2013

Jeff Bercovici, Forbes:

The Atlantic is two things every legacy publishing company would like to be: profitable and more reliant on digital advertising revenues than on print. But while that may have been good enough in 2012, for 2013 the magazine has a new goal: to get more readers paying, in some form, for digital-only access to its journalism.

Coinciding with the highly-publicized news of Andrew Sullivan's exodus from The Daily BeastThe Atlantic has vaguely shared its intentions to dabble with a variety of digital publishing models in the coming year.

The Atlantic has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, the shift fueled by the increasing acceptability of long-form, intelligent commentary online. Having only left a paywall model two years ago, The Atlantic is evidently hoping to capitalize upon a mobile-driven landscape, whilst also gleaning higher revenue from its larger audience.

The move, more than anything else, demonstrates a newfound sense of optimism for the sustainability of digital publishing. Unlike several years ago, publishers are no longer blindly grappling for some semblance of profitability from an anarchic environment of freely accessible content. Instead, coaxed by the perceived success of The New York Times in the space, publishers both old and new are emerging with forward-thinking, novel, and sometimes endearing methods for financial sustainability and long-term success.

The writing has been on the wall for a long time, and it appears that 2013 is going to be characterized largely by a widespread shift in digital publishing. Readers worldwide have expressed their discontent with the bloated and outmoded methods employed by Condé Nast, instead praising publications such as The Atlantic and, to a far lesser extent, the minimalism of The Magazine.

The latter half of 2012 saw a rapid uptick in the attention paid toward publishing and I suspect it's now time for the publishers to begin showing their hands for the coming year. Although the specifics of The Atlantic's intended experiments are unclear, I cannot help but feel optimistic for the shifting state of the industry.

As a writer, we're on the precipice of a belated and well-needed disruption of publishing. As a businessperson, we're on the cusp of an overdue improvement in the economics of writing.

In both lights, it's an exciting time for the industry and I look forward expectantly for some altogether new and different methods toward success.