How to build — or kill — a social community

Google has made good on its plan to deadpool Google Reader and created a great deal of ill will. The most broad and vitriolic response might have been by Marco Arment, who sees it as an attack on the openness of the web we are losing:

Google Reader is just the latest casualty of the war that Facebook started, seemingly accidentally: the battle to own everything. While Google did technically “own” Reader and could make some use of the huge amount of news and attention data flowing through it, it conflicted with their far more important Google+ strategy: they need everyone reading and sharing everything through Google+ so they can compete with Facebook for ad-targeting data, ad dollars, growth, and relevance.
RSS represents the antithesis of this new world: it’s completely open, decentralized, and owned by nobody, just like the web itself. It allows anyone, large or small, to build something new and disrupt anyone else they’d like because nobody has to fly six salespeople out first to work out a partnership with anyone else’s salespeople.
That world formed the web’s foundations — without that world to build on, Google, Facebook, and Twitter couldn’t exist. But they’ve now grown so large that everything from that web-native world is now a threat to them, and they want to shut it down. “Sunset” it. “Clean it up.” “Retire” it. Get it out of the way so they can get even bigger and build even bigger proprietary barriers to anyone trying to claim their territory.
Well, fuck them, and fuck that.

But I see it as a more small-bore problem: Google didn’t love Reader anymore. It loves its new, Google+ dreams, the shiny Google Glass–era stuff.
Chris Wetherell, the guy who started Reader, wrote about that in November 2011, when the handwriting was already on the wall:

  • If Reader continues being understaffed, absorbed, or is eliminated then the internal culture at Google will adjust to a newly perceived lack of opportunity for building things that are treasured. No one knows what effect this will actually have, though. The response could be tiny.
  • Technology will route around the diminishment or disappearance of Reader. Even if this means something other than feeds are being used.
  • It’s a tough call. Google’s leaders may be right to weaken or abandon Reader. I feel more people should acknowledge this.
  • However, saying “no” to projects doesn’t make you Steve Jobs if you say no to inspiring things. It’s the discernment that’s meaningful, not the refusal. Anyone can point their thumb to the ground.
  • The shareable social object of subscribe-able items makes Reader’s network unique and the answer to why change is painful for many of its users is because no obvious alternative network exists with exactly that object. The social object of Google+ is…nearly anything and its diffuse model is harder to evaluate or appreciate. The value of a social network seems to map proportionally to the perceived value of its main object. (Examples: sharing best-of-web links on Metafilter or sharing hi-res photos on Flickr or sharing video art on Vimeo or sharing statuses on Twitter/Facebook or sharing questions on Quora.) If you want a community with stronger ties, provide more definition to your social object.

So in a few paragraphs Wetherell did two things: He made it clear that Google was out of love with Reader in 2011, and he buried a great one liner about making social tools:

If you want a community with stronger ties, provide more definition to your social object.

The successful social tools are very focused on their social objects. Twitter has tweets and retweets, Instagram has photos, and Tumblr has reposts and curation. Reader had feeds, but feeds and feed reading fell out of vogue, at Google and elsewhere.
(Personally, I have always disliked the RSS readering. I actually like wandering around through my Flipboard and Tumblr streams and pulling out URLs from Twitter. RSS readers have always felt like work, an implied obligation to read everything. I am more interested in co-curation than in RSS.)
But Wetherell’s aphorism is a good one, although I might quibble about the stronger ties. I think you want a community with more ties and more frequent visits, but not stronger ties necessarily. Perhaps I would rephrase this way:

If you want a community with higher connection, provide more definition to your social object.

And Wetherell makes the argument against Google+, saying explicitly that it lacks a well-defined social object. It lacks focus on a specific narrow and deep aspect of human connection.