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Correction:

I originally misidentified David Barnes as "Dan Barnes."

Occupy Google Reader: A report from the protest's front lines

October 27, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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Ellis brought his daughter, Molly, to the protest, though she has yet to actually use Google Reader.13 Photos
(Photo: Joshua Yospyn/TBD)

The skies are threatening as Ryan Ellis briskly walks up I Street NW to join a small group of people who had spent the last half-hour making signs in front of Google's D.C. headquarters. "This is the most loserish protest ever!" he laughs, taking up a sign that read "GOOGLE: DON'T MARK ALL AS READ."

Ellis was there on Wednesday at midday because on Oct. 20, Google announced that it was disabling its RSS reader's social functions, which allowed users to share content, "friend" others, and follow other Google Reader users. The company's hoping people will use its Google+ social network to do those things instead.

The old way of doing things, however, has fans.

Leah Libresco tried to count her Google Reader shared items before the protest yesterday afternoon. She gave up when she found more than 300 since September. Looking up, I ask her if I thought it might rain. 

"Only a storm of righteous indignation!" she predicts.

Libresco, a 22-year-old Friendship Heights resident who works as a researcher on consumer finance issues, carries a sign that reads "Save Reader: #OccupyMeatspace."

More Google Reader fans arrived. David Barnes, 30, of Columbia Heights,  appreciates the smaller networks Reader engendered. "Definitely I've met friends of friends," he says. "It's a great way to get information." Twitter, he says, doesn't work the same way: "It's not full text." 

Nicola Wilson, a 23-year-old from Arlington, got into Reader because of goats. A friend had become obsessed with the animals and started sharing goat-centric blog posts; she worked her way into the Reader community not long after. "I know way more about goats than I should," she says.

Very few of the people in front of 1101 New York Ave. (which — auggh! D.C.! — is really on I Street NW) are seasoned protesters. "I'm a Republican, dude," says Ellis, who works at Americans for Tax Reform. He loves getting exposed to blogs and writers he'd normally never come across and does not like Google+. "It doesn't serve any additional utility," he says.

No one at the protest plans to abandon Google products if Reader's social functions get stripped: "Where would we flee to?" Libresco asks. Gmail, says Ellis, "is too good to abandon."

Reader's social function was a big part of the Iranian protests, says Peter Somerville of Arlington. For him, though, the planned changes are a "mild inconvenience"; he says he feels a little silly about how outraged he is about them. For him, it's a good way to communicate with friends. The situation does, he says, "make you stop and consider large anonymous companies as the medium for those friendships."

At its height, the protest is nine people strong, 10 if you count Ellis' redheaded toddler, who mugs for cameras holding his sign. A tall guy who refuses to be identified because he's playing hooky from work trots up shouting, "I'm the crazy Protestant idiot!" Most of the people there recognize him because of this.

Office workers walk by, looking amused; no one obviously from Google has come by yet. The crazy Protestant idiot leaves to go back to work but runs back a couple minutes later shouting that the Street View car is around the corner. The whole group runs over, hoping to get pictures of their signs permanently embedded in Google Maps.

"It's the self-driving car," one of them says, and they return to their posts.

At 1 p.m., Libresco, who says a petition to save Reader has more than 6,000 signatures, tries to go up to Google's offices but gets stopped by security. Tim Andrews, a libertarian blogger who co-organized the protest, isn't around yet. "He seems to have not necessarily come," says Lukas Halim, who is holding a sign that says "Don't Facebook Me Bro." (A couple of people say they think Andrews is on a plane to Australia.)

The rain is getting heavier. The group halfheartedly attempts a couple of chants: "We're here! We share! We're agitated!" Libresco suggests. "Ra-ra-read!" someone else offers.

"Do you work at Google?" Libresco asks a passerby. "Shucks," she says when he says no. She calls Google and leaves a message, asking if anyone wants to come down. A tour group walks by; one person puts his hand over the Google logo on his sweatshirt, New York cop-style, when TBD's photographer takes his picture.

Improbably, someone from the company does eventually appear: Robert O. Boorstin, a director of public policy for the company, who says that if Libresco emails her, he'll pass on her concerns to the product team.

"We took it to the man, and he gave us his business card!" shouts Somerville.

Watch: Libresco, Halim, Wilson, and Somerville sing Libresco's "Google Reader dirge" ("sung to the tune of 'Kiss Today Goodbye'" from A Chorus Line, she tells me in a followup email.)

Lyrics:

Kiss Reader goodbye
Thread drift and TEAM BEAR
Dinoshares and Tristyn’s goats
But I can’t regret
All the feeds you shared, all the feeds you shared

Look, I’ll try out +
I’ll try not to be stroppy
All that’s past is Marked as Read
And I won’t forget all the feeds you shared
All the feeds you shared

Gone
Nothing + is gone
As we scroll along
Google caches servers

Oh, the memes I’ll miss:
The Patriarch of Pizza
Well, maybe not Zerohedge
Still, won’t forget, can’t regret
All the feeds you
Shared

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