Google Reader died two weeks ago. Okay, fine, that’s a slight exaggeration: What really happened was that Google put out a blog post announcing modifications to the design of the RSS tool and the end of its much-beloved sharing function (which will be integrated into Google+). Still, for those of us who spend hours a day on Reader and devote considerable effort to curating our feeds until they’re just so, the effect was deeply disorienting. Death may be a stretch, but it’s not going too far to say that it felt akin to what it would feel like if someone snuck into your home, rearranged all the furniture, and repainted the walls in a color not of your choosing. After which ensued a by-now regular ritual of this destabilized era: the social-media mass hissy fit.
Change always brings agita, whether the new thing is New Coke or Qwikster or something even more superficial. (Recall the way passionate orange-juice drinkers freaked out a few years ago when Tropicana merely redesigned its cartons.) That tendency is magnified online, where we are led to believe, and let ourselves believe, that we’re in charge—that we’re not just consuming the soft drinks, as it were, but concocting them ourselves. We’re not, of course, and unlike past technologies on which users have become so dependent that they start to feel like an extension of the self—the car, the personal computer, the cell phone—we don’t even own our Internet accounts, but merely rent them. When Facebook tweaks its privacy settings or Twitter gives itself a face-lift or your favorite blog changes its commenting protocols, it’s a jolt to be reminded that your virtual life can be disrupted without notice, that these sites are someone else’s business, and they’ll make unilateral decisions about what’s best for their company without consulting you.
The sites can do that because they know that for most of us, logging off for good is not an option we’re willing to entertain. Aggrieved Google Reader users went so far as to picket outside the company’s Washington, D.C., offices after the announcement, but Google has little cause for concern. It’s “a tried-and-true axiom of the Web: People always hate when their favorite site is suddenly completely different,” Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wrote. “A lot of them threaten to quit. They’re bluffing.”
That may be, but all these changes can’t be good for our already Internet-jostled psyches. If search engines are letting our memories get flabby and the pinging of instant messages is hemming our attention spans, maybe it’s also true that the frenetic mutability of social-media sites—for many of us a vital assertion of our personhood in a space where we spend so many hours of the day—is contributing, just a little, to the uneasy disequilibrium of these times. The more we put into building our own little universes online, the less firm the ground underneath our feet feels.