Web Applications

What is FriendFeed?

I was just about to blog about FriendFeed as being the perfect aggregator for using specialised web services when I read the announcement that Facebook had bought the company (a more sincere form of flattery perhaps, than their original imitation) and it kind of put the kibosh on the post.

Now however, a while after the purchase FriendFeed still fundamentally has all the good stuff I wanted to write about and I’m still using it to aggregate more and more feeds so I felt it was worth picking up the topic again.

FriendFeed is a social networking site that has a lot in common with a lot of similar sites. You get microblogging with unlimited length comments (rather like Jaiku). This is handy for posting links and discussing them. From this fairly basic start you have two threads of innovation. The first is around the event handling, Robert Scoble probably has the best example (’cause he has a lot of readers) on his blog. On the right-hand side you can see the FriendFeed plugin and if lucky you can see that it is actually a real-time discussion widget. As people interact with the posts it gets feed onto the page. It’s pretty cool but also a bit of gimmick in a similar way as Wave is.

For me what is more interesting is the idea of “Imaginary Friends”. If you are a user on FriendFeed you can define the aggregation stream you want to present to the world. This is very similar to the aggregation done by Whoisi, except that you control the content in FriendFeed and the world decides on what your stream is in Whoisi. This is a handy feature but often you want to have an aggregation for someone who isn’t on FriendFeed or where you actually want to construct a different aggregation than that the user has chosen to present (for example excluding personal material from the feed). These aggregations are created for Imaginary Friends that you create within your own user context. My most common usecase is that I want to blend someone’s Twitter and Blog feed into a single stream so I can view their updates in one scan.

You can then create grouped sets of streams where you see a single feed that is an aggregation of aggregations. So for example I have a group of Imaginary Friends that represent pop stars on Twitter. I don’t need real-time updates from Lily Allen but on the weekend I do like to have a browse through and see what is happening with the Twitterati.

The final feature that is interesting (but a little creepy) is that you can use the FriendFeed commenting system to comment on other people’s feeds and have discussions without ever notifying the original poster. This allows side-channel communication but I do sometimes feel that it is more like talking about someone behind their back. This is probably most useful on things like Tumblr where there is no built-in comment system or a post where the comments or forums have been locked down.

So that’s my description of FriendFeed and while I was quite cool on it at first I have found that it has replaced things like RSS readers for me and I am starting to look at holistic aggregation as a necessary feature for information organisation systems.