FriendFeed, Twitter, Facebook: The new social

A few months ago, a friend of mine left his position at Google and went to join a startup called FriendFeed. He invited me to join while it was still in beta, and now that it’s open to the public, it’s quickly moved up to become my favorite web site.

So what is it? My submission for FriendFeed’s “describe FriendFeed in 2-8 words” discussion was, “Your friends make the news.” When you sign up for FriendFeed (which is free, and is currently without any advertising), you can choose which online services you use (such as Flickr, Netflix, Twitter, Amazon wishlists, shared blog posts on Google Reader, and much more). Once set up, FriendFeed automatically creates a news feed of your activity on those services. This feed can be public (i.e., anyone can see it), or private (only you approve who can read your feed). You can also submit items for your feed, by sharing URLs using FriendFeed, or just creating general comments, perhaps about what you’re doing or thinking.

Then, you choose which people on FriendFeed you want to follow (your friends, relatives, and/or people you find interesting). If your friends aren’t yet using FriendFeed, you can invite them to do so, or you can create an “imaginary friend” for them as if they had actually signed up.

FriendFeed turns out to be a great way to see in one consolidated place what’s going on with your friends, whenever they add an Amazon wishlist item, submit a photo, write a blog post, or whatever else.

The interesting part comes with the social aspect: your friends can “like” and comment on the different feed items. Discussions begin. And in your feed of news from your friends, you can also see the items that your friends have liked and commented on, even if that item didn’t come directly from your friend — so you start seeing interesting updates from your friends of your friends.

What’s striking about the site is both how simple it is to use as well as how much it changes the game. Before, to find out about different things your friends were doing, you may have visited dozens of different sites. Being able to instead view all of that news in one place means you feel more up-to-date and closer to different people, and learn more about what they’re interested in.

While the site works in different ways for different people, I find that it’s most effective when you’re following people you are actually friends with in real life. Interesting people share interesting things, but the level of meaning and the degree to which you care is enhanced a great deal when you care about the person. For example, if an interesting stranger shares an item about, say, cat grooming, you may or may not find that engaging. Probably you’d just skip past that item in your feed. But when your co-worker shares an item about cat grooming, even if you don’t care about the topic, now you know that they either have a cat or want to get a cat, and the next time you see that co-worker you now have something to talk about.

New features are being added at a rapid pace. It’s easy to hide items you don’t care about and control the experience to make it what you want. The web page is responsive and the service is reliable.

I say that last because, in contrast, I’ve also started using Twitter.

Long-time twitterers please forgive me as I explain the basics, since Twitter is very old news to many blog readers, having launched in late 2006. Twitter is a remarkably popular service in terms of its growth and its number of users (well over a million at this point). However, in real life, very few of my co-workers, none of my family, and a tiny fraction of my friends are using it and many have not even heard of it. And this is despite being in the heart of the Silicon Valley, working for a high-tech company full of early adopters, surrounded by tech friendlies. Part of that gap is because it’s a generational thing: Twitter seems to immediately appeal to college students, while those older seem to take longer to “get it.”

So, what is Twitter? Brief (140 characters or less) updates about whatever you want. These updates, or tweets, constitute micro-blogging. Instead of long-winded posts like this one, brevity is the soul of Twitter. Dashing off to a coffee house? Twit it, and now your friends know, and if they’re in the area, perhaps they’ll drop on by. Thought of a great one-liner? Share it on Twitter. Mad as hell about dropping your laptop and breaking it (like I did earlier this evening)? Just had the greatest ice cream cone ever? Can’t believe what McCain just said? Twitter, twitter, twitter.

The 140 character limit, instead of being a barrier, becomes liberating, since you’re freed from having to cite your source, defend your premise, or define your terms. You can write about the most trivial of things since it’s stream of consciousness, and the basic idea is to share with your friends what’s going on at the moment, as uninteresting as that may be.

Where Twitter excels is in the number of ways you can interact with it: You can submit updates from your cell phone via SMS, from an instant messenger application such as AIM, via a browser at twitter.com, or via other social networking sites. Conversely, you can set up the level of notification for updates from your friends. Biff in accounting might be your Twitter friend but you can set it up so that you only see what he’s up to if you go to twitter.com. Your spouse, on the other hand, can have updates sent directly to your IM or cell phone.

While Twitter really feels like a subset of FriendFeed, the bigger issue lately seems to be its lack of reliability, with numerous outages — growing pains for a site that’s exceeding user adoption expectations.

Neither site yet displays any hint of a business model. They’re free to join, with no ads. All those developers and servers are expensive, so somewhere along the line one or both of those things must change or else the service implodes. But in the meantime, they’re both interesting sites.

In contrast, Facebook is a well-known social networking site, and it’s full of ads — they clearly know what a business model is. Originally for college students only, Facebook is now open to everyone, and it’s a social networking site. Despite having a friend or two working there, I have to say that after I’ve been using it for a while, I don’t find any value offered that’s not better handled elsewhere. The semi-public communication in “Walls” is not a good way to converse (with most walls showing half of a conversation). The private messages are better handled with traditional e-mail. The countless applications are generally time-wasting (hunting zombies, answering easy trivia questions) without being deep, and many seem to actively trick you into adding them. (One promoted itself with the tagline saying that a co-worker called it “the best application on Facebook” when he’d really never said any such thing. Most require you to add the application in order to view whatever doodad or message your friend is trying to send you.) Is it better than Friendster and Orkut, the social networks that I tried out previously? Demonstrably so. It’s certainly more attractively presented than MySpace, which I’ve not used. But the main drawback is that there’s nothing compelling there, and the Facebook interface actively interferes with productivity, while Twitter is more streamlined and FriendFeed adds value and interest.

I’ve been using the web now for 14 years. So much has changed in that time (and not always for the better). These days, very little makes me excited about the web the way I felt in the early years, but FriendFeed certainly comes closest.

Follow me as zeigen on Twitter and zeigen on FriendFeed. Befriend me on Facebook if you like.

If you’re long-time users of these sites, I’m interested in what got you started using them, which you like best (or which other one you think blows these away), and what you like/dislike.

If you’ve never heard of these sites before, what’s your reaction? Is it, “Why? What’s the point?” as I suspect most people feel? (Especially if you’re over 40…) Well, people felt that about the web and blogging too. Both are here to stay.

2 Responses to “FriendFeed, Twitter, Facebook: The new social”

  1. Erin Says:

    I agree with what you said about FF – that has been my experience as well. I appreciate hearing how you use Twitter – as a non-user, I think I “get” what twitter is – but I don’t see the value in it. Because of this, I dislike it’s presence on FF as well.

    Who really stops by that local coffee shop that you’ve just arrived at?

    I think of Twitter as an IM status. In my observations, twits don’t seem to be conversation starters to me – just “status”. “At the park”, “Catching up on email”, “Busy day today”, “At Starbucks enjoying my overpriced coffee”.

    My immediate reaction to posts tend to be a snarky “that’s great for you.” A lot of context is often missing – even if I am their friend in real life. And if I’m not – it’s even less meaningful to me. (ie: when FF shared a twit from a friend of a friend really adds no value to my life).

    As the poster of the twit – isn’t your purpose to be in the moment (ie: what you twitted about) and not be glued to your device to see if anyone has anything to say about said moment you are trying to experience?

  2. Zeigen » Blog Archive » The Web 2.0 dilemma: Public vs. personal personas Says:

    […] written about FriendFeed previously. and it continues to be the web 2.0 site I’m most interested in. The dilemma for me (and […]

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