Grokking FriendFeed


Even though I signed up for it months ago, it took me until just last night and today to figure out WTF was going on at FriendFeed. I'd see raves about it pop up on TechMeme, I'd go try it, not have any clue what the use of it was, and then forget about it again. It seemed like chaos and noise to me and no better than my current news reader.

So last night I went through and started cleaning everything up - I got rid of all my feeds first, and just added in my blog, Twitter and Disqus. Then I deleted all my friends, and went through and added a few back in by hand. That seemed to clean things up quite a bit, and this morning I confirmed FriendFeed was much more useful.

This is really the fault of FriendFeed's signup design because of its emphasis on adding your Facebook friends. When you sign up to the the service, it asks if you want to import from Facebook - and then automatically adds a bunch of those users who are already signed up if it finds matches, auto subscribing you to their set of feeds and vice versa. That just added tons and tons of feeds right away. Combine that with the "feature" of seeing 'friend of friends' feeds and the fact that you can sign up to the service like I did, add in a bunch of links, and then never return to it again, is just a recipe for noise.

So now that I cleaned everything up, I'm grokking what's going on quite a bit more, and there's a few things that are going on that are interesting - and not just another mashup of feeds. There are (at least) three distinct parts to the system that I finally have figured out.

The first part of the service should almost be called "Friend's Feeds" (possessive and plural) as the idea is that you and your contacts can add in all the feeds from their various services they use regularly and they will appear on your home page as an "activity stream". Each user's profile page is also sort of a summary of their online activity as well which if you think about it is incredibly useful. Rather than having to create a feed which splices in all the various services, FriendFeed does it for you and creates a nice web-viewable page for people you know (private or public, your choice) and also creates a "feed of feeds" as well. Though I've had readers of this blog complain when I spliced in various other feeds like my links or my Twitter posts, it's still a great reflection of what I want to share online - so it's very cool.

Side note: One has to wonder if FeedBurner - who had a limited feed splicing in their service from years ago - will get into the act and offer a more complete service that competes on this level? I already use FeedBurner to offload the robot activity from my blog's feed, it's tempting to also offer my FriendFeed spliced feed as well. Reversing this, I wonder if FriendFeed will ever provide the stats of FeedBurner or the ability to map domains?

The second part of FriendFeed is the direct posting/sharing feature. You can share links and tweet-like posts directly on FriendFeed, bypassing the other systems you may use. This is sort of brilliant. Once users start using FriendFeed and get others to subscribe to it, they'll star to wonder, "Why post this link on or use Twitter to post a random thought, when I can just share it straight to FriendFeed instead?" Though at first, you might not have enough friends who know about your FriendFeed stream, so you might be afraid of posting something that no one else sees - as more of your friends start using it (or are aware of it), there's a tipping point where it becomes

Finally, the last part is the comments/forum features which have been layered on top of all the items that have been posted to the service. Each item - whether it's a Flickr photo that's been imported via your Flickr feed, or a post you wrote directly in FriendFeed using the "Share Something" button - is the basis of a public conversation where other FriendFeed users can add their thoughts by adding a comment. Additionally, you can choose to share an item or a feed directly into a FriendFeed Room, where the comments on those items are seen by everyone in that room, whether they subscribe to the original item's feed or not.

Had I understood how much FriendFeed acts like a forum last night, I would have added to my mongo-post about the subject. The fact that I discovered after I had already posted about how compelling forums are, and how FriendFeed is gaining traction quickly only goes to reinforce the point of my post I think.

There's actually a huge similarity in how 4Chan works, and how FriendFeed works which unless you're obsessed with the subject you may not notice. When a user comments on an item in FriendFeed, it "bumps" the feed back to the top of your activity stream. This is very similar to how many forums - especially the anonymous ones - work as well. It serves to help continually push the topic and encourage users to respond to each other, as the discussion keeps coming to the top until it loses steam.

So FriendFeed does some really interesting things, and some more that I haven't paid much attention to yet (the Digg-like "joe liked this" rankings for example), but honestly, it's a total *mess*. It's sort of the anti-Twitter in terms of usability and focus. It's so completely geared towards the power user and uber-geeek its not funny - though with a name like FriendFeed, it's not surprising, most people still have no idea what the hell a 'feed' is. But even for the most jaded Web 2.0 super user, the service's multitude of entry points (feeds, sharing, comments) makes it so easy to devolve from a useful service into pure noise, as I personally can attest to.

FriendFeed needs a serious cleanup, IMHO. Some problems:

* Their tab metaphor is all screwed up - some things get new tabs, others are in sub-tabs/links. Tabs pop up and then disappear. It's just horrible.

* Your account settings are accessed by a link up in the corner, and has some functionality you'd expect in the friend settings tab, which is hidden off on the right.

* The Facebook integration is just a bad way to start off (like I said above) - I don't subscribe to everyone in my Facebook's feeds for a reason.

* Showing me friend-of-friends by default is just dumb, and the setting to turn it off is really hard to find and should be in a global settings page.

* There's no way to filter which feeds of my friends I see. Just because someone's added in 30 different sources, doesn't mean I need to see them all. Why is it all or nothing?

* There's no list of Rooms... which I think is weird and probably just an oversight for now.

* Profile pages have everything except the most basic info! It needs a blurb and a "main link" as well. Some people have added me, and it's hard to figure out which of their many feeds is best to learn about who they are.

* Is FriendFeed mainly an activity stream, a microblog system, or a forum? They don't have to cut features, but they need to choose a focus.

Okay, so that's all my thoughts for now. Feel free to add russellbeattie to your FriendFeed friends or subscribe to my feed-of-feeds, which only has a few services right now, but will probably expand as I use the service more.


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