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Summary:

Recently the social web has begun to morph into something altogether different from what it promised to be. The latest example is life-streaming service FriendFeed, which is offering up well-known Internet personalities as “friends” its users can choose to follow.

Update: I finally got home this morning and am now catching up on comments and emails. Lots of interesting comments about this post. Robert Scoble pointed to comments by Paul Buchheit on FriendFeed, where he has done some verbal gymnastics defending what Allen had reported and disagreeing with what I wrote. Of course, there are many who disagree with me, though it’s hard to argue with the fact that the word friends doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Thanks Russ, for pointing that out, even if it seemed obvious.  

Original post follows: I’m sitting in the Philadelphia airport, wondering when my connection to San Francisco is going to actually take off. The good news is that my EVDO modem is working, my Macbook is plugged in and I watched the Red Sox-Yankees rubber match on ESPN.

Whew…that was a nail biter. The Red Sox are a really good team, despite the injuries. We are a terrible team because of the injuries. The upside to the connection: I got to see this fantastic video by Allen Stern over on Center Networks. The video exposes the flaw in FriendFeed, a life-streaming aggregation startup, and the buzz around it.

Essentially the company is well-known because it was started by some ex-Google guys, including Paul Buchheit, who made his name working on Gmail. And it’s been attracting people who are dissatisfied with Twitter and its constant outages.

FriendFeed’s profile has improved in the last few days because some of the more well-known Internet names have started writing about the company, noting how quickly they are getting more people “following” them on FriendFeed. Such articles beget more such followers, making it all a self-fulfilling prophecy, even if it takes FriendFeed away from its founding principles.

However as Stern points out, these very famous Internet people are being offered as “default” on new Internet accounts. (Of the many, Robert Scoble is an extreme user of FriendFeed, has been for a while, and from the looks of it, a totally true believer.)

Anyway by putting some of my good friends on the default list, the company is basically ensuring positive attention to its service — the fact that it takes the “friend” out of FriendFeed, be damned! I mean, just because you’re following Loic Le Meur, that doesn’t mean he automatically becomes your friend. Allen puts it well when he says, “Defaults don’t just mean more followers, they mean more traffic to the supporting content sites.”

When I asked FriendFeed co-founder Paul Buchheit about this, he said, “you are correct however that we should tweak the algorithm to increase diversity when browsing popular feeds such as Scoble’s — FriendFeed has grown by a few orders of magnitude since the algorithm was originally created and so it probably requires some updating.” When I spoke with Paul, I hadn’t yet realized that there was this also default nine-person set.

From what I understood, FriendFeed was about aggregating and sharing specific kinds of information with your friends and talking about it. I thought it was me who would invite my friends and get them to share stuff with me. Or someone else would invite me, and we would share. Where the hell did defaults and “discovering” others become part of the whole service?

Robert Scoble in his comment on FriendFeed points out:

The real problem is these services are really lame if you have no friends. This was an attempt to fix that problem. I agree though that FF should only recommend participants on the first few screens. If you aren’t participating why would FF want to feature you?

Liz Gannes in her post about the company pointed out that:

The funny thing is, in some ways FriendFeed makes the web less social — stripping away the community features that make specific sites special. But it also makes the web more social, by emphasizing your real-world connections rather than relationships built around common interests or objects, and bridging together the little online islands where we express ourselves.

In the words of Iminta founder Aaron Newton, these life-streaming services are the watercoolers of the 21st century. In the past you’d discuss “Seinfeld” episodes around the office; now you can do that online at Iminta or FriendFeed. But try doing that with thousands of followers — there isn’t much of a conversation left. What you have is a call-in radio talk show.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that — just that you can’t call yourself a FriendFeed when you take the focus away from friends. I know a lot of people, and at best they have about 100-150 relationships, tops — including casual ones at work or with the neighborhood barista.

FriendFeed isn’t the only startup that seems to have moved away from the whole notion of friends and the personal web. Twitter is another example: What started out a simple alert service for a group of friends became a personal soapbox where the noise started to drown out the signal.

FriendFeed needs to learn from Twitter. Of course, maybe all they want to do is attract attention and sell the company to Google. Building a business — that’s so old-fashioned.

Time to catch that flight. Hopefully I will be home by 5 am!

  1. Om: When I joined FriendFeed four months ago I was NOT one of the default choices. I liked getting some recommended users for me to join up with. Why? Because FriendFeed is pretty useless without some friends to talk with. Social services that don’t provide some “starter friends” are going to be pretty lame. The problem is that it used popularity to make up the recommended page. I think there’s far better ways to pick some recommended friends than that, so I somewhat agree with you.

    On the other hand, I love FriendFeed and the people I’m meeting there are really great, smart, and engaging. You should try it sometime.

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  2. Scoble,

    I point out that you are an extreme user and if anything worthy of a default status. that said, i think our notion of “friend” differs. to have starter friends isn’t quite like have friends and actually obviates the need for these services. that said. i think your ideas about recommendations and actually matching people on their content choices and personal preferences is a good idea.

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  3. Well, keep in mind that when I use the term “friend” online, it means someone I want to have in my social network. It’d be like who you might take a business card from and want in your rolodex.

    Real-life-friends are those who come over and drink my wine. Speaking of which, we gotta have you over, it’s been too long. Are you going to the Fortune Conference in a couple of weeks?

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  4. By the way, there’s an interesting discussion about this post here on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/e/38de3f19-748f-4baf-bc60-f8981479ed22/FriendFeed-More-Like-Fake-FriendFeed/ (Paul is one of the founders of the company).

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  5. [...] שלי ישאר נתון למי אני באמת מכיר ולא עוד ניוז אגרגטור. אום מליק מדבר על זה [...]

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  6. As a FriendFeed-User from Germany with (relatively) few friends only I have to disagree with Robert Scoble: Following a smaller number of persons on FriendFeed can be sufficient and (even) satisfying!

    In my opinion it’s not about how large the crowd of friends is, but how much each of them is engaged on FriendFeed. Discussions happen when people pay attention to the stream of news. If not, well then you better follow Scoble…

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  7. allen stern Monday, July 7, 2008

    Wow – thanks Om for the compliment and I am so glad you are a Yankees fan – go Yanks!

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  8. Uh, I’m glad I still have autographed photos of Ted Williams, Bobby, Doerr, Dom Dimaggio and Junior Stevens. :-]

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  9. Kind of obvious, but the word “friend” doesn’t mean what it used to.

    Characterized by this overheard comment: “Are you on FaceBook? I have 274 friends. I don’t even know half of them.”

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  10. Recommended friends is a great feature, and i hope FriendFeed go further into this with smaller contnet based niches.

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