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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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  11. My personal preference is for fewer deeper relationships on these sites.

    However, I’ve never understood why these sites can’t take user-matching one step further and use semantics and user contexts (which get refined with every new interaction with the site) instead of relying on checkboxes of user preferences. This would be a great way for users to meet others with truly compatible interests.

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  12. @Robert, I don’t see FriendFeed or Twitter as “engaging”. In fact, they are the antithesis of engaging. Quick hit comments that add little value but to get some brief attention.

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  13. Om, i’m not sure if your post is as critical as the headline appears to be, but i think you’re a bit harsh on FF. the default set of “friends” are probably something they should fix sooner rather than later, however overall it’s a pretty interesting & innovative service. it’s probably the most significant ‘open source’ competitor to Facebook’s news feed available right now, and if/when the services import becomes more automatic it could very well become a more mainstream-use product.

    fyi, Paul also helped put together an early prototype of Adsense at Google, and is also somewhat responsible for ‘don’t be evil’.. more here:
    http://blogoscoped.com/archive/2007-07-16-n55.html

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  14. Hi,

    From what I understand ‘the default 9′ isn’t a hand picked list – it is algorithmically selected from the existing population. Of course it’s relatively stable, since there are some people who’s opinions are very popular on the site, but it does change over time.

    I, surprisingl found it useful to have some of these people suggested to me. Like Om, I thought FriendFeed was going to be the antidote to the popularity contest sites where people have 000’s of friends they’ve never met and that instead FF would be a place where I could interact online with my real friends – the ones who drink my wine.

    It turns out that this is a false dichotomy. FriendFeed lets me have both – I do have my real life friends on FriendFeed, and they are the people I interact with most, and some of them have started to get to know one another purely through FriendFeed. But also, FriendFeed serves as a forum – in the Roman sense. where I get to hear and comment on the public opining of people like Scoble. What’s great about FriendFeed is that if I interact with these people, the debate is brought automatically to my personal circle.

    There is nothing forcing anyone to subscribe to these popular people. Most of my friends do not, and as it happens I unsubscribed from Scoble – but I love the fact that I get to see a selected group of his postings that other people have brought to my attention.

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  15. Curated or editor manipulated content to make a site or service more interesting isn’t new. I suspect that FF’s choice of 9 that Allen referred to in his video is a total hit for the current audience they’re attracting. Once they’ve hit a critical mass of users, they can always change it to a more random sampling, but for now it’s more important to drive interest and usage, and popular people/content is a good way to go. This was a trick often used by the early social networks as well, and in some cases it worked well.

    What would be more interesting, is how many of these so-called “friends” are *not* following one of the 9 on some other service (ie. Facebook, Twitter, RSS feedreader, etc.). In other words, how many of these great new followers that Robert Scoble mentions meeting above, are actually new to his following? I suspect, not many given the ubiquitousness of his presence online. Same w/Mike, Loic, Fred, et.al. Given that FF is aggregating activities off of other services, then I’d suspect that not many of the new friends are actually *new*. Same people, different place ;)

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  16. As a developer of a site like FriendFeed (Iminta.com) I can say that, from my perspective, sites like ours really work best when you’re connected to people you actually know. Real, meat-space friends who you see occasionally or at least wish you did.

    I follow several bloggers on both Iminta and FriendFeed and enjoy the content I see there, but really I could just follow these people’s blogs and get the same result. Where sites like these really shine, in my opinion, is helping friends keep up on culture. Om’s reference to my Seinfeld analogy is basically this: 10 or 20 years ago the number of cultural entertainment opportunities in our lives was dramatically smaller. We all had the same 4 or 5 channels to watch, for instance. When friends then got together once a week or two to hang out, these shared cultural references act as the lubrication for just… hanging out. But the odds that two friends are going to see the same youtube today are essentially zero, and when they aren’t zero we’re talking about the star wars kid – not exactly the kind of genuine culture that individuals are really passionate about.

    Sites like FriendFeed and Iminta help link those threads of culture back together and allow a space for discussion between people who know each other. As Matthias from Germany writes above, he’s found FriendFeed very rewarding with only a handful of friends on the service. My guess is that he’s using it the way that I’m talking about – as an online hangout to discuss the culture that his circle of friends finds interesting. On Iminta, I regularly crop out of my view anyone that isn’t in my close circle of friends just to cut down on the noise because, ultimately, they’re the only people I really care about there. If it means I miss a twitter from Arrington or LaughingSquid, that’s fine by me.

    Again, this is only my perspective. I can see how Scoble and others, who are the extremes here and cultivate their followings actively as it brings them both traffic and notoriety, would want to use the service for an entirely different purpose. Still, when I hang out with my real-world friends, the conversation almost always includes something we shared on Iminta, and frankly, that’s priceless to me. Having 10,000 followers would likely make that less likely to happen…

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  17. @ Robert

    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?

    yes I am going to be at the conference and would love to chill, though tea is more my speed these days.

    @p-air. Spot on and yet another point about the fallacy of influence. Fred Wilson makes some good points around this.

    @Robin,

    Om, I thought FriendFeed was going to be the antidote to the popularity contest sites where people have 000’s of friends they’ve never met and that instead FF would be a place where I could interact online with my real friends – the ones who drink my wine.

    Precisely my point. I think it is interesting to see how Paul is doing verbal gymnastics around this very issue on his comment thread on Friendfeed.

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  18. @ Harsch,

    it would need a lot of oomph (computing wise) and basically would need a technological overhaul of such services. I don’t know the innards of Friendfeed but I am sure they are being very careful about everything.

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  19. @Dave McClure

    Yup, I know his background well enough. I think the “don’t be evil” this is more press fodder than actual mantra.

    You bring up the question of “open source” in reference to FF – what does that really mean? Are they going to let you export everything you have done on FF and take it to another site and delete all information? or is it “open” like can be crawled by “Google” and seen openly.

    Clarify.

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  20. is friendfeed a social experiment or a business ? did paul start it to disrupt twitter or hijack the blogosphere or because he saw value to a meta-community ? my guess is that as “the gmail guy” he’s trying to create something as ubiquitious and engaging as email in this space.

    i wish the best to friendfeed but i am with Om here: i just don’t like the brand, it is not REALLY what the service represents. people have too many ways to “talk to their friends” today, a new way to do so is just not that appealing, and as Om points out, these aren’t REALLY your friends anyway!

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  21. I love friendfeed and I am sure not a default user. I think Twitter is a defining technology of our time and FriendFeed is of comparable importance – but more fun.

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  22. I agree with the “watercooler” notion – the ability to share tastes and thoughts around content. But I think there are different watercooler conversations to be had… Sometimes I want to talk openly about things I find, like and say. Sometimes I want to whisper it to some friends. Sometimes I want to eavesdrop on other peoples discoveries and conversations. I don’t think it is an either/or proposition.

    For what it’s worth, I personally don’t think there were any ulterior motives for the “default” users other than it probably being an algorithm that says “these are the most followed people, therefore there is a pretty good chance that you may want to follow them too)”.

    At Strands, we view aggregation as a means to an end (as do probably most that are in this space). The differentiation between the services that have aggregation as a feature will ultimately be made by what they do with that aggregated taste data, and the consumer problem they are trying to solve. We believe that there is a lot of consumer value to be had in letting users be able to aggregate, own, and share their personal taste data (or not) with both “real” friends and “virtual”. By applying social recommendation technologies to things that I consume across various services, I can get returned content from both like-minded strangers as well as close friends. As long as I find value in the *content* I discover then I am a happy man.

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  23. Will anyone other than twentysomethings and tech industry people use this service?

    I think not. This is inside the bubble think. Adults’ lives are too busy. Amazing that somebody will someday pay hundreds of millions for this bauble.

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  24. >>om sez: ‘open source’ in reference to FF – what does that really mean?

    sorry i’m probably mangling the definition of open source there (which was why i quoted it), but what i meant was that you could import multiple services into FF, not necessarily whether you could export them elsewhere (i dunno, maybe in future maybe not).

    my point was more that the FriendFeed service was interesting and useful — just like Facebook News Feed — but wasn’t primarily based on only proprietary data. at the same time, Facebook also appears to be enabling import of other services data into their mini-feeds.

    ultimately, in order for this stuff to go mainstream it has to 1) incorporate multi-service events like FriendFeed, and 2) be as seamless as Facebook News Feed. #2 might indeed be the case if FF ever gets acquired by a major platform player, where a number of other services are already enabled automatically.

    (sorry if my terse comments were incoherent… or this one too ;)

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  25. Hi Om,

    I think my post of a couple of weeks ago, on the
    Pied Piper Effect
    , applies here as well. Why are we following all these people and what are they saying that is relevant to us? That’s an important question to ask to filter out the “friend-follower” craziness. If each friend link was the sound of a pebble dropping – we would now be covering our ears to block the pain of the loud collective deafening roar of all the friending-following.

    Nitin

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  26. [...] FriendFeed. More Like (Fake)FriendFeed – GigaOM (tags: analysis strategy twitter friendfeed) [...]

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  27. @ Dave McClure,

    Okay that makes sense, and some of your comments are valid and correctly point out the superior nature of the FriendFeed versus Facebook News Feed.

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  28. acquaintancefeed?

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  29. [...] FriendFeed. More Like (Fake)FriendFeed (Tags: friendfeed) 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 s [...]

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  30. [...] a lot of others, I am not ready to throw my lot with some of the newer services just yet. One of the reasons that continues to attract me to Twitter, warts and all, is the relatively [...]

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