Why you're wrong about FriendFeed

FriendFeed has been largely ignored by the Twitterati and they are poorer for that lack of attention. This may well include you if you have ignored FriendFeed in favour of Twitter thinking that the absence of your Twitter community on FriendFeed renders FriendFeed irrelevant. The simple fact is that FriendFeed is probably one of the underappreciated services in the social Web today and it could well prove to be one of the most disruptive.

FriendFeed was perhaps easier to ignore when it still looked like this:

It wasn’t as clean and simple as Twitter’s UI:

… or as feature rich as Facebook:

It seemed to fall between both services and it didn’t occupy an compelling enough space to persuade a significant number of users to switch from Twitter or Facebook to FriendFeed. Admittedly I was one of those people who still focussed on Twitter and FriendFeed and preferred to use FriendFeed as another aggregator, perhaps even as a backup to my Plaxo Pulse profile.

This isn’t the first time a new service has emerged which has been regarded as a contender for Twitter’s throne. Jaiku was in a very similar position not too long ago and while it has been relegated largely to the Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda category, Jaiku’s offering is/was similar to FriendFeed’s and it was, for various reasons, a superior option. Unfortunately Jaiku failed to attract a sufficient following and doesn’t really feature in this space anymore.

FriendFeed is, in part, an aggregator. It enables you to aggregate your various content streams and feeds to create a lifestream. There are a couple other services which do this (or purport to do this) but FriendFeed seems to be one of the bigger services.

Another powerful feature (which was highlighted during a recent episode of the Gillmore Gang) is the FriendFeed search functionality. Robert Scoble goes to some length emphasising the value of FriendFeed’s search functionality compared to Twitter’s own search functionality. The value of a decent search engine attached to and indexing these types of services is the sheer amount of current data you can turn up on a given topic. Search results are frequently more immediate on Twitter or FriendFeed than they are on Google. That can make a big difference to some people.

FriendFeed launched a new design earlier this week and I’ve been using the beta site almost exclusively.

There are a couple aspects of the new design which will be familiar to Twitter and Facebook users alike and this is for good reason. Whatever you may say about Twitter, its basic design has proven to be very appealing and that is worth emulating. That said, the comparisons between Twitter and FriendFeed begin to fade from that point onwards.

Twitter is popular largely because of its simplicity. You type in 140 characters, keep an eye on mentions (formerly known as replies), direct messages and you can run searches. That is pretty much it for the main site. An array of 3rd party applications add additional functionality like saved searches (Twhirl) or category lists for Twitter followers (Tweetdeck).

What really distinguishes FriendFeed from Twitter is how it is so much better suited to meaningful conversations. Twitter users use Twitter to engage in conversations all the time using the “@” or “D” conventions and it works reasonably well in most cases. Replies are not threaded but you can click on certain links to see which reply tweets respond to which messages. The result is a somewhat fragmented conversation with replies scattered all over the place in the main Twitter stream. The mentions/replies page collates your replies/mentions in a single window although you still need to click on a link to see which mention or reply links to which post.

FriendFeed represents comments inline so it is very simple to follow responses from the person you replied to or who replied to you. FriendFeed also allows you to see what other people are saying about the item you commented on and engage in conversations with them! This is not so easy in Twitter. If you doubt what I am saying here, compare a typical Twitter conversation with a typical FriendFeed conversation (take a look at the screenshots above and below for examples of FriendFeed conversations – notice the comment below the entry? You don’t have that on Twitter.

Picture 1.png

Facebook has been doing this for a little while now too. Its a model that works. Another thing FriendFeed does really well is it enables users to create conversations out of an array of content streams by applying the same commenting and “Like” functionality to all imported streams. Facebook also has a “Like” option although this is a recent addition. This is a handy way to indicate your preference for something without having to actually comment on it although Facebook seems to think you need to comment to explain a Like. It brings up a comment box if you just click to Like something whereas FriendFeed simply adds you to the list of people who Liked an entry.

Search plays an important role in both Twitter and FriendFeed. Both give you the ability to create realtime searches on various topics. The way you create the searches differ but both will update the search results dynamically as more users discuss or post about that topic. Twitter’s search is limited to what is posted on Twitter whereas FriendFeed’s search includes all content post to the site. Scoble has argued that FriendFeed will actually give you more accurate and more relevant search results but I haven’t done any comparisons.

A related benefit of FriendFeed is discoverability. It is much easier to find new content and new, interesting people on FriendFeed with such a wide variety of content entering the stream. FriendFeed also has a sort of “friends of friends” feature which shows you what your friends’ friends are posting and that is another great way to find new people and their new content.

I discovered one piece of information which appealed to me. When you look a user up on the beta site you can also get a sense of how many posts to expect from them.

This is useful if you are concerned about being overwhelmed by someone’s posts. Of course you can create filters to enable you to focus on specific groups of contacts. Filters are pretty important in the new FriendFeed and although the main stream can be a little overwhelming, the power is in these filters and how they give you the ability to focus on what is most important or relevant to you at that point in time. You can see some of my filters on my profile page:

Ok, I’ve talked a little about what Twitter does and what FriendFeed does. The best way to really compare both services is to take them for a drive yourself. It is worth also comparing the current FriendFeed site and the beta site to see the differences and also get an idea which features are still to be added to the beta site.

There are two ways you can approach FriendFeed. You can look at it as a Twitter replacement and it will certainly do that job well (except if you have a substantial community on Twitter which isn’t also on FriendFeed) or you can look at FriendFeed as a complementary service to Twitter. While I am tempted to see it as the former in my more fanatical moments, in practice I use the two services in tandem. I have two categories of content services. One category includes services which I create or post content to first and the second include those services I repost that content to in order to create lifestreams. The diagram below illustrates this quite well and gives you an idea what my thoughts are about Twitter and FriendFeed in particular:

Streaming content.png

FriendFeed could take over from Twitter but it could take a while before your FriendFeed community would match your Twitter community and that is a challenge. One of the reasons people stick with Twitter is because everyone is there and that is still the central draw. What FriendFeed brings to the party is a better developed set of conversational tools. As handy as the “@” convention is, it is a terrible way to conduct a real conversation. Twitter itself seems to agree. Instead of “replies”, it talks about “mentions”. FriendFeed’s threaded (there is another term they used which I can’t remember) comments gives you the ability to comment directly and transparently on a specific entry and, having the benefit of seeing what everyone else is saying, engage in a conversation with those people too. It is all right there on the page, no extra clicks required to track a whole conversation. What would be handy is if FriendFeed could somehow determine which “@” replies are responses to specific Twitter posts and represent those threads in FriendFeed itself.

No-one is saying you must stop using Twitter. This isn’t an either/or question. It is about using the best tools for what you want to do. Twitter is a quick and easy way to get something out there in 140 characters or less (FriendFeed can do the job just as easily, albeit it to a potentially smaller audience if you have spent most of your time on Twitter). FriendFeed can take those posts, together with all your other posts from all your other services and help you conduct real conversations around and about them.

In other words, if you have dismissed FriendFeed as a non-starter contender for the Twitter throne, you have misunderstood FriendFeed completely. You can stick with Twitter to the exclusion of all else and you’ll probably be happy with that but if you want a richer experience of the realtime Web, you really should take a look at FriendFeed. Create an account, add your Twitter and other feeds to it and see what happens.

One more thing (update): Scoble captured much of the presentation FriendFeed gave to a closed group before the beta site was made available to everyone. It is worth watching his videos because you get a sense of what the thinking was behind the scenes.

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