FriendFeed: What If Twitter Worked?
What if Twitter let you organize your contacts into groups, so you can separate political talk from food talk? What if Twitter finally threaded replies, so conversations made sense? What if Twitter let you filter out certain content, so you could skip all the blog post notifications or YouTube links? What if Twitter let you track your sister’s Delicious bookmarks or Flickr photos, even if she isn’t on Twitter?
Never mind all that. What if Twitter simply worked properly?
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Twitter has been growing at a phenomenal rate — nearly 1,400 percent over a year, over 50 percent each month. Yet, one thing that’s as true today as it was a year ago is that the service continues to collapse on a regular basis. On one hand, Twitter is a transformational platform on which whole companies are betting their future. On the other, unless Twitter starts running on hardware at the scale of Google’s infrastructure (i.e. a Google acquisition), there’s little chance one company can do it all reliably.
Only now the mainstream is really getting excited about “microblogging” (a.k.a. status/presence, a.k.a. IRC 2.0), with Martha Stewart and Shaq extolling Twitter’s virtues. Only now the relatively small Twitter universe (upwards of 7 million users?) is about to really take off. It’s no surprise that Facebook — which is thirty, forty times larger — is running scared and redesigned itself to look like Twitter.
But if Twitter goes down for the count… who’s left? And is there a better way?
I had once thought was going to be Jaiku, which bested Twitter early on with its expanded featureset. Google must’ve seen the potential, too, and bought Jaiku. But last month, as with many Google acquisitions, Google cut the cord and left Jaiku in the “open source” bin. Other popular “microblogging” spots include outright Twitter clones (Kwippy, Rejaw, Blellow, etc.), and noble “distributed” concepts like Identi.ca. Those into quirk have fallen for Plurk, which tries to make a timeline into a two-dimensional chat chart. And BrightKite, which found much of its growth via Twitter, can function on its own as a Twitter with an added location dimension.
At the moment, I’m impressed with FriendFeed. In a way, though, FriendFeed is the opposite of Twitter. Twitter is astonishingly simple. FriendFeed, meanwhile, does almost too many things.
Like Twitter, FriendFeed lets you post status updates and links to share with friends. But FriendFeed also aggregates an individual’s many, many feeds — my Twitter feed, my YouTube feed, my Flickr photo feed — and allows me to track the same mixed collections of others. If Twitter is a firehose, FriendFeed can easily look like Niagara Falls. And if you have trouble keeping up with your friends’ Twitter posts, tracking practically everything they do online sounds downright overwhelming.
Fortunately, FriendFeed excels in important areas that Twitter doesn’t do well at all: conversations, organization, and filtering. In FriendFeed, every item has comments, and conversations can be sparked by just about anything. In Friendfeed, I can organize all of the people I follow into groups — people in Hawaii, photographers, podcasters, news sources, and so on — and easily see only what members of a given group are saying. And in FriendFeed, I can filter out specific content, so if I don’t want to see BrightKite checkins or YouTube videos from specific users or from any users, I don’t have to.
FriendFeed can also post updates to Twitter (with a built-in link shortener), connects to IM (remember when Twitter did that?), provides “rooms” for separate (or even private) conversations, has a widget for your blog, offers a lightweight interface for mobile phones, and does the dishes. Well, it doesn’t do dishes, but it seems to do almost everything else.
To be sure, FriendFeed has a huge uphill battle to gain traction, given its complexity. After all, Twitter is about as simple as things get, but it still baffles people on a regular basis. And while FriendFeed joins Twitter in capitalizing on the power of the “real-time” web, things may move a little too fast for some people. But I think more and more people will eventually run into the same problem early adopters now struggle with: how to navigate and manage a growing, overwhelming avalanche of information. That’s really FriendFeed’s strength. And with moves to simplify its interface (also, of course, emulating Twitter), FriendFeed will hopefully be less intimidating to new users.
Of course, the question remains as to whether FriendFeed — or any of Twitter’s would-be successors — could actually sustain service if they suddenly saw the same level of popularity and usage. Since FriendFeed was built, in part, by ex-Google gurus, I can only hope they’d have a better handle on infrastructure and scaling issues than most.