There have been some interesting articles recently surrounding the acquisition of Friendfeed by Facebook, and much speculation about the implications of the acquisition. Some articles have been interested on what it means for search, others for twitter.
For me the interest I have in the relationship between Facebook and Friendfeed is what it provides to Facebook.
But before I get on to that, let me make one thing absolutely clear: the acquisition of Friendfeed by Facebook will do absolutely nothing for Friendfeed. I’m sure it lined the pockets of the founders, but in user terms it will do absolutely nothing. Indeed, it may well stifle development of the aggregator service, while Facebook just picks off the best bits of Friendfeed into the Facebook code.
So: back to what Friendfeed provides for Facebook.
It’s well worth reiterating the difference between Facebook and other social tools such as twitter, friendfeed, del.icio.us and various other public tools. Facebook is and always has been about having a network of friends. On Facebook you set up your profile and connect with a bunch of friends. Then you go about publishing photos, writing messages to each other and writing on walls, wishing people you know a happy birthday and filling in stupid quizzes about what character you are in some popular television programme. You can also load a bunch of applications that allow you to do even more stupid things like bite people, ‘buy’ people, poke people, tend virtual garden and otherwise waste each other’s time.
But taking away all of the time wasting things you can do in Facebook, at its simplest, it’s a way of keeping up to date with a network of people you either know or have met. Importantly, you have to use the Facebook interface to share any information at all, even if only it is an application to read from other platforms (eg: twitter).
Friendfeed, however, is an aggregator. In many respects it’s poorly named. Friendships and friends really have very little to do with Friendfeed. Instead, Friendfeed is about collecting together in one feed, all the things you and your connections do in other spaces. You can publish status updates via Friendfeed, but frankly, the capacity of Friendfeed to aggregate content from a range of alternative sources is what distinguishes it from pretty much every other social networking tool out there. Rather than having to install applications to collect data from other sources, with Friendfeed, all you do is enter the feed address generated by other sources, and it appears in your Friendfeed. Importantly, if you find interesting individuals/companies/organisations that create content across a range of sources, but you never have time to search them all, you just follow them on Friendfeed and instantly you have all their sources aggregated into one place. It’s simple and it’s effective, even if it is fairly unattractive.
Once you’ve subscribed to various sources on Friendfeed, you can then create groups so you only have to read those groups that are of interest to you. Of course you can do this on Facebook too, but as you can subscribe to people on Friendfeed without their following you back, it’s possible to develop information-only feeds on Friendfeed, as opposed to friendship-oriented feeds.
Finally, with Friendfeed, information is delivered live. All updates are real time and you don’t have to refresh the page for new content.
And this is where the crucial value of Friendfeed resides for Facebook. Whilst Facebook has alway been about a closed network and sustaining communication with people you know, it’s not always been easy to feed all content through to the Facebook interface. Appplications have had to be built and sometimes they haven’t worked that well. So what Friendfeed provides for Facebook is a real time aggregation service. No more clunky applications, and Facebook keep their interface, so they hope that as people integrate subscriptions into the newsfeed infrastructure, they will be able to sell more advertising on their site, rather than losing users to other social networking platforms like twitter, flickr, del.icio.us, etc. It’s an elegant solution for Facebook news feeds, which frankly, have always been awful.
It also does one more thing that is crucial for Facebook: it enables sources to be aggregated into users’ Facebook feeds easily, without there being a pre-existing friendship relationship, and without compromising the friendships already established in Facebook. What this means is that a user:
– can post updates, post photos from flickr, post bookmarks from delicious, post videos from youTube, 12 seconds, vimeo, (or whatever) and it will all appear on their friends’ newsfeeds from within Facebook;
– can read all the aggregated posts of all their Facebook friends;
– can access sources for their own interest without there being an existing 2-way relationship in place.
So it’s a matter of “share whatever I do with my friends”, and “read whatever I want to read”.
The difference is subtle but important for Facebook: it wipes away their production/display problems with integrating so many different sources, and it enables the option of subscribing to public content sources that come from beyond one’s personal network of friends.
I’ve often said the difference between twitter and Facebook is that Facebook is about staying in touch with your existing network, where twitter is about finding out new information. By acquiring Friendfeed, Facebook is trying to overcome its weakness in wider information sources.
Personally, I think Facebook’s acquisition of Friendfeed is a Bad Thing for social media. I don’t like the idea of Facebook setting up as a semantic web champion, because I don’t like the idea of any one company owning an interface. But I understand exactly what Facebook hopes to achieve, and I understand the reasoning behind it: monetisation of Facebook.