AOL buys SocialThing — but why?

As lots of people are reporting this morning (and as TechCrunch speculated a couple of weeks ago) AOL has bought the “lifestream aggregator” known as Socialthing, which came out of Colorado-based venture capital outfit TechStars. It’s an interesting move by a company that has so much else wrong with it, but at the size of deal we’re probably talking about — as far as I can tell, Socialthing was built by a couple of guys in a matter of months — it’s not likely to move the needle much in either direction. Is it a sign that AOL is suddenly getting with the whole Web 2.0 social-media program? Perhaps.

From a usability point of view, as someone who has been beta-testing for awhile (post your email address in a comment if you want an invite) there are a couple of key differences between it and Friendfeed, which I’m a big fan of (my feed is here). While Socialthing is well-designed for the most part, one of the biggest differences that becomes obvious is that Socialthing groups activity in your “friendstream” by individual — so next to each friend’s avatar you see what they have done on Twitter or Flickr or whatever, grouped together. In FriendFeed, however, you see a river of activity based around the events themselves, so that you see a stream of whatever your friends are doing that is grouped by time rather than identity.

This leads to the second major difference, which is that FriendFeed makes it far easier to interact with the events in question directly — not just to look at the photos your friend posted to Flickr, but to click the “like” button, or comment on them directly within FriendFeed. In its responses to people who draw comparisons between the two services, Socialthing does its best to make this into a benefit, saying it doesn’t focus on the conversation or commenting about events in your friendstream. But is that really a positive or a negative?

Some people don’t like the fact that FriendFeed pulls comments into its own service (although they can be integrated into blogs, as I have on mine, and comments can be posted to Twitter from within FriendFeed) while others — including me — see it as one of the most powerful things about the service. The fact that Socialthing doesn’t offer that actually makes it less useful and less compelling to me, and that matters a lot when so many social services are competing for my scarce attention. FriendFeed also has some useful features that Socialthing doesn’t, including the “imaginary friend” feature, which lets you track what friends are doing even if they don’t have FF accounts.


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