FriendFeed: Like a news feed on steroids

What if you took the Facebook news feed and removed it from Facebook? That’s kind of what FriendFeed is like. I’ve been using it for awhile now, courtesy of my blog friend Louis Gray, and I have to say it’s become quite addictive. As Eric Eldon notes at VentureBeat, the site — which just launched publicly — is so simple and easy to use that it’s hard to resist. It pulls whatever your friends are doing from dozens of sites such as Twitter, Flickr, Google Reader and others.

But it does a lot more than that as well. You can comment on the items that your friends have posted, you can watch video clips they’ve posted to YouTube right in the feed, you can click “Like” and give an item the thumbs up, and the site continues to add new features almost every day. For example, I just discovered today that you can even create what FriendFeed calls an “imaginary friend” — someone who doesn’t use FriendFeed, but whose activity you want to track (my feed is here).

The ease of use and the relentless addition of new features isn’t surprising when you find out that Paul Buchheit and a team of former Googlers are behind FriendFeed. Paul launched and developed Gmail, among other things (and is also apparently responsible for coming up with Google’s “don’t be evil” slogan). As TechCrunch points out, Paul and co-founder Sanjeev Singh also participated in the funding round, which raised a total of $5-million and includes Benchmark Capital.

As Jason at Webomatica notes, one big competitive threat on the horizon is Facebook itself, which recently announced that users can import items from outside services into their news feed. Given Facebook’s massive size relative to FriendFeed, this is obviously an issue for the service, but comparing the two also makes it obvious how much more seamless and easy to use the feed at FriendFeed is. But will that be enough?

Digg Town Hall: No “secret moderators”

Well, the very first Digg Town Hall is over, and I think I can safely say that it isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind about the site one iota. If you’re a fan, and you think Kevin (Rose) and Jay (Adelson) are a couple of great guys with the site’s best interests at heart, then you will likely continue to believe that after the show. They do seem like nice guys with good intentions. If, on the other hand, you believe that they are out of their depth running the site, aren’t transparent enough about how they run it, or are too busy navel-gazing, then you’ll probably still think that after the show.

There were only 20 questions submitted — not much of a town, really — but some took up the bulk of the show and others were dismissed relatively quickly. One of the first things out of the gate (after some audio issues) was a statement from Jay that the site does not have anything like a group of “secret moderators” or editors who bury things or block people. All there is, he says, is a site admin whose job it is to remove porn links and other things that breach the terms of service (Kevin says he did that job for the first six months or so that the site was live and then they hired someone). And there are no “bury bots” or a “bury brigade.”

All there is, according to Jay and Kevin — but mostly Jay — is an algorithm or series of algorithms that are designed to maintain “diversity” on the site. In other words, designed to keep posts and links and comments and Diggs coming from as wide and diverse a group as possible. That’s why some links get more Diggs but still don’t get “promoted” to the front page, they explained — because too small a group of similar people are Digging it. It’s the same with burying, Jay notes: too many similar people burying something wouldn’t work either.

Among other things, the two said that they are working on the new comment system (expected by April, maybe), and are working on fixing the search and duplicate-finding functions, which they freely admitted were broken. And they are going to introduce support and other forums to respond directly to users. They also said they want to be more transparent — but then a few minutes later said they didn’t necessarily want to show who was burying things, and also said they couldn’t talk about what criteria they look at to determine “diversity” of Diggs or links, except to say that they look at “a lot of stuff.”


Tony Hung has some thoughts at Deep Jive Interests, and there’s an overview of the town hall here as well. Best line in the Mashable live-blogging chat (which they did with Keith McSpurren’s excellent CoverItLive) was an Oasis reference: “Is that Liam on the left, or Noel?” My friend MG Siegler of ParisLemon also has a good writeup at VentureBeat.

Thoughts on new media and ethics

I did a panel at Podcamp Toronto on Sunday with my friend and former Globe and Mail colleague Keith McArthur, in which we talked about new media and ethics, and I wanted to download some of what happened there for anyone who couldn’t make it (from what I understand, there should be archived video of the session soon at the Podcamp wiki). I think it’s an interesting discussion, and we only touched the surface of many of the issues in the hour or so we were talking about it (Michelle Sullivan has a pretty good overview as well).

Keith started with a few examples of ethical lapses on several different sides of the equation. One was by the Globe: an April Fool’s joke involving a CBC radio report about Jimmy Carter, which was reported as though it was fact in the Globe. A second was by the blogosphere: a story that Ford had stopped Mustang owners from publishing a calendar with shots of their classic cars in it (more on that here). And the third was from corporate America: In responding to a blog, Target said that it only handled such requests from “legitimate” media outlets.

One of the main things that struck me about those three examples is the difference in responses between traditional media and “new” media, in part because of their structure (one in print and the other online and easily changeable) and likely in part for cultural reasons. The Globe, for example, apologized for the story and ran a lengthy response from the writer involved (although it felt somewhat insincere). But that was days later. In any case, there the matter ended.

Continue reading “Thoughts on new media and ethics”

Shifd: A solution looking for a problem?

I have to say, I think it is very cool that a couple of Web developers who work for the New York Times came up with Shifd, a mobile app that lets you store links, notes and maps that are accessible from your regular browser or from a mobile device. That said, however, I still don’t see why I would use it (although to be fair, I’ve only played around with it a bit). To me, it looks like a solution in search of a problem.

The idea behind is that you sign up for the app, which uses Adobe’s AIR platform, and then you can store links to sites or news stories you want to visit or read later, and you can store notes, and you can send yourself maps or location-type information. Like Erick Schonfeld, I’m wondering why I wouldn’t just do those things either inside a mobile browser — using a bookmarking service such as, for example — or through a mobile app like Google Maps.

The other alternative, of course, as mentioned by a number of commenters at TechCrunch and elsewhere, is to just email yourself the link or the note. I regularly send myself emails that have certain keywords in them, knowing that I can search through Gmail quickly and find them. All I really need is a way to aggregate those easily based on keyword and feed them into something like Remember The Milk. And this looks like a cool example of what can be done with tags and

Meanwhile, Jeremy Wagstaff of Loose Wire has some thoughts about how something like Shifd could be used by newspapers and others as an information delivery and/or storage mechanism. Maybe it does have its uses after all. It wouldn’t be the first app that was designed for one thing and wound up being used for something else.

The appeal of Twitter — part XVII

Twitter seems to be one of those things that people write about almost as much as they actually use (which isn’t hard, considering the average Twitter post is less than 140 characters). I’ve written my share of blog posts about Twitter, including here and here, and now we have a longish post from Howard “Smart Mobs” Rheingold about why he has started using the app, along with some follow-ups from my friend Tony Hung at Deep Jive Interests and from Nick Bradbury of FeedDemon.

Howard puts his finger on some important things about Twitter that he says makes it interesting as an example of a “smart mob,” including:

  • Openness
  • Immediacy
  • Variety
  • Asymmetry

And I would agree with all of those. But one of the most important factors, I think — and the one from which many of the others flow — is the first one: openness. If I send an @ message to just about anyone (unless they have blocked me), I know that they will likely see my post. I can’t think of any other app that allows that, except perhaps the ability to comment on someone’s blog. In some cases, I direct message people (d username) on Twitter because I can’t remember their email address, or don’t know which one of the many they have I should be using.

Facebook allows this kind of thing too, but to a much more limited extent. And messaging people through Facebook — which is another way a lot of people reach me — is much less immediate, since you have to click the link in the email to go to the Facebook message page, and whoever gets your response has to jump through the same kind of hoops. Twitter is always on, and is much faster, provided the person you need to reach is paying attention (my Twitter info is in the right-hand sidebar).

I think Tony puts it well when he says that Twitter is like a big group chat with a wide and varied group of people. I would definitely agree. And like many groups events — parties, etc. — not everyone is listening to everyone else, and there are side conversations going on that you may only hear one side of. But if you want to approach someone, they are as close as an @ message. And sometimes it’s just fun to listen in.


Jeff Jarvis has a column up at the Guardian about Twitter.

Taking notes online: Still looking

I must have missed this the other day, but apparently Evernote — the note-taking desktop software app — has launched an online version as an invitation-only beta. I wish I had been more on the ball, because TechCrunch had a bunch of invites, but of course they were probably gone in a matter of minutes. That’s usually what happens, and the comments on the post suggest it happened this time as well.

The video that Evernote has of the app at work (which is also here) looks pretty slick, and I know that lots of people swear by the desktop software. The main reason I haven’t used it — or Microsoft’s OneNote, or any of the other “backup brain” note-taking solutions — is that you have to install them on every computer you use, keep them synched, etc. This is the biggest attraction of a Web-based version.

I’ve tried — and still occasionally use — a bunch of different note-taking apps, including the ScribeFire plugin for Firefox, which I believe my friend Paul Kedrosky is also a fan of (or used to be), as well Google’s Notebook app and Clipmarks. At one point I was using to post to my blog, but it was too cumbersome and didn’t include support for tags. I mostly just use to save pages I want to remember, but as much as I like how simple it is, it lacks a whole pile of features.

I really wanted to like Google’s Notebook app, but I have to say it: It sucks. It’s clunky and kludgy and just plain goofy — it doesn’t make you want to use it, it doesn’t make it easy to see or organize the things you’ve clipped. It just sucks. I was really hoping that it would be the one-shot solution that would let me pull together bits and pieces that I come across on the Web into some kind of coherent whole, but it isn’t. If Evernote can do that, then I just might become a fan. But first I need an invite 🙂

Slate: 1, Wikipedia straw man: 0

Slate magazine has a piece up about Wikipedia, with the salacious subtitle “Digg, Wikipedia and the Myth of Web 2.0 Democracy” — a column that says it was written by editorial intern Chris Wilson, but might as well have been written by Andrew “I Hate The Internet” Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur and a man who never met a Web 2.0 service he couldn’t first misrepresent and then eviscerate. Chris puts his thesis in the lede:

“While Wikipedia does show the creative potential of online communities,” he writes, “it’s a mistake to assume the site owes its success to the wisdom of the online crowd.”

Why is it a mistake? Because, he says, the site has a small group of editors (gasp!) who control things, it uses “bots” to ensure that things look right, and most of the articles were written by 1 per cent of the site’s users, according to a widely-reported study. This is a little like complaining that airlines hoodwink us into thinking we can fly, when the truth is that it’s the airplane and the pilots that are doing the flying.

The existence of a so-called “power law” distribution or “long tail” effect in social relationships is older than I am (and that’s pretty old). As one commenter points out in Slate’s forum on the article, it’s hardly surprising that only a small group of people have the time, knowledge or resources to write in-depth articles for Wikipedia. Has the site ever said that all users contribute equally? Not as far as I know.

“Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0, direct democracy isn’t feasible at the scale on which these sites operate.”

Wilson also throws Digg into the mix, and hints that there are dark rumours about the existence of editors (gasp!) at the supposedly crowd-controlled service. Of course, Kevin Rose and Jay Adelson have said several times that there are editors who can block people or remove links, but it’s much more fun to imagine some kind of conspiracy a la The Da Vinci Code, with albino monks killing people and whatnot.

In fact, as another commenter on the Slate piece notes, the study Wilson quotes from shows that the number of users who contribute small changes to Wikipedia has been increasing for the past several years, and now outweighs the elite group. And he also notes that while 1 per cent of the users sounds like a small number, that’s still about 65,000 people. And yet, Wilson persists in referring to Wikipedia as an “oligarchy.” Nice job with that straw man, Chris — you totally kicked his ass.

Facebook feed opens, but only one way

According to a report at TechCrunch, sources say that Facebook is about to open up its news feed — but only in one direction, unfortunately. Mike Arrington says that he has confirmed the social network will soon allow users to add their own external events to the feed, so that they can effectively import Twitter posts (I refuse to call them “tweets”) and other activities that come from third-party sites. Whether your friends want to see all that is another question entirely, of course.

The big downside with the news (assuming it’s true) is that Facebook seems happy to incorporate external events into its news feed, but so far seems to have no intention of letting information flow the other way. As one commenter on TechCrunch’s post points out, that’s likely because the news feed is Facebook’s bread and butter, and it doesn’t want to endanger that. Being open is great, but apparently it only goes so far. I suppose the site may change its mind, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

As Mike notes, allowing you to add your own external events into the feed puts Facebook onto the same kind of playing field as FriendFeed, Spokeo and other “personal aggregators,” including one I hadn’t heard of called — as in “I’m inta” playing football. One interesting feature of the latter, according to Mike’s review, is that you can remove certain items from the feed, so if you Twitter too much — as a friend of mine often says I do — your friends can block just those.

While I haven’t used Iminta, I’ve experimented with Spokeo and I am an avid user of which was created by former Googler and Gmail developer Paul Buchheit (who also came up with the company’s “Don’t be evil” motto). It’s a very handy way of keeping track of things your friends are sharing with Google Reader or posting to Twitter or Flickr. You can give something a thumbs-up vote by clicking the “like” button, and you can also post comments on items. Will Facebook’s new feature make it harder for something like FriendFeed to get traction?

Video interlude: Mad soccer skillz

I can’t tell whether the incredible soccer tricks in this video are real, or whether they’re computer-generated, but they are pretty damn cool regardless. Note: It appears to be a “viral” ad for this video game about street soccer, which suggests that at least some of it is fake. According to a comment I found, it may involve some of these guys, and is similar to a Chinese comedy called Shaolin Soccer.


The rebirth of the podcast?

Some details have emerged over the past couple of days about a patent that Apple has filed for that applies to podcasts (or at least to audio streams of some kind, which for the purposes of the patent are called podcasts). There are some details at AppleInsider and at ZDnet, and some thoughts about the potential implications of what Apple appears to be proposing at Hear 2.0 and Last100 that are worth checking out.

As Ars Technica points out, Apple is clearly thinking about broadening what we think of as the podcasting business, which at this point is pretty much just talk radio on a digital device. Another recent patent application that Apple filed describes what it calls “podmaps” — which appears to be a process for downloading maps and then translating text-based directions into audio. And the most recent patent looks like Apple is thinking of ways to comb through audio files and pull out pieces of them and then let you download just the bits you want.

One of the reasons this interests me is that I just haven’t taken to podcasting, and I’m still trying to figure out why. Friends say they are using podcasts more and more, and that they have pretty well replaced radio. But part of what bothers me (as it does with video) is how difficult it is to scan through an hour-long podcast. If Apple’s patent makes that easier, then I’m all for it (coincidentally enough, this weekend is Podcamp in Toronto, which I’m appearing at with my friend Keith McArthur).

Mark Hopkins at Mashable notes that this kind of idea isn’t particularly new (which makes me wonder whether Apple isn’t reaching a bit in trying to file a patent on it, given such “prior art” and the “obviousness” test in U.S. patent law), but I still think the idea has a lot of merit. I don’t really care whether Apple does it or not, although its dominance in the portable media player business makes it the obvious candidate.